Symbolic Corporate Governance Politics

Marcel Kahan is the George T. Lowy Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law. This post is based on a paper co-authored by Professor Kahan and Edward Rock, Saul A. Fox Distinguished Professor of Business Law at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

Corporate governance politics display a peculiar feature: while the rhetoric is often heated, the material stakes are often low. Consider, for example, shareholder resolutions requesting boards to redeem poison pills. Anti-pill resolutions were the most common type of shareholder proposal from 1987–2004, received significant shareholder support, and led many companies to dismantle their pills. Yet, because pills can be reinstated at any time, dismantling a pill has no impact on a company’s ability to resist a hostile bid. Although shareholder activists may claim that these proposals vindicate shareholder power against entrenched managers, we are struck by the fact that these same activists have not made any serious efforts to impose effective constraints on boards, for example, by pushing for restrictions on the use of pills in the certificate of incorporation. Other contested governance issues, such as proxy access and majority voting, exhibit a similar pattern: much ado about largely symbolic change.

What accounts for this persistent gap between rhetoric and reality? In our article, Symbolic Corporate Governance Politics, we consider several explanations drawn from “public interest” and “public choice” perspectives. Ultimately, we conclude that Thurman Arnold’s “symbolic” view of politics, developed in his magnum opus, The Folklore of Capitalism, complements these explanations to provide a fuller understanding.

From a “public interest” perspective, the pursuit by shareholder activists of reforms with minimal direct impact can be rationalized in a number of ways. For one, the cost of such activism is low, both in relation to the value of public companies and in relation to the portfolio on institutional investors. Moreover, even largely symbolic reforms can have a larger indirect impact: they may educate investors, directors, and managers about the importance of shareholder-centric governance; they may serve as show of strength of shareholder power and thereby lead directors, managers, and policy makes to pay more attention to shareholder interests; or they may be a first step in a longer battle for more meaningful reform.

From a “public choice” perspective, shareholder activists may pursue activism for its own sake, to keep themselves busy (and employed). And even if the stakes are low, pro-management forces may oppose meaningless changes to prove loyalty to their clients and generate business.

These explanations, however, leave several questions unanswered: Why the heated rhetoric? What explains the selection of the largely symbolic issues that are being pursued? If these issues are (wrongly) depicted as important, won’t their pursuit divert energy from other issues that are more consequential?

Thurman Arnold’s theory of the role of symbols, myth, and folklore can provide some answers. As a society, Arnold would argue, we need to believe that managers are held accountable even—and especially—in the largest corporations. It is only because “shareholders” exercise ultimate control over managers that it is acceptable that a small group of managers control huge concentrations of capital and get paid princely sums for doing so. This creates a tension. On the one hand, individual shareholders do not, in fact, play that role. On the other hand, large concentrations of capital are necessary for many businesses operating in world product and capital markets. It thus becomes necessary to develop a procedure for reconciling the ideal with practical reality by constantly attacking “the separation of ownership and control” on rational legal and economic ground, while at the same time never really interfering with it. The battles over shareholder power fulfill this function.

But to serve the ceremonial function of asserting shareholder control, shareholder activists must pick issues where the chances of success are reasonably high. Symbolic activism thus serves everyone’s interests. For shareholder activists, who lack strong monetary incentives that directly reward them for increasing share values, symbolic affirmations of shareholder power has allure and is likely to be supported by other shareholders. For managerialists, losing is acceptable and actual (as opposed to rhetorical) resistance is not too high. Activism keeps the activists busy. Plausible arguments for shareholder benefit, combined with low potential costs, assure little internal opposition.

Our analysis has several implications for governance debates. First, the rhetoric used by activists on all sides should be taken with a large pinch of salt: most issues described as momentous generally are not. Second, one should be aware that symbolic battles may divert attention (for better or for worse) from more meaningful reform. Third, shareholder activists and managers and their defenders all have more complex motivations than maximizing firm value or protecting privileges. Rather than epic battles between the forces of good and evil, governance debates typically involve disputes between different shades of grey. Finally, looking out through Thurman Arnold’s eyes, one may observe all the battles and conclude that we live, if not in the best of all possible worlds, then at least in a pretty good one. Despite the back and forth, corporate governance in the U.S. is characterized by a high degree of stability and slow paced, gradual change. Because we ritually affirm the principle of shareholder control—maintained by the symbolic, and largely harmless, disputes we have discussed in this article—the current system of corporate governance enjoys widespread support. Shareholder activism, rather than undermining the legitimacy of the current system, serves an important, legitimating function by showing that shareholders have power and that reform for the better is possible.

The full paper is available for download here.

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