Figure 2.1, though somewhat oversimplified, shows the basic legal structure of a corporation under Delaware law and the laws of most other states in the United States. Shareholders elect directors, who then hire officers to manage the company. From this structure, some very basic realities follow. Because the directors of a corporation do not meet that often, it’s possible for the officers hired (top management, or the “C-suite”) to be selective of what the board knows about, and directors are not always ready and able to provide the oversight that the shareholders would like. Nor does the law require officers to be shareholders, so that officers’ motivations may not align with the best interests of the company. This is the “agency problem” often discussed in corporate governance: how to get officers and other top management to align their own interests with those of the shareholders. For example, a CEO might trade insider information to the detriment of the company’s shareholders. Even board members are susceptible to misalignment of interests; for example, board members might resist hostile takeover bids because they would likely lose their perks (short for perquisites) as directors, even though the tender offer would benefit stockholders. Among other attempted realignments, the use of stock options was an attempt to make managers more attentive to the value of company stock, but the law of unintended consequences was in full force; managers tweaked and managed earnings in the bubble of the 1990s bull market, and “managing by numbers” became an epidemic in corporations organized under US corporate law. The rights of shareholders can be bolstered by changes in state and federal law, and there have been some attempts to do that since the late 1990s. But as owners, shareholders have the ultimate power to replace nonperforming or underperforming directors, which usually results in changes at the C-suite level as well.
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