What? The U.S. Business Roundtable in 1981 Sang the Same Song that Japanese Managers Do Today?

Many Japanese executives and commentatorssound a lot like the U.S. Business Roundtabledid(see below) on the topic of stakeholder capitalism vs. shareholder primacy. I personally think this has become a semi-religiousargument with no point, the real question being whether managers are really thinking about shareholders'long-term interestsor (conversely)whether they really analyzing and prioritizing all stakeholders from the point of view of sustainable profitability. Howeverit is fascinating to see how much business cultures can change in 31 years, despite claims that everything is cultural and thereforecan and will never change.

Note the following: The dawn of Ronald Reagan’s presidency found the corporate community on the fence. The “Statement on Corporate Responsibility” issued in October 1981 by the Business Roundtable, which groups the CEOs of the largest US firms, recognizes six constituencies – customers, employees, communities, society at large, suppliers, and shareholders – as forming the “web of complex, often competing relationships” within which corporations operate. It accepts the idea that “shareholders have a special relationship to the corporation” but doesn’t allow their interests to trump all others:

“Balancing the shareholder’s expectations of maximum return against other priorities is one of the fundamental problems confronting corporate management. The shareholders must receive a good return but the legitimate concerns of other constituencies also must have appropriate attention. Striking the appropriate balance, some leading managers have come to believe that the primary role of corporations is to help meet society’s legitimate needs for goods and services and to earn a reasonable return for the shareholders in the process. They are aware that this must be done in a socially acceptable manner. They believe that by giving enlightened consideration to balancing the legitimate claims of all its constituents, a corporation will best serve the interest of the shareholders.”

Even after eight years of Reagan and amid the burgeoning of free-market ideology, the Business Roundtable remained reluctant to place shareholders first, affirming in 1990 that “corporations are chartered to serve both their shareholders and society as a whole” and adding creditors to the 1981 list of constituencies, which it otherwise retained intact. It was only in 1997, in a new statement whose title substituted “Corporate Governance” for “Corporate Responsibility,” that it renounced attempts to balance the interests of corporate constituents and, having reversed its view, argued that taking care of shareholders was the best way to take care of the remaining stakeholders, rather than the other way around:

“In the Business Roundtable’s view, the paramount duty of management and of boards of directors is to the corporation’s stockholders; the interests of other stakeholders are relevant as a derivative of the duty to stockholders. The notion that the board must somehow balance the interests of stockholders against the interests of other stakeholders fundamentally misconstrues the role of directors.”

This doctrine, known as “shareholder primacy,” now reigns in the corporate world today, and it has so increased the power of those whom it has benefited that it will not be easy to dislodge. Those who propagate it believe, or would have us believe, that it is based in law; in fact, it is supported by no more than ideology. They believe, or would have us believe, that it reflects incontrovertible and eternal truths; in fact, it is an expression of transient self-interest. They believe, or would have us believe, that it honors long precedent – but, as we have seen, its ascendency is recent, and, rather than honor it undermines precedent. Yet despite these contradictions, corporations and their allies have been exceedingly successful at selling their viewpoint to the American people.

Quote from:

Nicholas Benes

The Board Director Training Institute (BDTI) is a "public interest" nonprofit in Japan dedicated to training about directorship, corporate governance, and related management techniques. It is certified by the Japanese government to conduct these activities as a regulated nonprofit. Read a summary about BDTI here, and see a menu of its services for both corporations and investors here.

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