The Rise Of Agency Capitalism And The Role Of Shareholder Activists In Making It Work

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.”

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.

But, as the authors also point out, there is a solution to this agency conflict—and to the corporate governance “vacuum” that has been said to result from the alleged apathy of well-diversified (and indexed) institutional investors: the emergence of shareholder activists. The activist hedge funds and other specialized activists who have come on the scene during the last 15 or 20 years are now playing an important role in supporting this relatively new ownership structure. Instead of taking control positions, the activists “tee-up” strategic business and financing choices that are then decided upon by the vote of institutional shareholders that are best characterized not as apathetic, but as rationally “reticent”; that is, they allow the activists, if not to do their talking for them, then to serve as a catalyst for the expression of institutional shareholder voice. The institutions are by no means rubber stamps for activists’ proposals; in some cases voting for the activists’ proposals, in many cases against them, the institutions function as the long-term arbiters of whether such proposals should and will go forward.

In the closing section of the article, the authors discuss a number of recent legal decisions that appear to recognize this relatively new role played by activists and the institutions that choose to support them (or not)—legal decisions that appear to confirm investors’ competence and right to be entrusted with such authority over corporate decision-making.

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