The rise of agency capitalism is the first article in our Winter 2019 issue.The past 50 years have seen a fundamental change in the ownership of U.S. public companies, one in which the relatively small holdings of many individual shareholders have been supplanted by the large holdings of institutional investors, such as pension funds, mutual funds, and bank trust departments. Such large institutional investors are now said to own over 70% of the stock of the largest 1,000 U.S. public corporations; and in many of these companies, as the authors go on to note, “as few as two dozen institutional investors” own enough shares “to exert substantial influence, if not effective control.”

As few as two dozen institutional investors own enough shares to exert substantial influence, if not effective control.

But this reconcentration of ownership does not represent a complete solution to the “agency” problems arising from the “separation of ownership and control” that troubled Berle and Means, the relative powerlessness of shareholders in the face of a class of “professional” corporate managers who owned little if any stock. As the authors note, this shift from an era of “managerial capitalism” to one they identify as “agency capitalism” has come with a somewhat new and different set of “agency conflicts” and associated costs.

The fact that most institutional investors hold highly diversified portfolios and compete (and are compensated) on the basis of “relative performance” provides them with little incentive to engage in the vigorous monitoring of corporate performance and investor activism that could address shortfalls in such performance. As a consequence, such large institutional investors—not to mention the large and growing body of indexers like Vanguard and BlackRock—are likely to appear “rationally apathetic” about corporate governance.

Authored by Ronald J. Gilson and Jeffrey N. Gordon.

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