Meta Regulation

The Other Conflict of Interest and the Root of Inequality

It is common in the study of corporate governance to worry about the conflict of interest between shareholders and managers. Managers are supposed to run the firm to maximize shareholder value, but because they run the firm on a day-to-day basis, not the shareholders, they have plenty of opportunity to enrich themselves are shareholder expense. Others worry that the power of shareholders and managers over firm governance enables them to cheat creditors, workers, and sometimes even suppliers.

But there is another interest that no one ever talks about, and which is even less able to defend itself than are shareholders against managers, or creditors, workers, or suppliers against shareholders and managers.

That is the firm itself.

The firm is not its shareholders. It is not its managers. It is not its workers, creditors, or suppliers.

It is a fiction in the sense that a firm always is a fiction, a thing that exists only because shareholders, managers, workers, creditors, suppliers, and the government act like it exists. It has no flesh and no blood. It cannot be found anywhere; or, rather, it is located wherever the law says that it is located rather than where the laws of physics place it.

But it has a name: the name of the business.

It can open bank accounts.

It can own property.

It can sue.

It even has a right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

The firm exists in the way that the mime’s wall exists. There is nothing there, but his hand stops as if it were there.

Just so, the corporation exists because we speak as if it exists. Because we find all of our legal institutions bending around its form as if there were something there to bend them.

And yet, despite all the care that we take to act as if there really were an independent, living, breathing thing that is the firm, when it comes time to count up conflicts of interest, we never talk about the conflict between the interests of shareholders, managers, workers, creditors, and suppliers—and the firm itself.

We recognize that there must be such a conflict, and we even have an entire body of law—agency law—devoted to protecting the firm itself against managers and employees who put their interests before the firm’s. We say that managers and employees have duties of loyalty and care to the firm.

And yet we seem hardly able to take such duties seriously, or, at any rate, fully to appreciate that they are owed to the firm—to the mystery, to the fiction, to the hollowness beneath the mime’s hand.

We say that the board of directors owes a duty to the firm, but we think that the duty is really owed to the firm’s shareholders, or to its workers, or to whatever set of actual, living, breathing persons are ultimately harmed by the cupidity of the firm’s agents.

We comply with the fiction that managers and employees owe their duties to the firm by describing the shareholders who sue careless or disloyal managers as filing a “derivative” lawsuit on behalf of the firm. The shareholders have no direct claim against the wrongdoers, we say, because the wrong was done to the firm and not directly to the shareholders.

And we comply further by asking that any recovery be paid first to the firm as compensation for harm to the firm and only thence to shareholders.

But we experience this part of the fiction of the corporate person as unnecessary. Nothing would be lost were shareholders to be permitted to sue managers directly.

We are wrong to do that.

If we were actually to take conflicts with the firm seriously, we would come to a very troubling thought indeed: that the mute, defenseless fiction that is the firm is surely the worst victim of self-interested behavior of all.

Conflicts run deepest not between shareholders and managers, or even between managers and workers, but between all of these groups and the firm, because of all of these groups only the firm lacks a physical presence and hence even the slightest semblance of autonomy. The firm exists entirely in the unseen world behind the world, and speaks only through the very groups—the shareholders, managers, workers, and so on—from which the firm needs protection.

And the firm does need protection because the firm’s interests are necessarily always in conflict with those of shareholders, managers, workers, and all the other counterparties of the firm.

Because the firm never dies. It alone is in business for the long term and the long term interest is almost always in conflict with the short term interests of mere mortals.

Imagine that a firm generates a billion dollars in net income and that maximizing the long-term—as in over the course of the next two centuries—profits of the firm can be achieved only by investing that billion in clean energy technology.

It is easy to imagine that no flesh and blood humans associated with the firm might be interested in actually investing the money. The shareholders might want it paid out as dividends (they want to party). The managers might want it paid out in executive compensation (they want to party). The workers might want it paid out in retirement benefits (they want to party). The creditors want their debts paid. The suppliers want higher contract prices.

The the profit-maximizing firm—yes, the firm, that metaphysical life force, that abstract interest—would want the money invested and, if all the assumptions of general equilibrium theory hold, the fact that the profit-maximizing firm would want the money invested implies that investing it is necessary for the efficient operation of the economy. It is required to maximize economic growth and otherwise to launch society forward to the greatest extent possible.

But the firm with not invest the money. Because the flesh and blood humans who control what the firm does, who are agents to the firm’s fiction, mimes to its hollowness, don’t want that to happen. The door might want to be opened, but the mime will shut it.

The money will be spent instead on shareholders, managers, workers, creditors or suppliers, and both the firm and the economy will be smaller for it in the long run.

What’s more—and this is important—legal duties will have been breached by this failure to invest. Management will have violated the duty of care, which requires managers to operate the firm with a view to maximizing the firm’s long-term profits.[1]

But no one will sue.

Shareholders will not bring a derivative suit on behalf of the corporation—they wanted to be paid.

Competition will not force the firm’s agents to behave—lest competitors take the firm’s market share and put the agents out of their jobs—because the consequences of a failure to invest for the long term manifest in the long term.

One can only imagine how much bigger the economy would be, and how much more successful the firms in it, if the conflict of interest between the firm itself and its agents were not to exist. Or if there were some way of protecting firms against it.

Imagine all the investments that have not been made throughout history because those in control of firms preferred consumption to saving.

One gets the barest hint of how bad the problem must be in the hysterical objection of business elites to mid-20th-century price regulation in industries such as telecommunications, air transport, and energy distribution. Or the hysterical objection of business elites today to attempts to limit the scope of patent grants in order to prevent windfall gains from intellectual property.

The government, businessmen argue, systematically sets prices—or, in the intellectual property context, rewards—too low, because it fails to take into account all of the investment that must be made in the future of a business.

Firms must invest in research and development.

They must insure against risk.

And so, businessmen argue, what looks like profit really is not profit, but rather a cost of long-term survival and flourishing of the firm.

Ah, but if that is the case, if we cannot trust rate regulators adequately to determine how much must be spent for a firm to flourish, why should we be able to trust shareholders or managers to do that either?

It is not, after all, in their interest to carry out that analysis faithfully, for they can never have an outlook quite as long as the firm’s.

If we think that rate regulation was bad for American business in the mid-20th century, or that stinginess with the patent grant is a big problem for the dynamism of the American economy, we must—must, must—wonder just how bad the totally unaccountable dominance of flesh and blood over fiction, of the agents over their dumb master, must be for American business.

How much less is invested than optimally should be?

This, it seems to me, explains much—not just about a structural inefficiency in the economy but also about the structural maldistribution of wealth.

Why is it that the captains of industry are so rich? Is it just that they control scarce resources? Or that they have some monopoly power? Those are, to be sure, causes.

But I wonder whether the most important is not, quite simply, that they underinvest—and keep the difference for themselves.

When I was in high school, I ran an assassin game with a classmate. I ordered some very cheap waterguns direct from China. We asked every student to pay $30 to participate in the game. We gave each student a cheap water gun and the winner $200 as reward.

There were perhaps thirty participants, which made the game very profitable.

I was so embarrassed about this windfall that I let my surprised coventurer keep all of the profits, which he used to take a trip to Europe.

I was afraid to profit and he rejoiced in it. But the point is that both of us thought of the windfall as profit.

But was it? Neither he nor I thought for minute about the interests of the business.

Perhaps the best thing for our assassin business would have been for us to invest that money in the following year’s game. We could have increased the reward, attracting more participants. We could have ordered better guns. We could have organized a joint game with another school. Whatever.

But while these were the interests of the business, they were not our interests. The business was mute; and so we ignored it.

One sees this also, I think, in how homeowners treat their houses. It is very often the case that a person will buy a house that he would not be willing to rent because the rent would be too high.

Perhaps the house is very large, or there is a shortage of rental units in the area. Whatever the case, when a person owns and lives in a house that he would not be willing to pay to rent, he is putting his own interests as a customer and indeed shareholder (i.e., owner) of the space-selling business that is his home before the interests of the business itself.

His home could generate greater profits by being rented out and indeed those profits could be invested to improve the home or expand the business to include other properties, making the business and the economy better off.

But none of this happens because the flesh and blood person who controls the business would rather forego (read: consume) the profits that could otherwise be generated by renting to others—and which would lead to long-run profits—in order to enjoy the pleasure of living in a big house, or in the right neighborhood, or what have you, right now.

Once you understand the problem, you see it everywhere.

The owner of my car repair shop was kind enough to give me a lift in his personal, very expensive vehicle while I was getting my oil changed. What portion of the purchase price of that car should he have reinvested in his business? We will never know.

Indeed, one wonders what proportion of all the executive compensation, all the share buybacks, and all the dividends paid out to owners over the past few decades—payouts that turned an L-shaped postwar inequality curve into the U-shape of Piketty fame—should optimally have been reinvested in the firms themselves.

That is, one wonders whether, if the fiction that is the firm were real and could defend itself, captains of industry would be no richer than the rest of us, and the economy a whole lot larger.

One might think that the solution is for the state to step in to protect business fictions against their flesh and blood agents.

And perhaps that is right. We need regulation not just to protect consumers against grasping firms, or shareholders against grasping managers, but to protect firms—those helpless fictions—and indeed the economy entire, against all of the grasping human agents that constitute the sum total of a firm’s human capital.

But it might just as easily be right to say that unregulated firms produce more even after taking into account how much less they produce than they might thanks to the cupidity of their agents and the helplessness of the firm.

Regardless, we must see firms as almost always victims of their human controllers. And the wealth of those controllers as almost always funded in part not just by rents—revenues in excess of costs—but by theft in the form of underinvestment in their businesses.

It might well be that, in an optimally efficient world, every businessman would eat one meal a day and darn his own socks, for that is the real minimum that a businessman would accept in exchange for doing business.

And the profits that remain are best reinvested by firms in their own futures.


[1] Yes, the duty of care is subject to the business judgment rule, which means that courts defer to the judgment of managers regarding what actions will maximize profits, and so, in practice, even were shareholders to sue, it would be very difficult for them to win such a case. But the business judgment rule is meant only to give managers the benefit of the doubt. It does not make legal actions that are known in advance to fail to maximize profits. Indeed, in a world in which there were never any doubt regarding what course of action would maximize profits, the business judgment rule would count for nothing and a manager’s failure to take the known profit-maximizing course of action would give rise to immediate liability.