Contractarians, Waiver of Liability Provisions, and the Race to the Bottom

This post is from J. Robert Brown, Jr. of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

We have just posted a paper on SSRN, Opting Only In: Contractarians, Waiver of Liability Provisions, and the Race to the Bottom, challenging one of the core positions of the contractarian approach to corporate law. Contractarians espouse an enabling approach to regulation allowing corporations to opt in or opt out and oppose a mandatory approach based on categorical rules. In their view, an enabling approach allows private ordering and enables owners and managers to derive the most efficient set of provisions, tailored to each company’s specific circumstances. This position has been reflected in attacks on legislations like SOX. Many commentators objected to its provisions because they were categorical and did not allow for private ordering.

Our study seeks to test this theory’s explanatory power in one area of corporate law.We chose a recent example of states replacing a categorical requirement with an enabling provision – waiver of liability provisions – for examination.These provisions allow companies to “opt out” of a rule that imposes liability on directors for breach of the duty of care.They may do so through the mechanism of an amendment to the articles.The amendment process requires the consent of both owners and managers, presenting conditions ripe, at least in theory, for the two groups to “bargain.”

We note first that waiver of liability provisions were authorized not in response to Van Gorkom, as is typically represented, but in response to the D&O insurance crisis occurring in the 1980s.In other words, the provisions were designed to interfere in the market for insurance.No evidence was offered, nor could we find any, indicating that this was a more efficient way of dealing with the economic uncertainties that existed at the time.

Second, we examined the waiver of liability provisions implemented by the Fortune 100 (data that we will eventually expand to the Fortune 500). Our analysis does not offer any evidence of private ordering. With one exception, all non-mutual companies in the Fortune 100 have eliminated liability for breach of the duty of care (in some states, this was done statutorily, with no company “opting out” of the no liability regime). Moreover, none of the waiver provisions reflected bargaining, with the wording of the provisions being remarkably similar. The companies in our sample waived liability to the fullest extent permitted by law.

Our analysis shows that one categorical rule favoring shareholders (liability for the breach of the duty of care) was replaced by another categorical rule favoring management (no liability for breach of the duty of care). While we do not rule out the possibility, we are not persuaded that any significant evidence demonstrating that one was more efficient than the other exists.

Our conclusion is supported by the fact that no actual bargaining occurs.Particularly where provisions are implemented by an amendment to the articles, it is management that drafts the language and only management that can initiate adoption or repeal.In other words, whatever theoretical benefit can result from the contractarian view of private ordering, it can only arise in practice if shareholders have the ability to meaningfully participate in the bargaining process.Our evidence suggests that they do not.

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One Comment

  1. M. Hodak
    Posted Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 11:02 pm | Permalink


    This seems like a very useful advance in the debate on private ordering versus mandates. It seems, however, that the value of your conclusions depend significantly on whether a categorical rule “favoring shareholders” is, in fact, more or less valuable to shareholders in this context. This in an empirical question.

    Are you aware of any study that has been attempted to determine which regime is better? It seems this would be tailor-made for an event study based on when companies announced their intent to opt out, structurally similar to the Gompers, Ishii, Metrick study. If such a study provided significant results one way or the other, it would have a powerful impact on your argument.