Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review

A Survey of Blockholders and Corporate Control. (Part 1: A Review of the Literature on Corporate Governance)

Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review

A Survey of Blockholders and Corporate Control. (Part 1: A Review of the Literature on Corporate Governance)

Article excerpt


The notion of diffuse stock ownership is well entrenched among economists. It started with Adam Smith's legendary warning in Wealth of Nations about the "negligence and profusion" that will result when those who manage enterprises are "rather of other people's money than of their own." A century and a half later, another lawyer, Adolf Berle, along with a journalist, Gardiner Means, returned to the theme of diffuse stock ownership. Since the dawn of capitalism, Berle and Means reasoned, most production had taken place in relatively small organizations in which the owners were also the managers. Beginning in the nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution, however, technological change had increased the optimal size of many firms to the point where no individual, family, or group of managers would have sufficient wealth to own a controlling interest. As a result, enterprises faced "the dissolution of the old atom of ownership into its component parts, control and beneficial ownership" (Berle and Means 1932, p. 8). Ultimately, this separation of ownership from control threatens "the very foundation on which the economic order of the past three centuries has rested."

The arguments of Berle and Means on the dangers of diffuse stock ownership, written during the depths of the Great Depression, had an immediate and profound impact. (1) Most notably, their arguments helped to shape the federal securities legislation of the 1930s. That legislation was intended to protect diffuse shareholders from professional managers, and it remains the primary federal securities law to this day.

The notion of diffuse ownership has also had a profound influence on contemporary economists. This can perhaps best be seen in one of the pivotal papers of the postwar era, Jensen and Meckling's (1976) agency paper. Much of the focus of that paper is on the conflict between diffuse shareholders and professional managers:

   Since the relationship between the stockholders and
   manager of a corporation fit the definition of a pure
   agency relationship, it should be no surprise to discover
   that the issues associated with the "separation of
   ownership and control" in the modern diffuse ownership
   corporation are intimately associated with the general
   problem of agency. We show ... that an explanation of
   why and how the agency costs generated by the corporate
   form are born leads to a theory of the ownership (or
   capital) structure of the firm.

As economists started to employ this agency perspective, it was mainly in the context of diffuse shareholders and professional managers. This, for example, can be seen in the papers in a special issue of the Journal of Financial Economics on the market for corporate control in 1983. Many of these papers have become widely cited. It is illuminating, however, that among the sixteen papers in the special issue, there is little mention of large-percentage shareholders or managerial stock ownership. (2) In the issue's review article (Jensen and Ruback 1983), stock ownership, be it by mangers or by outsiders, was not listed as a direction for future research.

After the volume was published, researchers began to discover that some public corporations had large-percentage shareholders, many of whom were top managers or directors. Researchers also discovered that some of these corporations were large and well known. Concentrated stock ownership, it appeared, was not limited to a few anomalous firms. Soon, academics began to study the impact of large-block shareholders.

Three empirical papers in the mid-1980s set the tone and the agenda for much of the research into ownership structure that has ensued over the following fifteen years. Demsetz and Lehn (1985) address the question of the types of public corporations that are likely to have high levels of managerial stock ownership. Holderness and Sheehan (1988) address the question of whether major corporate decisions are different when a corporation has a large-percentage shareholder. …

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