This entry was also posted at the HLPR Blog: Notice & Comment.
Occupy Wall Street has, in the words of John Paul Rollert, “come to embody a common sense that something is wrong with American capitalism.” The problem Rollert points to is not with capitalism itself, but with a particular American version that has ceased to work for broad cross-sections of its population. Given America’s Depression-level income inequality and near-record levels of private indebtedness, it is extremely tempting to focus on bad outcomes as the problem. But the real issue is that many of the economic and political structures that we take for granted repeatedly produce unequal, undesirable outcomes. If reformers seek to make American capitalism more inclusive, the focus needs to be on fixing these structures and getting the rules right.
It has been a steady mantra of Occupy Wall Street not to make demands of existing political leaders and institutions. But as Matt Langer explained, “the reasoning behind not making demands most certainly does not preclude making demands of our collective imagination.” Whether people prefer to work within existing structures or not, the next essential step is to understand how broken institutions and flawed incentives created this mess and to start imagining what structures can be built in their place. Where better to start than with corporations?
Current Governance Structures and Their Shortcomings
Consider the role that our system of corporate governance has played in producing some of our current imbalances. Excessive risk-taking, stagnating wages, and the spike in executive compensation can all be linked back to a system of corporate governance that privileges management’s interests at the expense of other actors.
It’s by no means an original observation to say that boards are under the sway of management. Indeed, the US is something of a global outlier in allowing a business’ president/CEO to appoint its board of directors, and in some cases the president/CEO actually serves dually as the chair of the board. Not only is the composition of the board not reflective of its owners, employees, or investors, boards are only subjected to a relatively relaxed legal standard. As a result, directors often find that their interests (i.e. staying on the board) are best served by taking a passive role and letting management make most of the choices. In light of this structural failure to limit conflicts-of-interest, it should be unsurprising then that the interests of employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders are, at best, secondary to those of executives. As Harvard Law Professor Mark Roe succinctly phrased it, “the US is managerialist, not capitalist.”
Current governance arrangements have had an enormous impact on the larger economy and on the distributive features of American capitalism. To begin with, the existing corporate governance system (in conjunction with other regulatory failings) has proven inadequate to keep excessive managerial risk-taking under control. Despite the Enron disaster, the fall of Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, and the near-collapse of many of America’s overleveraged financial firms in 2008, we appear to have done nothing to address this issue. These risk-induced failures were repeated last week in the near-overnight fall of MF Global. As though nothing was learned, the star-studded MF Global board sat by and, in Steven Davidoff’s words, “gave executives free rein to take tremendously risky bets that brought the house down.”
In 2008, Martin Lipton and his colleagues at Wachtell prepared an excellent memoranda on boards’ responsibility over risk-management which was posted at the HLS Forum on Corporate Governance. In discussing the legal framework for risk-management, they advised corporate boards to go beyond the minimal requirements created by the leading state law case, In re Caremark. Nonetheless, this is how they summarized the state of the law: “These cases demonstrate that it is difficult to show a breach of fiduciary duty for failure to exercise oversight; these cases do not require the board to undertake extraordinary efforts to uncover non-compliance within the company.” Federal laws like the Sarbanes Oxley Act do require auditing and increased oversight from the board, but the overall implications remain: the decision-making center of gravity remains largely with executives, whose personal incentives to post short-term profits can fuel excessive risk-taking, and current law gives boards few incentives to keep that risk-taking in check.
The problem is not just that boards are passive and deferential, but that those who want risk limited cannot make themselves heard. These high-risk strategies often run counter to the interests of other stakeholders, including bondholders and shareholders, whose interests are not reflected in the board’s composition and thus are not sufficiently represented. The idea that the broader public or the employees whose jobs are on the line would have a say is, under current thinking, not even a remote possibility.
The resultant proximity between Boards and management has a lot to do with runaway executive pay. Board members usually have a stake in their position, and because they are appointed by management, it’s often not in a director’s interest to start ruffling the CEO’s feathers. As Lucian Bebchuk and Jesse Fried argue in their excellent book Pay Without Performance, “structural flaws in corporate governance have produced widespread distortions in executive pay.” Their argument, briefly, is that boards have too many incentives to go along with management and are therefore unable to contract with executives at arm’s length. This broken feedback loop is at the root of the ridiculous pay packages, bonuses, and golden parachutes we’ve seen over the past decade.
The wage stagnation that’s affected the remainder of the workforce shares a common origin: all stakeholders other than executives are systematically excluded from decisions that determine compensation. The fact that corporate profits remain at near record highs suggests that the problem is indeed structural and not attributable simply to changes in the labor market. The absence of a voice for employees either in management or on the board of directors, in conjunction with weakening collective bargaining rights, means that the record profits businesses have been posting get funneled mostly to executives and do not translate into gains for the average American worker. The rules that determine who gets to cut the pie, in other words, have a lot to do with the fact that CEOs went from making 24 times what the average worker did in 1965 to making 185 times as much in 2009.
Ratio of CEO compensation to of average worker’s compensation.
Source: Economic Policy Institute, 2011, via SCSPI.
More Inclusive Alternatives to Minority-Rule Governance
Corporations do not have to be organized in this way in order for the private sector to prosper or for the economy to grow. Recent events should make it clear that keeping down transaction costs is not the only concern here. A number of compelling alternatives exist. I start with the more moderate reform proposals and conclude by proposing that we look to the German corporate model or other structures that afford investors and employees a role in a company’s management.
Calls are frequently made to enhance the role of shareholders in decisions involving executive compensation and risk-management that happen at shareholders’ expense. Bebchuk and Fried have argued that it’s possible to improve transparency and accountability by giving shareholders a greater say on pay, by strengthening shareholders’ ability to unseat and replace directors, or by increasing the number of independent directors (i.e. directors not employed by or doing business with the company). Another proposal they describe would allow shareholders the ability to amend the corporation’s charter. Any long-term solution to these agency problems entails providing investors and owners with a permanent vote or some structural role in decisions that affect them.
An increased role for employees is also necessary to prevent some of imbalances that have arisen between management and the average member of the workforce. Randall Thomas and Kendell Martin, for example, have argued that labor unions and related entities should be allowed to make shareholder proposals. It would be possible to go even further by affording both investors and labor a role on the board and a larger say in major decisions that affect a company’s future. This is precisely what the German corporate governance system does. The German Codetermination (Mitbestimmung) system provides employees a role in the company’s management and has proven remarkably successful across a number of economic sectors. And although German income inequality has grown in recent years, “income inequality in Germany is a long way from reaching US proportions.”
I point these out not to advocate any particular corporate form, but to observe that there are alternatives that can address failings of the existing system. It’s important also to observe that things were not always this way. The internet has fostered an explosion in new forms of social organization, and cooperative membership structures are another potential source of ideas. There’s no reason that running a successful business means accepting a one-size-fits-all corporate model, particularly when that model marginalizes a company’s most committed participants—its investors and its employees.
Capitalism isn’t a single thing or a system of natural laws. It is a system whose rules are shaped by political—and ideally democratic—choices. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the reified legal fiction of the modern corporation. The absence of democracy within corporations is a central reason that the US has seen such a proliferation of high-risk investment strategies, and an unprecedented divergence in incomes. The concerns of both investors and employees have been systematically subordinated to the interests of America’s managerial class. The failure to create an inclusive economy is fundamentally a failure to build inclusive institutions. And the first step to fixing this problem is remembering that the rules that govern institutional decisions can be different.