Corporate purpose is now the focus of a fundamental and heated debate, with rapidly growing support for the proposition that corporations should move from shareholder value maximization to “stakeholder governance” and “stakeholder capitalism.” This Article critically examines the increasingly influential “stakeholderism” view, according to which corporate leaders should give weight not only to the interests of shareholders but also to those of all other corporate constituencies (including employees, customers, suppliers, and the environment). We conduct a conceptual, economic, and empirical analysis of stakeholderism and its expected consequences. We conclude that this view should be rejected, including by those who care deeply about the welfare of stakeholders.
Stakeholderism, we demonstrate, would not benefit stakeholders as its supporters claim. To examine the expected consequences of stakeholderism, we analyze the incentives of corporate leaders, empirically investigate whether they have in the past used their discretion to protect stakeholders, and examine whether recent commitments to adopt stakeholderism can be expected to bring about a meaningful change. Our analysis concludes that acceptance of stakeholderism should not be expected to make stakeholders better off.
Furthermore, we show that embracing stakeholderism could well impose substantial costs on shareholders, stakeholders, and society at large. Stakeholderism would increase the insulation of corporate leaders from shareholders, reduce their accountability, and hurt economic performance. In addition, by raising illusory hopes that corporate leaders would on their own provide substantial protection to stakeholders, stakeholderism would impede or delay reforms that could bring meaningful protection to stakeholders. Stakeholderism would therefore be contrary to the interests of the stakeholders it purports to serve and should be opposed by those who take stakeholder interests seriously.
Presentation slides for this paper are available on SSRN here.
Suggested Citation: Bebchuk, Lucian A. and Tallarita, Roberto, The Illusory Promise of Stakeholder Governance (February 26, 2020). Forthcoming, Cornell Law Review, December 2020.