Thursday, March 19, 2015
Contrary to widespread belief, corporate directors generally are not under a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders. This is reflected in the acceptance in nearly all jurisdictions of some version of the business judgment rule, under which disinterested and informed directors have the discretion to act in what they believe to be in the best long term interests of the company as a separate entity, even if this does not entail seeking to maximise short-term shareholder value. Where directors pursue the latter goal, it is usually a product not of legal obligation, but of the pressures imposed on them by financial markets, activist shareholders, the threat of a hostile takeover and/or stock-based compensation schemes.
Prof. Bainbridge is with Delaware Chief Justice Strine in that profit maximization is the only role (or at least only filter) for board members. As he asserts, “The relationship between the shareholder wealth maximization norm and the business judgment rule, . . . explains why the business judgment rule is consistent with the director's "legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders."
Chief Justice Strine has noted that the eBay decision, which I have written about a lot, says that "the corporate law requires directors, as a matter of their duty of loyalty, to pursue a good faith strategy to maximize profits for the stockholders." I think this is right, but I remain convinced that absent self-dealing or a “pet project,” directors get to decide that what is in the shareholders' best interests.
I have been criticized in some sectors for being too pro-business for my views on corporate governance, veil piercing law, and energy policy. In contrast, I have also been said to be a “leftist commentator,” in some contexts, and I have been cited by none other than Chief Justice Strine as supporting a “liberal” view of corporate norms for my views on the freedom of director choice.
When it comes to the Business Judgment Rule, I think it might be just that I believe in a more hands-off view of director primacy more than many of both my “liberal” and “conservative” colleagues. Frankly, I don’t get too exercised by many of the corporate decisions that seem to agitate one side or the other. I thought I’d try to reconcile my views on this in a short statement. I decided to use the model from This I Believe, based on the 1950s Edward R. Murrow radio show. (Using the Crash Davis model I started with was a lot less family friendly.) Here’s what I came up with [Author's note, I have since fixed a typo that was noted by Prof. Bainbridge]:
I believe in the theory of Director Primacy. I believe in the Business Judgment Rule as an abstention doctrine, and I believe that Corporate Social Responsibility is choice, not a mandate. I believe in long-term planning over short-term profits, but I believe that directors get to choose either one to be the focus of their companies. I believe that directors can choose to pursue profit through corporate philanthropy and good works in the community or through mergers and acquisitions with a plan to slash worker benefits and sell-off a business in pieces. I believe that a corporation can make religious-based decisions—such as closing on Sundays—and that a corporation can make worker-based decisions—such as providing top-quality health care and parental leave—but I believe both such bases for decisions must be rooted in the directors’ judgment such decisions will maximize the value of the business for shareholders for the decision to get the benefit of business judgment rule protection. I believe that directors, and not shareholders or judges, should make decisions about how a company should pursue profit and stability. I believe that public companies should be able to plan like private companies, and I believe the decision to expand or change a business model is the decision of the directors and only the directors. I believe that respect for directors’ business judgment allows for coexistence of companies of multiple views—from CVS Caremark and craigslist to Wal-Mart and Hobby Lobby—without necessarily violating any shareholder wealth maximization norms. Finally, I believe that the exercise of business judgment should not be run through a liberal or conservative filter because liberal and conservative business leaders have both been responsible for massive long-term wealth creation. This, I believe.