Shareholder Voting in an Age of Intermediary Capitalism

The following post comes to us from Paul H. Edelman and Randall S. Thomas, Professor of Law and Mathematics and Professor of Law and Business, respectively, at Vanderbilt University, and Robert Thompson, Professor of Business Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Shareholder voting, once given up for dead as a vestige or ritual of little practical importance, has come roaring back as a key part of American corporate governance. Where once voting was limited to uncontested annual election of directors, it is now common to see short slate proxy contests, board declassification proposals, and “Say on Pay” votes occurring at public companies. The surge in the importance of shareholder voting has caused increased conflict between shareholders and directors, a tension well-illustrated in recent high profile voting fights in takeovers (e.g. Dell) and in the growing role for Say on Pay votes. Yet, despite the obvious importance of shareholder voting, none of the existing corporate law theories coherently justify it.

Traditional theory about shareholder voting, rooted in concepts of residual ownership and a principal/agent relationship, does not easily fit with the long-standing legal structure of corporate law that generally cabins the shareholder role in corporate governance. Nor do those theories reflect recent fundamental changes as to who shareholders are and their incentives to vote (or not vote). Most shares today are owned by intermediaries, usually holding other people’s money within retirement plans and following business plans that gives the intermediaries little reason to vote those shares or with conflicts that may distort that vote. Yet three key developments have countered that reality and opened the way for voting’s new prominence. First, government regulations now require many institutions to vote their stock in the best interests of their beneficiaries. Second, subsequent market innovations led to the birth of third party voting advisors, including Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), which help address the costs of voting and the collective action problems inherent in coordinated institutional shareholder action. And third, building on these developments, hedge funds have aggressively intervened in corporate governance at firms seen as undervalued, making frequent use of the ballot box to pressure targeted firms to create shareholder value, thereby giving institutional shareholders a good reason to care about voting. In a parallel way outside of the hedge fund space, institutional investors have made dramatically greater use of voting in Say on Pay proposals, Rule 14a-8 corporate governance proposals and majority vote requirements for the election of directors.

The newly invigorated shareholder voting is not without its critics though. Corporate management has voiced fears about the increase in shareholders’ voting power, as well as about third party voting advisors’ perceived conflicts of interest. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has asked for public comments on the possible undue influence of proxy advisors over shareholder voting. Even institutional investors have varying views on the topic. Can we trust the vote to today’s intermediaries and their advisors?

In our article, Shareholder Voting in an Age of Intermediary Capitalism, we first develop our theory of shareholder voting. We argue that shareholders (and only shareholders) have been given the right to vote because they are the only corporate stakeholder whose return on their investment is tied directly to the company’s stock price; if stock price is positively correlated with the residual value of the firm, shareholders will want to maximize the firm’s residual value and vote accordingly. Thus, shareholder voting should lead to value maximizing decisions for the firm as a whole.

But that does not mean that shareholders should vote for everything. Economic theory and accepted principles of corporate law tell us that corporate officers exercise day to day managerial power at the public firm with boards of directors having broad monitoring authority over them. In this framework, shareholder voting is explained by its comparative value as a monitor. We would expect a shareholder vote to play a supplemental monitoring role if the issue being decided affects the company’s stock price, or long term value, and if the shareholder vote is likely to be superior, or complementary, to monitoring by the board or the market. This is particularly likely where the officers or directors of the company suffer from a conflict of interest, or may otherwise be seeking private benefits at the expense of the firm. Thus shareholder voting can play a negative role as a monitoring device by helping stop value-decreasing transactions.

Monitoring is not the only theoretical justification for shareholders voting. We posit two additional theories that provide positive reasons for corporate voting because they enhance decision-making beyond monitoring. Shareholder voting can provide: (1) a superior information aggregation device for private information held by shareholders when there is uncertainty about the correct decision; and (2) an efficient mechanism for aggregating heterogeneous preferences when the decision differentially affects shareholders.

We also explore whether contemporary shareholders have the characteristics that permit them to play the roles our theory contemplates. In particular, we examine the business plan that gives today’s intermediaries reasons not to vote or conflicts that can distort their vote. Similar attention is given to the regulatory and market changes that have grown up in response to this reality: government-required voting by intermediaries; third party proxy advisory firms to let this voting occur more efficiently; and hedge fund strategies to make voting pay, for themselves and for other intermediaries such as mutual funds and pension funds.

Finally, we use our theory to illuminate when shareholder voting is justified. We focus on the role of corporate voting where the issue is a high dollar, “big ticket” decision. We use hedge fund activism as an example of this scenario and show how it fits with each of the prongs of our voting theory. Here we see voting performing the monitoring role anticipated by our theory, but there is also an important role for aggregating heterogeneous preferences among shareholders as mutual funds decide whether to follow hedge fund initiatives. In addition, we make the less obvious case for shareholder voting where hedge funds drop out of the equation–on decisions that have a smaller effect on stock prices, or the company’s long term value, such as Say on Pay, majority voting proposals, and board declassification proposals.

In sum, this article presents a positive theory of corporate voting as it exists today. In doing so, it directly addresses the vast shifts in stock ownership that have created intermediary capitalism and the important role of government regulations and market participants in making corporate voting effective. At the same time, it preserves for corporate management the lion’s share of corporate decision making, subject to active shareholder monitoring using corporate voting in conflict situations that affect stock price.

The full paper is available for download here.


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