The Shareholder Value Myth

corpgov.law.harvard.edu
4 min read
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Shareholder-value thinking dominates the business world today. Professors, policymakers, and business leaders routinely chant the mantras that public ...
companies "belong" to their shareholders; that the proper goal of corporate governance is to maximize shareholder wealth; and that shareholder wealth is best measured by share price (meaning share price today, not share price next year or next decade).

This dogma drives directors and executives to run public firms with a relentless focus on raising stock price. In the quest to "unlock shareholder value" they sell key assets, fire loyal employees, and ruthlessly squeeze the workforce that remains; cut back on product support, customer assistance, and research and development; delay replacing outworn, outmoded, and unsafe equipment; shower CEOs with stock options and expensive pay packages to "incentivize" them; drain cash reserves to pay large dividends and repurchase company shares, leveraging firms until they teeter on the brink of insolvency; and lobby regulators and Congress to change the law so they can chase short-term profits speculating in high-risk financial derivatives. Yet many individual directors and executives feel uneasy about such strategies, intuiting that a single-minded focus on share price may not serve the interests of society, the company, or shareholders themselves.

The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public (Berrett Keohler Publications, 2012) challenges the ideology of shareholder value. Part I, "Debunking the Shareholder Value Myth," traces the intellectual origins of shareholder-primacy thinking. It shows how the ideology of shareholder value maximization lacks any solid foundation in corporate law, corporate economics, or the empirical evidence. Contrary to what many believe, U.S. corporate law does not impose any enforceable legal duty on corporate directors or executives of public corporations to maximize profits or share price. The economic case for shareholder-value maximization similarly rests on incorrect factual claims about the…
The Harvard Law School Forum On Corporate Governance, Posted Lynn A. Stout, Cornell Law School
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