This is “Corporate Governance in America: A Brief History”, section 1.3 from the book Governing Corporations (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (527 KB) or just this chapter (100 KB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you.
DonorsChoose.org helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

1.3 Corporate Governance in America: A Brief History

Entrepreneurial, Managerial, and Fiduciary Capitalism

In the first part of the twentieth century, large U.S. corporations were controlled by a small number of wealthy entrepreneurs—Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and Du Pont, to name a few. These “captains of industry” not only owned the majority of the stock in companies, such as Standard Oil and U.S. Steel, but they also exercised their rights to run these companies. By the 1930s, however, the ownership of U.S. corporations had become much more widespread. CapitalismAn economic system marked by private or corporate ownership of goods whose production and distribution are mainly determined by free market competition. in the United States had made a transition from entrepreneurial capitalismAn economic system of capitalism marked by intellectual capital (as opposed to labor and industry) and the increasing development of technology., the model in which ownership and control had been synonymous, to managerial capitalismAn economic system in which hired, professional managers effectively control and manage a corporation, as opposed to the corporation’s being managed by shareholders., a model in which ownership and control were effectively separated—that is, in which effective control of the corporation was no longer exercised by the legal owners of equity (the shareholders) but by hired, professional managers. With the rise of institutional investing in the 1970s, primarily through private and public pension funds, the responsibility of ownership became once again concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of institutional investors who act as fiduciaries on behalf of individuals. This large-scale institutionalization of equity brought further changes to the corporate governance landscape. Because of their size, institutional investors effectively own a major fraction of many large companies. And because this can restrict their liquidity, they de facto may have to rely on active monitoring (usually by other, smaller activist investors) than trading. This model of corporate governance, in which monitoring has become as or more important than trading, is sometimes referred to as fiduciary capitalismAn economic system in which shareholders, especially large shareholders acting on behalf of smaller shareholders, influence the actions of a corporation..This section is based on the essay by Hawley and Williams (2001).

The 1980s: Takeovers and Restructuring

As the ownership of American companies changed, so did the board-management relationship. For the greater part of the 20th century, when managerial capitalism prevailed, executives had a relatively free rein in interpreting their responsibilities toward the various corporate stakeholders and, as long as the corporation made money and its operations were conducted within the confines of the law, they enjoyed great autonomy. Boards of directors, mostly selected and controlled by management, intervened only infrequently, if at all. Indeed, for the first half of the last century, corporate executives of many publicly held companies managed with little or no outside control.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, serious problems began to surface, such as exorbitant executive payouts, disappointing corporate earnings, and ill-considered acquisitions that amounted to little more than empire building and depressed shareholder value. Led by a small number of wealthy, activist shareholders seeking to take advantage of the opportunity to capture underutilized assets, takeoversThe act of seizing or taking control of, as in a corporate acquisition. surged in popularity. Terms, such as leveraged buyout, dawn raids, poison pills, and junk bonds, became household words, and individual corporate raiders, including Carl Icahn, Irwin Jacobs, and T. Boone Pickens, became well known. The resulting takeover boom exposed underperforming companies and demonstrated the power of unlocking shareholder value.

The initial response of U.S. corporate managers was to fight takeovers with legal maneuvers and to attempt to enlist political and popular support against corporate raiders. These efforts met with some legislative, regulatory, and judicial success and made hostile takeovers far more costly. As a result, capital became scarce and junk-bond-financed, highly leveraged, hostile takeovers faded from the stage.Thornton (2002, January 14). Hostile takeovers made a dramatic comeback after the 2001 to 2002 economic recession. In 2001, the value of hostile takeovers climbed to $94 billion, more than twice the value in 2000 and almost $15 billion more than in 1988, the previous peak year. Of lasting importance from this era was the emergence of institutional investors who knew the value of ownership rights, had fiduciary responsibilities to use them, and were big enough to make a difference.Romano (1994). And with the implicit assent of institutional investors, boards substantially increased the use of stock option plans that allowed managers to share in the value created by restructuring their own companies. Shareholder value, therefore, became an ally rather than a threat.Holmstrom and Kaplan (2003).