Stakeholder Governance, Competition and Firm Value

The following post comes to us from Franklin Allen, Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and Imperial College London; Elena Carletti, Professor of Finance at Bocconi University; and Robert Marquez, Professor of Finance at the University of California, Davis.

Academic literature has typically analyzed corporate governance from an agency perspective, sometimes referred to as separation of ownership and control between investors and managers. This reflects the view in the US, UK and many other Anglo-Saxon countries, where the law clearly specifies that shareholders are the owners of the firm and managers have a fiduciary duty to act in their interests. However, firms’ objectives vary across other countries, and often deviate significantly from the paradigm of shareholder value maximization. A salient example is Germany, where the system of co-determination requires large firms to have an equal number of seats for employees and shareholders in the supervisory board in order to pursue the interests of all parties (see Rieckers and Spindler, 2004, and Schmidt, 2004). Similarly, stakeholders’ interests are pursued through direct or indirect representation of employees in companies’ boards in countries like Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg and France (Wymeersch, 1998, and Ginglinger, Megginson, and Waxin, 2009), or through other arrangements and social norms in countries like China and Japan (Wang and Huang, 2006, Dore, 2000, Jackson and Miyajima, 2007, and Milhaupt 2001).

These differences in firms’ corporate orientation are confirmed by the results of a survey of senior managers at a sample of major corporations in Japan, Germany, France, the US, and the UK, who were asked whether “A company exists for the interest of all stakeholders” or whether “Shareholder interest should be given the first priority” (Yoshimori, 2005). The results of the survey strongly suggest that stakeholders are considered to be very important in Japan, Germany and France, while shareholders’ interests represent the primary concern in the US and the UK. The same survey reports that firm continuity and employment preservation are important concerns for managers of corporations located in Japan, Germany and France, but not for those located in the US and the UK. All these considerations suggest that in many countries the legal system or social conventions have as a common objective the inclusion of parties beyond shareholders into firms’ decision-making processes. In particular, workers are seen as important stakeholders in the firm, with continuity of employment being an important objective.

In our paper, Stakeholder Governance, Competition and Firm Value, forthcoming in the Review of Finance, we examine these issues, and provide an understanding of how imposing stakeholder governance affects firms’ behavior even when this involves a trade-off between the interests of shareholders and those of other stakeholders. Our main idea is that stakeholder firms internalize the effects of their behavior on stakeholders other than shareholders. In particular, they are concerned with the benefits that their stakeholders would lose should the firm not survive. As a consequence, stakeholder firms are more concerned with avoiding bankruptcy since this prevents their stakeholders from enjoying their benefits. The different concern for survival affects firms’ strategic behavior in the product market and, in particular, the way they behave in the presence of uncertainty.

Specifically, we develop a model where firms compete in the product market with other firms, and have to choose the prices at which to sell their goods. Firms are subject to uncertainty, and can go bankrupt if they fail to turn a profit either because the expected sales did not quite materialize, or because costs turned out to be higher than anticipated. The possibility, and fear, of bankruptcy thus induces firms to be more conservative in their pricing policies, preferring to maintain a larger cushion between their revenues and their costs, than in seeking out (possibly) larger sales but at thinner margins.

A concern for stakeholders makes a firm even more concerned about avoiding bankruptcy to the extent that it may lead to dislocation of its workers, and makes it even more conservative in its pricing policies. While the direct consequence of this is to move a firm away from the objective of maximizing profits and thus shareholder value, there is an indirect effect coming through the interaction between competing firms in the product market: when one firm becomes less aggressive, other firms have an incentive to follow suit. This reduction in aggression (i.e., competition) industry-wide benefits the stakeholder-oriented firm, so much so that shareholders may in fact be better off when their firm can commit to internalizing stakeholder concerns. In other words, stakeholders’, such as employees, and shareholders’ interests become aligned through the competitive interactions among firms, rather than being at odds as they would appear to be if one ignores firms’ product market interactions.

We use this basic idea to study a number of issues ranging from state-mandated inclusion of stakeholders in corporate governance (e.g., the case of Germany), to globalization that makes it commonplace for firms from shareholder-oriented societies to compete with those from countries with a stakeholder orientation. We also study the implications of financial constraints for the capital structure of stakeholder-oriented firms, and show that the same conservative stance in the product market translates into more conservative capital structure.

Our study raises a number of unanswered questions about the ultimate effect of stakeholders’ orientations on firm behavior and value, and suggests directions for future research. One of the interesting questions is why some countries adopt stakeholder governance while others do not, and why governments adopt such governance although it may benefit firms and employees at the expense of consumers. There is a growing literature on corporate governance and political economy that emphasizes that the political process plays a very important part in determining the corporate governance structure in a country (see, e.g., Pagano and Volpin, 2005; Perotti and von Thadden, 2006; and Perotti and Volpin, 2007). For example, if workers and shareholders are made better off by co-determination and consumers are made worse off, then it is still likely that co-determination will be implemented. The reason is that workers and shareholders are usually better organized and are in a position to lobby in favor of co-determination, whereas consumers are dispersed. Such a political economy approach can help shed light on the emergence of stakeholder governance. In turn, the present study illustrates one of the likely consequences of the adoption of a stakeholder approach to corporate governance.

The full paper is available for download here.

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