Shareholder activism: Capitalism’s unlikely heroes • © [economist.com]
AS INVENTIONS go, the public company is one of capitalism’s greatest. Initial public offerings promote innovation, by providing an exit route for entrepreneurs; being listed makes a firm open to scrutiny; and ordinary people have a chance to invest in capitalism’s wealth-creating machines.
But the past 15 years have cast a shadow over the public company. There was not much sign of scrutiny or wealth creation in fiascos like Enron and Lehman Brothers. Governance has been weakened by the rise of passive index funds, which means that many firms’ largest shareholders are software programs. Institutional investors prefer to sell at the first sign of trouble rather than manage problems—so chief executives obsess about quarterly earnings and grab pay and power while they can. At the same time, tycoons in Silicon Valley have often turned outside investors into second-class citizens, by creating special voting rights for their own shares.
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