From Overlawyered today:
"A new study in the Financial Analysts Journal casts serious doubt on the premise [of litigation social efficiency], at least when it comes to shareholder class actions. In most cases, the authors found, the litigation mainly serves to punish shareholders who have already suffered from a downturn in their stock. Only suits targeting illegal insider trading, and to a lesser extent, accounting fraud were associated with subsequent higher long-term returns."
Way back in early 2006 (have I been blogging so long?) I was guest blogging at Overlawyered and I wrote this:
But from a philosophical standpoint, shareholder suits have never made much sense to me. While I can understand the shareholders of the company suing a minority shareholder who might be enriching themselves disproportionately (e.g. Rigas family at Adelphia), suits by shareholders against the company they own seem"¦ crazy.
Any successful verdict for shareholders against the company would effectively come out of the pockets of the company's owners who are.. the shareholders. So in effect, shareholders are suing themselves, and, win or lose, they as a group end up with less than if the suit had never been started, since a good chunk of the payout goes to the lawyers. The only way these suits make financial sense (except to the lawyers, like Bill Lerach) is if only a small subset of the shareholders participate, and then these are just vehicles for transferring money from half the shareholders to the other half, or in other words from one wronged party that does not engage in litigation to another wronged party who is aggressively litigious. Is there really justice here?
OK, you could argue that many of these shareholders are not suing themselves, because they are past shareholders that dumped their stock at a loss. But given these facts, these suits are even less fair. If these suits are made by past shareholders who held stock (ie, were the owners) at the time certain wrongs were committed, they are in fact paid by current and future shareholders who may well have not even owned the company at the time of the abuses, and who may in fact be participating in cleaning the company up. So these litigants are in effect making the argument that because the company was run unethically when they owned it, they are going to sue the people who bought it from them and cleaned it up? Shouldn't the payment be the other way around, with past owners paying current owners for the mess they left?
I understand that theoretically they might have an incentive improvement from the threat of these suits that improves corporate governance. But this is mitigated by the fact that most corporations consider these suits to be random landmines without merit, to be avoided if possible, to be settled if necessary, but that have little bearing on the underlying governance of the company.
Critics of high executive pay on the soft-core / moderate left (as opposed to the hard-core socialist left) often argue that they are not against large incomes per se. However, they argue that high executive pay is often the result of a failure in the structure of corporate governance, where a group of cozy insiders on the board and management hand each other compensation packages to which the rank and file of shareholders would be opposed (a subset of the agency cost problem).
I am somewhat sympathetic to this argument, as I have personally observed instances where I thought boards and management were too cozy by far. However, no one has really succeeded at proving this hypothesis on executive pay, and in fact shareholders when they have had a chance to vote on such packages have never really made a meaningful dent in them, and one can find a number of private companies where such governance issues presumably don't exist but high executive compensation packages can exist.
Just as an aside, a classic example of this can be found in the fabulous book "Barbarians at the Gate" about the RJR Nabisco takeover fight. The book does a great job of portraying a company with horrible corporate governance issues that seemed to be used to enrich managers with both salaries and perks, but then observed that the new private owners of the company gave their new CEO a compensation package that might have made the previous executives blush.
Anyway, I am yet again off the point. My point was to observe that the mainstream left seems to believe that there are corporate governance issues at large corporations that disenfranchise the majority of shareholders vis a vis key decisions involving the company executives. So I have to ask myself, if this is a real fear, then how does one justify having the President of the United States effectively fire the GM CEO, without any vote or substantial input from shareholders?
Postscript: It is all well and good to be cognizant of agency costs. Everyone should understand when an employee (or contractor or whatever) has different incentives than they themselves possess. For example, on my recent backyard renovation, I always kept in mind that my architect wanted to create a showplace that would advance his business and possible get into a magazine. In general, this alligns our interests, but there were times he pressed for things I did not value and I had to be insistent we were not going to do those things.
However, many folks seem to want to run off to government to do something about agency costs whenever or wherever they are found. This is hugely dangerous, as Congress tends to have the highest agency costs one will ever be likely to find.
Apparently, the Democratic Congress is trying to "take on" high executive pay with some kind of punitive taxation plan. This fits well into a class of legislation I would describe as "useless at best, probably counter-productive, but of high symbolic value to our base," something to which both parties are unbelievably susceptible.
I'm confused, by the way, about why exactly I should care how much CEOs are paid, particularly for executives that don't work for companies in which I own stock? I don't think Paris Hilton, George Clooney, or the CEO of Home Depot are worth what they are paid, but I don't know how it affects me except perhaps for some simmering envy. Does anyone with above a 5th grade education really believe that they will pay one cent less for gas or a refinery worker will make one dollar more if the CEO of Shell is paid less?
I do understand why the shareholders of Home Depot might be pissed off about what they were paying their CEO, or more accurately, what they paid him to go away. I am sure the Arizona Cardinals felt the same way about Dennis Green. Now, if Democrats wanted to suggest that shareholder voting and corporate governance rules needed to be amended to make it easier for shareholders to hold managers accountable for bad decisions and to overrule sweetheart deals between buddies on the board, I am very open to listening.
I am all for restructuring the whole social security system, but, as I have written before, we cannot let the government invest social security funds in private equities. The potential for manipulation and creeping socialism are astronomical. Its easy to picture fights over whether the social security funds should be invested in tobacco makers, gun makers, hospitals that conduct abortions, Domino's Pizza (that donates funds to oppose abortion), Haliburton, etc. etc.
I have always used government-funding of universities as an example -- the government uses the leverage of this funding (and the threat of its withdrawal) to force all kinds of regulations on universities. Today, we have a good case example that is even more directly applicable.
Over the past several years, Calpers (the California state workers retirement fund) has been a great example of how government control of equity investments can be a disaster. In the case of Calpers, their huge pension investments automatically make them one of the largest investors in each company in their portfolio. Calpers has used that power wisely at times, promoting improvements in corporate governance, but has also used it astronomically poorly.
Under Sean Harrigan, Calpers portfolio has been unbelievably politicized, up to and including having the portfolio use its ownership in several grocery chains to support striking members of the grocery union run by... Sean Harrigan. Professor Bainbridge has a couple of good roundups here and here.
If we are change how social security funds are invested, let individuals make their own investment choices.