Many look toward enactment of the law-reform agenda held out by proponents of shareholder empowerment as a part of the regulatory response to the current financial crisis. This Article argues that the financial crisis exposes major weaknesses in the shareholder empowerment case. Our claim is that shareholder empowerment delivers management a simple and emphatic marching order: manage to maximize the market price of the stock. This is exactly what the managers of a critical set of financial firms did in recent years. They managed to a market that focused on increasing observable earnings, and, as it turned out, they failed to factor in concomitant increases in risk that went largely unobserved. The fact that management bears primary responsibility for the disastrous results does not suffice to effect a policy connection between increased shareholder power and sound regulatory reform. A policy connection instead turns on a counterfactual question: whether increased shareholder power would have imported more effective risk management in advance of the crisis. We conclude that no plausible grounds exist for making such a case. In the years preceding the financial crisis, shareholders validated the strategies of the very financial firms that pursued high-leverage, high-return, and high-risk strategies and penalized those that did not. It is hard to see how shareholders, having played a role in fomenting the crisis, have a positive role to play in its resolution.
The prevailing legal model of the corporation strikes a better balance between the powers of directors and shareholders than does the shareholder-centered alternative. Shareholder proponents see management agency costs as a constant in history and shareholder empowerment as the only tool available to reduce them. This Article counters this picture, making reference to agency theory and recent history to describe a dynamic process of agency-cost reduction. It goes on to show that shareholder empowerment would occasion significant agency costs of its own by forcing management to a market price set under asymmetric information in most cases and set in speculative markets in which heterogeneous expectations obscure the price's informational content in others.
William Wilson Bratton, The Case against Shareholder Empowerment, 168 U. Pa. L. Rev. 653 (2010).