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So, Why Be Public?

This is a question more and more companies have been asking. Many of the traditional advantages of being public are no longer valid, and the mounting costs all the more obvious.
Joseph Fuller, CEO, Monitor Group
April 14, 2004

It has been over two years since the Enron scandal broke and well over a year since Congress passed its sweeping reform legislation, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Enough time, perhaps, to gain some perspective on a series of scandals that continue to shock the senses of even the most jaded business observer.

Look carefully at the recent accounting scandals, and you will see a pattern writ large. A faltering company is unable to meet earnings targets fully endorsed by management and set to fulfill analysts' expectations. Staring down the barrel of an earnings gun they locked and loaded, management sets out to meet those targets using every means possible—including, at the extreme, resorting to fraudulent accounting methods. And, while pundits have written much about the causes and consequences of infamous cases such as Enron and WorldCom, one thing stands out. They all involved a fundamental breakdown in what economists call agency—the persistent, inherent problem all corporations face in aligning the interests of those who manage the company (executives) with those who own the company (shareholders).

Once considered primarily an academic issue, agency costs arose prominently in the aforementioned cases when the interests of managers and the interests of the shareholders diverged dramatically. While the dry ruminations of academics are of little interest to board members, mastering agency costs must stand at the top of any board's agenda. As the duly elected representatives of a dispersed and varied group of shareholders, directors must arbitrate between the shareholders' interest and the very real market constraints executives contend with daily. Indeed, boards sit at the intersection of this historic conflict. Managing—or, at the very least, understanding and accounting for—agency costs, then, becomes a priority for all boards.

The Origins of Agency Costs
The public corporation, almost by definition, carries a fragmented set of owners. This continues to be one of its great advantages as well as an unavoidable, structural weakness. Public ownership spreads the entrepreneurial risk inherent in any particular venture. And it allows shareholders to diversify their portfolio efficiently and tailor that mix to reflect their appetite for different types of risk at different points in time.

However, a dispersed shareholder group brings with it its own inherent risks. In all but the rarest circumstances, no individual shareholder possesses the stature to command management's attention. Moreover, none has the incentive to invest substantially in a detailed understanding of any individual company's risk profile. (See "Erosion of the Power of Large Shareholders," at the end of this article.) Indeed, the evolution of the public accounting industry and the criticality attached to the integrity of corporate financial reporting reflects the supposition that most shareholders require a limited amount of accurate data to inform them in making investment choices.

As Andrew Carnegie once said, "Anybody's business can become nobody's business" with public ownership. Today even sophisticated institutional shareholders find themselves at a loss to explain the apparent ineptitude or even criminality of once lionized executives and the evaporation of value in once feted companies. Why? Because large corporations are so complex, the transactions they consummate so sophisticated, and the markets in which they compete so vast as to bewilder even sitting board members. As a result, even the best-equipped investor cannot possibly hope to understand much of what goes on inside a company beyond a superficial level.

Uninformed Owners, Deceptive Metrics
That complexity not only affords desperate executives and fraudsters the opportunity to obscure reality for extended periods, but also undermines the flexibility of the best-intentioned managers. The lack of informed owners can restrict management's ability to act on the owners' long-term behalf. Uninformed owners prefer easily understood, often deceptive metrics of corporate success, such as sales growth or earnings per share growth rates. Their capacity and willingness to invest in their understanding of the vagaries of markets and the nuances of risks inherent in any strategy is limited. Take the example of a pharmaceuticals company in the late 1980s, struggling to overcome a weak product pipeline. It staunchly refused to cut its research and development budget in favor of short-term earnings, as the capital markets feted its rivals. While things ultimately turned out well for the company in question—Pfizer, the darling of today's industry—it had to overcome the market's predilection for the immediate and observable.

Few management teams or boards demonstrate that constancy of purpose; therefore, their vulnerability remains great. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller had both the means and the opportunity to understand fully the companies they owned, just as Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have done in recent years. John Q. Public has no such opportunity, most likely lacks the necessary technical skill, and will likely exercise no such patience. So because shareholders cannot, will not, or simply do not police managers, boards have become more and more responsible for doing the work that owners once did routinely. That is, they must act as watchdogs ensuring that a company reflects the shareholders' interests as it makes strategic decisions and incurs business risks.

Board's Role in Principal/Agent Problems
For any board, the fundamental issue in resolving the principal/agent dilemma revolves around how to prevent the careerism and innate self-interest of executives from expressing themselves at the expense of shareholders. The recent heated debates over compensation reflect the public reemergence of that issue. It is, however, far from new. As far back as 1932, Berle and Means explored agency costs and noted their centrality in the design of the modern corporation. "The management of a corporation was thought of as a set of agents running a business for a set of owners." Managers are not owners, and developing mechanisms that cause them to act like owners has proved frustrating. This intractable challenge has given rise to a vast array of economic literature that addresses the issue, formally known as the "principal/agency problem" or, more simply, as "agency costs."

While Berle and Means set out the dilemma, it was Michael C. Jensen and William Meckling who developed agency theory as we know it today. Jensen and Meckling wrote about agency costs throughout the 1970s. Jensen, in particular, wrote about the need to consider a full range of strategies in mature industries, including exit. More importantly, he noted, along with other scholars, the propensity of management to invest in marginal businesses or projects in order to grow their companies, retaining cash beyond the clear reinvestment needs of the corporation in the interest of preserving managerial flexibility. Jensen dubbed this the "free cash flow" problem. For a time in the late 1980s, the threat of hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts served to discipline managers who hoarded the shareholders' cash. However, those financial techniques were blunt remedies, used primarily to cudgel the most obtuse or recalcitrant executives into submission. Shareholders had to rely upon the integrity of managers and wisdom of boards to offset the all too real pull of managerial self-interest.

It was not until the advent of stock options—a virtual ownership mechanism designed to encourage managers to act like owners by rewarding them like owners—that many informed observers declared the principal/agent dilemma all but resolved. Options provided a clear incentive for executives to build shareholder value by giving them virtual equity stakes that might generate the vast majority of their net worth. The upside embedded in options dwarfed the value of salaries and cash bonuses. Options did suffer from visible flaws, such as occasionally generating mind-boggling windfalls for executives—as happened in the case of Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner. Moreover, they seldom required executives to put their own capital at risk—a hazard that Jensen and others pointed out before the recent implosion.

Encouraged Recklessness
Without question, some options programs contributed to material improvements in corporate performance. Executives invested in building their own understanding of what contributed to share price appreciation and that of their organizations. But, in too many instances, the disproportionate gains available from the leverage options provided encouraged managers to become reckless. Regrettably, even tragically in some cases, recent scandals have revealed substantial flaws in the implementation of many option-based pay packages. As commonly instituted, options packages gave executives significant upsides with little associated downside. Far too often, ill-designed options packages rewarded managers who resorted to all sorts of manipulative practices to ensure their company's short-term earnings growth. Fulfilling analysts' earnings expectations led to share price appreciation, even when the strategies employed ultimately suborned a company's long-term prospects.

Despite their inherent complexity, options presented executives with a relatively simple calculus: If they succeeded in raising share prices, they benefited; if share prices fell, the managers had lost an opportunity but suffered no direct negative consequence. Indeed, since boards occasionally helped managers recoup their lost opportunities by repricing "underwater" options plans, some executives found themselves in the enviable position of having what amounted to "all upside" plans.

In some instances, it is arguable that options proved less effective than old-fashioned salary and bonus schemes. In that old world of compensation, experts feared that managers acted too conservatively. Systems based on salary and bonus were believed to encourage executives to take too great an interest in preserving their managerial flexibility and growing the company, irrespective of the incremental impact of those strategies on the marginal returns for shareholders. While hardly an attractive proposition, it compares favorably with the worst of the options schemes, in which executives received rents usually reserved for entrepreneurs taking extraordinary risks, while assuming few actual risks themselves.

Microsoft's decision to begin awarding restricted stock, instead of options, to eligible employees brought new attention to the now familiar problem of agency costs and the difficult task of aligning the interests of owners and managers. The Wall Street Journal recently revisited this issue, citing Jensen's work on the subject. It described one of Jensen's most recent proposals—to structure options in such a way that they prove valuable only if a company's share price appreciates at a rate higher than its cost of capital. Acknowledging that the use of options "backfired" during the bubble, the paper concludes that Jensen's ideas for structuring options to avoid their misuse and maximize their impact are "sensible."

Back at Square One
Still, boards have many reasons to remain cautious. As we have so painfully learned, assuming such solutions will authoritatively address the failings of a complex system would appear naive. With the limitations of stock options, at least as generally conceived and implemented, now laid bare, we find ourselves back at square one. No instrument has emerged that consistently causes executives to bring a perspective similar to that of owner/operators to the stewardship of assets or the management of risk. In short, the agency dilemma remains unresolved.

Many, many observers have offered potential solutions. Some seek to address the issue of agency directly. Other prescriptions, including those embedded in the recently passed Sarbanes-Oxley bill, seek to increase transparency in financial reporting and strengthen the supervision of executives by boards. Although most of these provisions have merit, they raise more fundamental and often unasked questions: Can we solve the agency problem definitively and, if not, why do we remain so wedded to the form of the public corporation? In short: Why be public? And why, when we have witnessed so much innovation in business practice, has the corporate form itself been so static?

The reasons for posing these questions go beyond the problems posed by agency. Over the past several decades, the costs of being public have risen steadily. Sarbanes-Oxley adds another tranche of substantial new costs to being publicly traded. New rules and restrictions relating to audits and accounting firms, enhanced reporting obligations, new standards on qualifications for board membership, and other regulations add to the already high costs associated with being public. Add those to many other costs—some direct, some hidden—associated with public status that have emerged in recent years, such as the costs associated with fending off the trial bar. The cumulative costs of being a publicly traded company have mounted steadily.

At the same time, we have seen little of the dynamism in corporate forms that one witnesses in other domains in which costs have mounted for large companies. That reflects both a lack of originality and a welter of regulations meant to stop the accrual of wealth by fraudulent means that greatly limit the corporate form. Sarbanes-Oxley is only the most recent of a number of reforms that, cumulatively, greatly restrict things like holding companies as an investment form. For reasons that may have made sense in the past, the ability of investors to hold large stakes in companies was limited (as discussed in "Erosion of the Power of Large Shareholders"). However, in many cases, those accreted prescriptions for preventing harm have created inflexibility and resulted in stagnation in the way we fund companies. In short, while many things have changed around the corporate form, the form itself has changed little.

So, Why be Public?
This is a question more and more companies have been asking. Take as evidence a report in The Wall Street Journal that shows a record number of companies, over 400 at the time of the story in 2003, have "deregistered" their stock—freeing themselves from the burdensome corporate reporting requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley and other regulations.

Indeed, for these companies, many of the traditional advantages of going public are no longer valid, and the mounting costs all the more obvious. When one reviews the historical rationales for companies being public in the first place, however, one finds that the evolution of the capital markets, compensation policy, and other factors render most mute:

Reinstilling Dynamism: What Will It Take?
For a remarkably innovative economy, very little innovation has occurred in the fundamental form of structuring and running public enterprises over the past 100 years or so. Most of the attention of policymakers, academics, and business executives has focused on "perfecting" the form of the public corporation. But, in so doing, they have lost track of its original purpose, and that it still remains plagued by structural problems, specifically the agency problem.

Recent controversies should lead us to go beyond a debate as to how to "perfect" the model further. We ought to have a much more active debate about new forms of enterprise ownership. We need to bring the same level of innovation to corporate forms that we have to financial instruments. That will require that executives, board members, and policymakers revisit some of their assumptions as to the status and evolution of public companies.