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Accounting, Economics, and Law: A Convivium

Ed. by Avi-Yonah, Reuven S. / Biondi, Yuri / Sunder, Shyam

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New Thinking on "Shareholder Primacy"

Lynn A. Stout
  • Cornell Law School
Published Online: 2012-06-08 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/2152-2820.1037

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, many observers had come to believe that U.S. corporate law should, and does, embrace a “shareholder primacy” rule that requires corporate directors to maximize shareholder wealth as measured by share price. This Essay argues that such a view is mistaken.As a positive matter, U.S. corporate law and practice does not require directors to maximize “shareholder value” but instead grants them a wide range of discretion, constrained only at the margin by market forces, to sacrifice shareholder wealth in order to benefit other constituencies and the firm itself. Although recent “reforms” designed to promote greater shareholder power have begun to limit this discretion, U.S. corporate governance remains director-centric.As a normative matter, several lines of theory have emerged in modern corporate scholarship that independently explain why director governance of public firms is desirable from shareholders’ own perspective. These theories suggest that if we want to protect the interests of shareholders as a class over time—rather than the interest of a single shareholder in today’s stock price—conventional shareholder primacy thinking is counterproductive. The Essay reviews five of these lines of theory and explores why each gives us reason to believe that shareholder primacy rules in public companies in fact disadvantage shareholders. It concludes that shareholder primacy thinking in its conventional form is on the brink of intellectual collapse, and will be replaced by more sophisticated and nuanced theories of corporate structure and purpose.

Keywords: corporate governance; shareholder value; agency theory; entity theory; financialisation; corporate law and economics; theory of the firm

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Published Online: 2012-06-08



Citation Information: Accounting, Economics, and Law, ISSN (Online) 2152-2820, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/2152-2820.1037. Export Citation

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