At common law, an interested director was barred from participating in corporate decisions in which he had an interest, and therefore “disinterested” directors became desirable. This concept of the disinterested, director developed into the model of an “independent director” and was advocated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission) and court decisions as a general ideal in a variety of situations. The SEC’s view of the need for independent directors should be understood in the context of Adolph Berle’s theory of the 1930s that shareholders had abdicated control of public corporations to corporate managers, and fiduciary duties needed to be imposed upon corporate boards in order to compensate for this loss of shareholder control. Berle’s writings laid the foundation for shareholder primacy as the theory of the firm, a theory embraced by the SEC, which viewed itself as a surrogate for investors.
The SEC has generally succeeded in imposing its corporate governance views in the wake of scandals. Following the sensitive payments enforcement program of the 1970s, the SEC embarked on an activist corporate governance reform program. During the merger and acquisition frenzy of the 1980s, the SEC used the Williams Act to foster the view that the market for corporate control constrained incompetent managers. After the bursting of the technology bubble in 2000, and the financial reporting scandals that ensued, the SEC was able to incorporate its views on independent directors into the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (Sarbanes-Oxley). Following the financial crisis of 2008, the SEC further enforced its views on the requirements for independent directors in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank).
The composition and behavior of securities markets and investors has changed drastically since the SEC was established in 1934. Yet, the SEC has persisted in its path-dependent view that independent directors, ever more stringently defined, should dominate the boards of public companies.