Are Regulators and Stock Exchanges Irresponsible?

Editor’s Note: This post comes to us from Shann Turnbull, Principal of the International Institute for Self-Governance.

I have recently released a new paper, entitled Correcting the Failures in Corporate Governance Reforms, in which I argue that constructive governance reform will require regulators to recognize and address the shortcomings of existing reforms. I invite readers to respond to one of the central claims of the paper: that regulators and stock exchanges cannot responsibly permit directors to retain absolute power over corporate affairs.

Among other proposals, the paper recommends that regulators prohibit corporate charters from granting directors the sort of “inappropriate powers” described by Bob Monks and Allan Sykes in Capitalism Without Owners Will Fail. For example, Directors typically are provided absolute power to manage their own conflicts of interest. As power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, how can regulators and those overseeing the various stock exchanges responsibly allow directors to possess such powers?

One explanation may be that regulators and exchanges have become captive of corporate interests. Monks articulates this claim in a short video available here. In my 2004 paper, Agendas for Reforming Corporate Governance, Capitalism and Democracy, I described a series of policy reforms that would give shareholders and stakeholders alike an incentive enhance the political and social legitimacy of large corporations.

Correcting the Failures in Corporate Governance Reforms posits that a contributing cause of the failure of corporate governance reforms is a knowledge gap with respect to how corporate constitutions can be designed both (1) to improve the control of complex firms to enhance their competitiveness and (2) to introduce self-enforcing co-regulation. In The Governance of Firms Controlled by More Than One Board, I offered a series of design criteria for such constitutions, based in part on case studies of self-governing, stakeholder-controlled firms.

The knowledge gap described in Correcting the Failures in Corporate Governance Reforms was pointed out by Al Gore in a 1996 speech in which he described “the growing disconnects between science and democracy.” “Page through a directory of members of Congress,” Gore noted, “and you’ll find well over 150 lawyers, but only six scientists, two engineers, and one science teacher among the 535 people in the House and the Senate. As a result, scientific concepts sometimes elude the vast majority of our elected officials.”

As I argued in The Science of Corporate Governance, the design of governance controls in modern firms is itself a scientific inquiry, requiring careful observation of the science of information and control. Yet those fields are generally ignored in the education of corporate and constitutional lawyers–as well as in the training of social scientists in schools of government, public administration and business.

One of the most fundamental principles of information science is that regulation can only be amplified indirectly through co-regulating agents. This, of course, explains the current failure of top-down regulation of corporate governance, which has taken place largely without bottom-up co-regulation by stakeholders.

Scientific analysis of corporate governance controls offers a methodology that will permit corporations to become self-governing and thus reduce the role of government in corporate affairs. Regulators would do well to incorporate that methodology as they address the failure of corporate governance reforms around the world.

Correcting the Failure in Corporate Governance Reforms is available for download here.

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