Managers wresting control from owners: it’s nothing new …

Contractual Freedom and the Evolution of Corporate Control in Britain, 1862 to 1929
by Timothy W. Guinnane, Ron Harris, Naomi R. Lamoreaux – #20481 (DAE)

Abstract:British general incorporation law granted companies an extraordinary degree of contractual freedom to craft their own governance rules. In this paper we study the uses to which this flexibility was put by examining the articles of association written by three samples of companies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We find that incorporators consistently wrote rules that shifted power from shareholders to directors, that the extent of this shift became greater over time, and that Parliament made little effort to restrain it. Although large firms were less likely to enact the most extreme provisions, such as entrenching specific directors for life, they too wrote articles that gave managers essentially unchecked power. These findings have implications for the literature on corporate control, for the “law-and-finance” argument that the common law was more conducive to financial development than the code-based systems of civil law countries, and for the debate on entrepreneurial failure in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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