Sunday, 20 September 2009

Are shareholders really owners?

Another of those books that I really should have read years ago is Ownership and Control by Margaret Blair, and I'm rapidly ploughing through it as it is music to my ears. I know the book by reputation as it famously (in my small corner of the world any way) makes a strong argument about employees' residual claims on companies alongside those of shareholders. To simplify massively this is based on the idea that employees make firm-specific investments that are not typically transferable.

What I didn't realise why quite how sceptical she is about the usefulness of the concept of ownership as applied to the company-shareholder relationship:   
In large publicly traded corporations, the normal rights that constitute ownership of real property have been unbundled and parceled out to numerous participants in the enterprise. Many physical assets may be involved, as well as many intangible assets, and the various rights and responsibilities associated with those assets are carved up in different ways. Thus taking "ownership" as the starting point in discussions about corporate governance, a point from which certain rights or claims are supposed to flow, is quite problematic... [T]he common assertion that "the shareholders are the owners" of large corporations is a highly misleading statement that often does more to obscure the important issues than to illuminate them.    
I'm obviously fairly sympathetic to this argument. I think the ownership concept is a useful one for getting people to think about how we ensure that companies are run properly (or as well as is possible in the circumstances). But when you get into the detail, it can indeed be a bit of a misleading way of looking at things, and as a result may lead to policy ideas that are unlikely to have much impact.

I think Tomorrow's Company were on the money when they said that ownership is a 'helpfully inaccurate' way of thinking about shareholders and companies. 


Mary Adams said...
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Mary Adams said...

We live at the dawn of the knowledge era. In the industrial era, corporations owned the means of production. When an organization's competitive advantage is linked to the knowledge of its employees and partners then "ownership" of the means of production shifts to your community.

Here's a way of looking at this kind of business model:

Unknown said...

Hi Tom,

You know I agree with that, because I wrote it!

Speaking of which, have you seen the new Tomorrow's Investor report

I've posted about it here:

Would be interested to know your thoughts

Tom Powdrill said...

Hi Rowland - will take a look.

How is the book going?

Unknown said...

Slowly! It's feeling pretty interminable right now, I can tell you. But still - better than a real job.