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Corporations, Separation of Ownership and Control

The advantages of limited liability and of an unlimited number of years to operate have made corporations the dominant form of business for large-scale enterprises in the United States. However, there is one major drawback to this form of business. With sole proprietorships, the owners of the business are usually the same people who manage and operate the business. But in large corporations, corporate officers manage the business on behalf of the stockholders. This separation of management and ownership creates a potential conflict of interest. In particular, managers may care about their salaries, fringe benefits, or the size of their offices and support staffs, or perhaps even the overall size of the business they are running, more than they care about the stockholders’ profits.

The top managers of a corporation are appointed or dismissed by a corporation’s board of directors, which represents stockholders’ interests. However, in practice, the board of directors is often made up of people who were nominated by the top managers of the company. Members of the board of directors are elected by a majority of voting stockholders, but most stockholders vote for the nominees recommended by the current board members. Stockholders can also vote by proxy—a process in which they authorize someone else, usually the current board, to decide how to vote for them.

There are, however, two strong forces that encourage the managers of a corporation to act in stockholders’ interests. One is competition. Direct competition from other firms that sell in the same markets forces a corporation’s managers to make sound business decisions if they want the business to remain competitive and profitable. The second is the threat that if the corporation does not use its resources efficiently, it will be taken over by a more efficient company that wants control of those resources. If a corporation becomes financially unsound or is taken over by a competing company, the top managers of the firm face the prospect of being replaced. As a result, corporate managers will often act in the best interests of a corporation’s stockholders in order to preserve their own jobs and incomes.

In practice, the most common way for a takeover to occur is for one company to purchase the stock of another company, or for the two companies to merge by legal agreement under some new management structure. Stock purchases are more common in what are called hostile takeovers, where the company that is being taken over is fighting to remain independent. Mergers are more common in friendly takeovers, where two companies mutually agree that it makes sense for the companies to combine. In 1996 there were over $556.3 billion worth of mergers and acquisitions in the U.S. economy. Examples of mergers include the purchase of Lotus Development Corporation, a computer software company, by computer manufacturer International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and the acquisition of Miramax Films by entertainment and media giant Walt Disney Company.

Takeovers by other firms became commonplace in the closing decades of the 20th century, and some research indicates that these takeovers made firms operate more efficiently and profitably. Those outcomes have been good news for shareholders and for consumers. In the long run, takeovers can help protect a firm’s workers, too, because their jobs will be more secure if the firm is operating efficiently. But initially takeovers often result in job losses, which force many workers to relocate, retrain, or in some cases retire sooner than they had planned. Such workforce reductions happen because if a firm was not operating efficiently, it was probably either operating in markets where it could not compete effectively, or it was using too many workers and other inputs to produce the goods and services it was selling. Sometimes corporate mergers can result in job losses because management combines and streamlines departments within the newly merged companies. Although this streamlining leads to greater efficiency, it often results in fewer jobs. In many cases, some workers are likely to be laid off and face a period of unemployment until they can find work with another firm.

 

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