Lucian A. Bebchuk & Roberto Tallarita, Will Corporations Deliver Value to All Stakeholders? (Aug. 2021).
Corporate Law & Securities
Amid growing concerns for the effects that corporations have on stakeholders, supporters of stakeholder governance encourage society to rely on corporate leaders to use their discretion to protect stakeholders, and they seem to take corporate pledges to do so at face value. By contrast, critics of stakeholder governance question whether corporate leaders have incentives to protect stakeholders and doubt the reliability of pledges by corporate leaders to do so. We provide empirical evidence that can contribute to resolving the debate between these rival views.
The most celebrated pledge by corporate leaders to protect stakeholders was the Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation (the “BRT Statement”). Signed by CEOs of most of the country’s major companies, the BRT Statement expressed a commitment to deliver value to all stakeholders and not just shareholders and was widely viewed as a major milestone that would usher in a new stakeholder capitalism and significantly improve the treatment of stakeholders. If any companies could be expected to follow through on stakeholder rhetoric, the companies whose CEOs signed the highly visible BRT Statement would be natural candidates to do so, and they thus provide an instructive test case for an empirical investigation.
To investigate whether the BRT Statement represented a meaningful commitment or was mostly for show, we review a wide array of hand-collected corporate documents of the over 130 U.S. public companies that joined the BRT Statement (the “BRT Companies”). We present the following six findings:
First, examining the almost one-hundred BRT Companies that updated their corporate governance guidelines in the sixteen-month period between the release of the BRT Statement and the end of 2020, we find that they generally did not add any language that improves the status of stakeholders and, indeed, most of them chose to retain in their guidelines a commitment to shareholder primacy;
Second, reviewing all the corporate governance guidelines of BRT Companies that were in place as of the end of 2020, we find that most of them reflected a shareholder primacy approach, and an even larger majority did not include any mention of stakeholders in their discussion of corporate purpose;
Third, examining the over forty shareholder proposals regarding the implementation of the BRT Statement that were submitted to BRT Companies during the 2020 or 2021 proxy season, and the subsequent reactions of these companies, we find that none of these companies accepted that the BRT Statement required any changes to how they treat stakeholders, and most of them explicitly stated that their joining the BRT Statement did not require any such changes.
Fourth, reviewing all the corporate bylaws of the BRT Companies, we find that they generally reflect a shareholder-centered view;
Fifth, reviewing the 2020 proxy statements of the BRT Companies, we find that the great majority of these companies did not even mention their signing of the BRT Statement, and among the minority of companies that did mention it, none indicated that their endorsement required or was expected to result in any changes in the treatment of stakeholders;
Sixth, we find that the BRT Companies continued to pay directors compensation that strongly aligns their interests with shareholder value. Furthermore, we document that the corporate governance guidelines of BRT Companies as of the end of 2020 commonly required such alignment of director compensation with stockholder value and generally avoided any support for linking such compensation to stakeholder interests.
Overall, our findings support the view that the BRT Statement was mostly for show and that BRT Companies joining it did not intend or expect it to bring about any material changes in how they treat stakeholders. These findings support the view that pledges by corporate leaders to serve stakeholders would not materially benefit stakeholders, and that their main effect could be to insulate corporate leaders from shareholder oversight and deflect pressures for stakeholder-protecting regulation. Stakeholder governance that relies on the discretion of corporate leaders would not represent an effective way to address growing concerns about the effects corporations have on stakeholders.
This paper is part of a larger research project on stakeholder capitalism of the Harvard Law School Corporate Governance. Other parts of this research project are The Illusory Promise of Stakeholder Governance by Lucian A. Bebchuk and Roberto Tallarita, and For Whom Corporate Leaders Bargain by Lucian A. Bebchuk, Kobi Kastiel, and Roberto Tallarita.
Lucian A. Bebchuk, Kobi Kastiel & Roberto Tallarita, For Whom Corporate Leaders Bargain (Aug. 19, 2020).
Corporate Law & Securities
Mergers & Acquisitions
Securities Law & Regulation
At the center of a fundamental and heated debate about the purpose that corporations should serve, an increasingly influential “stakeholderism” view advocates giving corporate leaders the discretionary power to serve all stakeholders and not just shareholders. Supporters of stakeholderism argue that its application would address growing concerns about the impact of corporations on society and the environment. By contrast, critics of stakeholderism object that corporate leaders should not be expected to use expanded discretion to benefit stakeholders. This Article presents novel empirical evidence that can contribute to resolving this key debate.
During the hostile takeover era of the 1980s, stakeholderist arguments contributed to the adoption of constituency statutes by more than thirty states. These statutes authorize corporate leaders to give weight to stakeholder interests when considering a sale of their company. We study how corporate leaders in fact used the power awarded to them by these statutes in the past two decades. In particular, using hand-collected data, we analyze in detail more than a hundred cases governed by constituency statutes in which corporate leaders negotiated a sale of their company to a private equity buyer.
We find that corporate leaders have used their bargaining power to obtain gains for shareholders, executives, and directors. However, despite the risks that private equity acquisitions posed for stakeholders, corporate leaders made very little use of their power to negotiate for stakeholder protections. Furthermore, in cases in which some protections were included, they were practically inconsequential or cosmetic. We conclude that constituency statutes failed to deliver the benefits to stakeholders that they were supposed to produce.
Beyond their implications for the long-standing debate on constituency statutes, our findings also provide important lessons for the ongoing debate on stakeholderism. At a minimum, stakeholderists should identify the causes for the failure of constituency statutes and examine whether the adoption of their proposals would not suffer a similar fate. After examining several possible explanations for the failure of constituency statutes, we conclude that the most plausible explanation is that corporate leaders have incentives not to protect stakeholders beyond what would serve shareholder value. The evidence we present indicates that stakeholderism should be expected to fail to deliver, as have constituency statutes. Stakeholderism therefore should not be supported, even by those who deeply care about stakeholders.
This paper is part of a larger research project of the Harvard Law School Corporate Governance on stakeholder capitalism and stakeholderism. Another part of this research project is The Illusory Promise of Stakeholder Governance by Lucian A. Bebchuk and Roberto Tallarita.