Center on Corporate Governance
Program in the Law and Economics of Capital Markets
What forces explain corporate structure and shareholder behavior? For decades this question has gone unasked, as both corporate law scholars and practitioners tacitly accepted the answer given in 1932 by Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means that the separation of ownership and control stemming from ownership fragmentation explained and assured shareholder passivity. Over this decade, however, corporate law scholars have recognized that this standard answer begs an essential prior question: if ownership fragmentation explains shareholder passivity, what explains ownership fragmentation? Although the Berle and Means model assumed that large-scale enterprises could raise sufficient capital to conduct their operations only by attracting a large number of equity investors, contemporary empirical evidence finds that, even at the level of the largest firms, dispersed share ownership is a localized phenomenon, largely limited to the United States and Great Britain. Not only does the latest comparative research demonstrate that concentrated, not dispersed, ownership is the dominant worldwide pattern, but in-depth studies of individual countries show that share-holder activism increases in direct proportion to ownership concentration. As a result, these findings, in turn, suggest that the conventional governance norms in the United States may be more the product of a path-dependent history than the "natural" result of an inevitable evolution toward greater efficiency.
John C. Coffee Jr.,
The Future as History: The Prospects for Global Convergence in Corporate Governance and Its Implications,
Nw. U. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/523