Martin Wolf CBE, Associate Editor and Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times, delivered a rousing keynote talk to wrap up the final day of the ICGN annual conference. After observing that the limited liability, joint-owned corporation had been the cause and consequence of almost all economic activity over the last two hundred years, Wolf posed and commented on four questions. He qualified his comments by saying that he expected they might raise some profound questions. Indeed, some of Wolf's comments were controversial—the evidence being the questions asked by some members of the audience after he finished speaking.
What is a limited liability corporation? They are a semi-permanent entity designed to outlast small-medium enterprises (because founders retire—the corner store conundrum) and markets, and they are a construct for the consolidation of relational and implicit contracts. Their genius is the importation of older hierarchical forms (to get things done) into the market system. With scale comes efficiency, endurance and effectiveness (but not always!).
What is their purpose? The apparent purpose of the LLC is to generate economic value. However, this is insufficient. Wolf asserted that LLCs should also pursue a wider remit, by seeking to 'add value' in social terms (through the provision of payments for services rendered—wages and salaries—for example).
What is their operational goal? The oft-quoted goal, of maximising shareholder returns, is far too simplistic, according to Wolf. It is selfish and can only lead to failure elsewhere in society. Rather, the operational goal of LLCs needs to include ethical constraints to protect all participants and in so doing ensure the good of society (at no point did Wolf pursue or even imply any form of Marxist agenda).
Who should control them? Economically, shareholders bear residual risks following corporate activity and, therefore, shareholders should possess control rights. Wolf challenged this commonly-held view as folly because shareholders are unable to exert full control over the affairs of the corporation. Managers may manipulate the affairs of the company, sometimes to the detriment of shareholders and other stakeholders. Short-term incentives, implemented to motivate managers towards the maximisation of shareholder returns, rarely position the company for longer-term success.
Wolf concluded by saying that LLCs are a wonderful construct. However, he went on to say that the two associated doctrines (of shareholder control and value maximisation) are unhelpful because they are too short-sighted. He told the shareholders in the room that "it is in your interest not to control the corporation completely". Other parties—large bondholders, for example—also bear residual risks. Why would they not have decision rights?
Wolf's comments were demonstrably controversial (amongst some of the audience at least). However, the poor reputation of big business amongst the general populace suggest Wolf's comments might be closer to the 'truth' than what many in the audience might care to admit.
Wolf closed with this demanding challenge: A better approach might be "to let a hundred flowers bloom", so that the best [control] model might rise up and be applied for a given situation—the beneficiary being society at large.
Thoughts on corporate purpose, strategy and governance; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.