Shareholder initiative: An informal social choice and game theoretic approach

Abstract

Current arguments to increase shareholder power in the large public U.S. corporation need to take account of the well-established historical practice of extensive delegation by shareholders of business decision-making and agenda-control to management and the board, what might be characterized as an absolute delegation rule. This practice sharply limits the power of shareholders to put either business or governance proposals to the shareholders for dispositive resolution. The paper, originally published in 1991 but newly relevant, argues that the rule is based on potential pathologies in shareholder voting rather than the inherent information asymmetry between shareholders and managers. Rational shareholders who know of this asymmetry (and know that others know) would simply vote against most shareholder proposals. But shareholder voting gives rise to potential cycling problems, as shifting shareholder majorities vie for preferred policies, and potential opportunism, as shareholders engage in side deals with management and other shareholders to extract rents in corporate decision-making. Since shareholding patterns are in part a response to control rights, deviations from the absolute delegation rule will predictably lead to greater block ownership, for defensive and offensive reasons. These concerns need to be addressed in arguments for the expansion of shareholder power.

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