The U.S. Corporate Governance System

Today’s U.S. corporate governance system is best understood as the set of fiduciary and managerial responsibilities that binds a company’s management, shareholders, and the board within a larger, societal context defined by legal, regulatory, competitive, economic, democratic, ethical, and other societal forces.

Shareholders

Although shareholders own corporations, they usually do not run them. Shareholders elect directors, who appoint managers who, in turn, run corporations. Since managers and directors have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of shareholders, this structure implies that shareholders face two separate so-called principal-agent problems—with management whose behavior will likely be concerned with its own welfare, and with the board, which may be beholden to particular interest groups, including management.[1] Many of the mechanisms that define today’s corporate governance system are designed to mitigate these potential problems and align the behavior of all parties with the best interests of shareholders broadly construed.

The notion that the welfare of shareholders should be the primary goal of the corporation stems from shareholders’ legal status as residual claimants. Other stakeholders in the corporation, such as creditors and employees, have specific claims on the cash flows of the corporation. In contrast, shareholders get their return on investment from the residual only after all other stakeholders have been paid. Theoretically, making shareholders residual claimants creates the strongest incentive to maximize the company’s value and generates the greatest benefits for society at large.

Not all shareholders are alike and share the same goals—at one extreme, the interests of small (minority) investors are often in conflict with large shareholders (including those holding a controlling block of shares and institutional investors) at the other. Small investors with just a few shares, have little power to influence the board of the corporation. Moreover, with only a small share of their personal portfolios invested in the corporation, these investors have little motivation to exercise control over the corporation. As a consequence, small investors are usually passive and interested only in favorable returns. Often they do not bother to vote and simply sell their shares if they are not satisfied.

Example 2.5 – Shareholder Activism

Elliott Management, who has a significant stake in SoftBank (SFTBF), is currently in negotiations with them to make changes to improve performance. A series of poor investments have made them doubt their decision making. Both Elliott and SoftBank believe their assets are undervalued and would like to see that change.

Source: CNN, SoftBank’s big bets have backfired. Now it’s under scrutiny from a legendary activist investor, Ashley Wenger 2020Wi

In contrast, shareholders who own a sufficiently large stake in the corporation can easily justify the time and expense necessary to monitor management actively. They may hold a controlling block of shares or be institutional investors, such as mutual funds, pension plans, employee stock ownership plans. Or—outside the United States—they may be banks whose stake in the corporation may not qualify as majority ownership but is large enough to motivate active engagement with management. It should be noted that the term “institutional investor” covers a wide variety of managed investment funds, including banks, trust funds, pension funds, mutual funds, and similar “delegated investors.” All have different investment objectives, portfolio management disciplines, and investment horizons. As a consequence, institutional investors represent both another layer of agency problems and an opportunity for oversight.

To identify the potential for an additional layer of agency problems, ask why we should expect that a bank or pension fund will look out for minority shareholder interests any better than corporate management. On the one hand, institutional investors may have “purer” motives than management— principally a favorable investment return. On the other hand, they often make for passive, indifferent monitors, partly out of preference and partly because active monitoring may be prohibited by regulations or by their own internal investment rules. Indeed, a major tenet of the recent governance debate is focused on whether it is useful and desirable to create ways for institutional investors to take a more active role in monitoring and disciplining corporate behavior. In theory, as large owners, institutional investors have a greater incentive to monitor corporations. Yet, the reality is that institutions failed to protect their own investors from managerial misconduct in firms like Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, and WorldCom, even though they held large positions in these firms.

The latest development in the capital markets is the rise of private equity. Private equity funds differ from other types of investment funds mainly in the larger size of their holdings in individual investee companies, their longer investment horizons, and the relatively fewer number of companies in individual fund portfolios. Private equity managers typically have a greater degree of involvement in their investee companies compared to other investment professionals, such as mutual fund or hedge fund managers. As a result, these private equity managers are likely to play a greater role in influencing the corporate governance practices of their investee companies. By virtue of their longer investment horizon, direct participation on the board, and continuous engagement with management, private equity managers play an important role in shaping governance practices. That role is even stronger in a buyout or majority stake acquisition, where a private equity manager exercises substantial control—not just influence as in minority stake investments—over a company’s governance. Not surprisingly, scholars and regulators are keeping a close watch on the impact of private equity on corporate performance and governance.

Example 2.6 – Private Equity in Action

SoftBank Group, a large Japanese financial conglomerate with a presence in both private equity and venture capital, recently used its power and influence to oust the founder and CEO of one of the companies they invest in. Adam Neumann, WeWork’s CEO, was forced to resign by SoftBank, the company’s largest backer, after concerns were raised over Neumann’s personal and professional conduct. This comes as SoftBank has invested another $1.5 billion into the company ahead of WeWork’s anticipated IPO.

Source: CNBC, SoftBank reportedly in talks to boost WeWork investment by $1 billion, Michael Crennen, 2019 Fa

State and Federal Law

Until recently, the U.S. government relied on the states to be the primary legislators for corporations. Corporate law primarily deals with the relationship between the officers, board of directors, and shareholders, and therefore traditionally is considered part of private law. It rests on four key premises that define the modern corporation: (a) indefinite life, (b) legal personhood, (c) limited liability, and (d) freely transferable shares. A corporation is a legal entity consisting of a group of persons—its shareholders—created under the authority of the laws of a state. The entity’s existence is considered separate and distinct from that of its members. Like a real person, a corporation can enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and must pay tax separately from its owners. As an entity in its own right, it is liable for its own debts and obligations. Providing it complies with applicable laws, the corporation’s owners (shareholders) typically enjoy limited liability and are legally shielded from the corporation’s liabilities and debts.[2]

Example 2.7 – Dissolution of a Corporation

Jenkins & Gilchrist was a large law firm consisting of 600 attorneys in 2012. After hiring a handful of debatable employees and adopting several unethical company policies, the IRS began a search on the law firm. After four years, and a $76 million dollar fine given to the company, the firm ultimately decided to dissolve.

Source: Business Insider, 10 Huge Law Firm Collapses Of The Decade, Ments Haugen, 2018Fa

The existence of a corporation is not dependent upon whom the owners or investors are at any one time. Once formed, a corporation continues to exist as a separate entity, even when shareholders die or sell their shares. A corporation continues to exist until the shareholders decide to dissolve it or merge it with another business. Corporations are subject to the laws of the state of incorporation and to the laws of any other state in which the corporation conducts business. Corporations may therefore be subject to the law of more than one state. All states have corporation statutes that set forth the ground rules as to how corporations are formed and maintained.

A key question that has helped shape today’s patchwork of corporate laws asks, “What is or should be the role of law in regulating what is essentially a private relationship?” Legal scholars typically adopt either a “contract-based” or “public interest” approach to this question. Free-market advocates tend to see the corporation as a contract, a voluntary economic relationship between shareholders and management, and see little need for government regulation other than the necessity of providing a judicial forum for civil suits alleging breach of contract. Public interest advocates, on the other hand are concerned by the growing impact of large corporations on society and tend to have little faith in market solutions, and argue that government must force firms to behave in a manner that advances the public interest. Proponents of this point of view focus on how corporate behavior affects multiple stakeholders, including customers, employees, creditors, the local community, and protectors of the environment.

The stock market crash of 1929 brought the federal government into the regulation of corporate governance for the first time. President Franklin Roosevelt believed that public confidence in the equity market needed to be restored. Fearing that individual investors would shy away from stocks and, by doing so, reduce the pool of capital available to fuel economic growth in the private sector, Congress enacted the Securities Act in 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act in the following year, which established the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This landmark legislation shifted the balance between the roles of federal and state law in governing corporate behavior in America and sparked the growth of federal regulation of corporations at the expense of the states and, for the first time, exposed corporate officers to federal criminal penalties. In 2002, as a result of the revelations of accounting and financial misconduct in the Enron and WorldCom scandals, Congress enacted the Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act, better known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (and often referred to as SOX).

The Securities and Exchange Commission

The SEC—created to protect investors; maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and facilitate capital formation—is charged with implementing and enforcing the legal framework that governs security transactions in the United States. This framework is based on a simple and straightforward concept: All investors, whether large institutions or private individuals, should have access to certain basic facts about an investment prior to buying it, so long as they hold it. To achieve this, the SEC requires public companies to disclose meaningful financial and other information to the public. This promotes efficiency and transparency in the capital market, which, in turn, stimulates capital formation. To ensure efficiency and transparency, the SEC monitors the key participants in the securities trade, including securities exchanges, securities brokers and dealers, investment advisers, and mutual funds.[3]

The Exchanges

The NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) and NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations) which is operated by the National Association of Stock Dealers account for the trading of a major portion of equities in North America and the world. While similar in mission, they are different in the ways they operate and in the types of equities that are traded on them.[4]

The origination of the NYSE dates to 1792. Its listing standards are among the highest of any market in the world. Meeting these requirements signifies that a company has achieved leadership in its industry in terms of business and investor interest and acceptance. Today, the NYSE has about 2,800 listed companies that represent almost $30 trillion (2017) in total global capitalization.

The NASDAQ, the other major U.S. stock exchange, is the largest U.S. electronic stock market. With approximately 3,300 companies, it lists more companies and, on average, trades more shares per day than any other U.S. market. The total market capitalization of its listed companies is smaller than NYSE at around $10 trillion (2017). It is home to companies that are leaders across all areas of business, including technology, retail, communications, financial services, transportation, media, and biotechnology. The NASDAQ is typically known as a high-tech market, attracting many of the firms dealing with the Internet or electronics. Accordingly, the stocks on this exchange are considered to be more volatile and growth oriented.

The Gatekeepers: Auditors, Security Analysts, Bankers, and Credit Rating Agencies

The integrity of our financial markets greatly depends on the role played by a number of “gatekeepers”— external auditors, analysts, and credit rating agencies—in detecting and exposing the kinds of questionable financial and accounting decisions that led to the collapse of Enron, WorldCom, and other “misreporting” or accounting frauds.[5] A key question is whether we can (or should) rely on these gatekeepers to perform their roles diligently. It can be argued that we can and should because their business success depends on their credibility and reputation with the ultimate users of their information— investors and creditors—and if they provide fraudulent or reckless opinions, they are subject to private damage suits. The problem with this view is that the interests of gatekeepers are often more closely aligned with those of corporate managers than with investors and shareholders.

Gatekeepers, after all, are typically hired and paid (and fired) by the very firms that they evaluate or rate, and not by creditors or investors. Auditors are hired and paid by the firms they audit; credit rating agencies are typically retained and paid by the firms they rate; lawyers are paid by the firms that retain them; and, as we learned in the aftermath of the 2001 governance scandals, until recently the compensation of security analysts (who work primarily for investment banks) was closely tied to the amount of related investments banking business that their employers (the investment banks) do with the firms that their analysts evaluate.[6]

Example 2.8 – Auditors as Gatekeepers

Public companies everywhere must submit to audits in order to certify to shareholders that their financial and strategic results are accurate. London Biscuits Bhd received a qualified opinion on their financial statements for the year ended September 30, 2018. The auditor was “unable to determine whether adjustments might have been necessary in respect of the profit for the year”; concerns over net cash flows, misstatements related to opening balances, material transactions within the firm, and errors in account receivables records were also cited as causes of concern. London Biscuits shares closed down 5.26% on the news and the Board determined it would conduct an interim re-audit before the next fiscal year closes.

Source: The Edge Markets, London Biscuits’ auditor issues qualified opinion on FY18 results, Tatog Sasono, 2019Wi

A contrasting view, therefore, holds that most gatekeepers are inherently conflicted and cannot be expected to act in the interests of investors and shareholders. Advocates of this perspective also argue that gatekeeper conflict of interest worsened during the 1990s because of the increased cross-selling of consulting services by auditors and credit rating agencies and by the cross-selling of investment banking services.

Both issues are addressed by recent regulatory reforms; new rules address the restoration of the “wall” between investment banks and security analysts, and mandate the separation of audit and consulting services for accounting firms.


  1. Agency theory explains the relationship between principals, such as shareholders and agents, like a company’s executives. In this relationship, the principal delegates or hires an agent to perform work. The theory attempts to deal with two specific problems: first, that the goals of the principal and agent are in conflict (agency problem) and second, that the principal and agent have different tolerances for risk.
  2. This section is based on Kenneth Holland’s May 2005 review of the book Corporate Governance: Law, Theory and Policy.
  3. http://www.sec.gov/about/whatwedo.shtml
  4. http://www.investopedia.com
  5. This section draws on Edwards (2003).
  6. Citigroup paid $400 million to settle government charges that it issued fraudulent research reports; and Merrill Lynch agreed to pay $200 million for issuing fraudulent research in a settlement with securities regulators and also agreed that, in the future, its securities analysts would no longer be paid on the basis of the firm’s related investment-banking work.

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Strategic Management 2E by John Morris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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