Eclipse of the Public Corporation or Eclipse of the Public Markets?

In our Winter 30.1 issue of the Journal of Applied Finance our first article looks back at Michael Jensen’s 1989 article “The Eclipse of the Public Corporation.” The authors find some of his predictions have been borne out but other important ones, not. Jensen concluded that the publicly held corporation was in decline and had outlived its usefulness in many sectors. He argued that agency costs made public corporations an inefficient form of organization and that new private organizational forms promoted by private equity firms would likely replace the public firm.

The number of public firms in the U.S. has declined significantly but there are still many hugely profitable and successful public companies. U.S. public markets are still well-suited for firms with mostly tangible assets. So, what we are really witnessing is an eclipse not of public corporations, but of the public markets as the place where young firms with mostly intangible capital seek their funding.

This is especially true when the usefulness of the intangible assets has yet to be proven. Sometimes the market is extremely optimistic about some intangible assets, but otherwise firms with unproven intangible assets may be better off funding themselves privately. This evolution has a downside: investors limited to public markets are cut off from investing in high intangible-asset firms. Additionally, as fewer firms remain publicly listed, fewer firms will be transparent to society.

By authors Craig Doidge, University of Toronto, Kathleen M. Kahle, University of Arizona, G. Andrew Karolyi, Cornell University, and René M. Stulz of Ohio State University.

See Wiley’s Online Library to access the full text of this article.