Category Archives: Agency theory

Theory that the company is a legal fiction

Saving the Friedman Legacy

Just when all the financial excitement was beginning, Paul Krugman wrote an article for the New York Review of Books entitled ‘Who was Milton Friedman?’ Was he the economists’ economist, profound theorist, universally admired by professional economists? Or was he the simplistic ideologue, populariser and propagandist of monetarism and the free market doctrine, whose ideas proved unworkable in practice and whose intellectual honesty was at least questionable? Krugman’s answer was that Friedman was both of these.

The problem with this dichotomy was that Friedman, the simplistic populariser, gained huge credibility from Friedman, the profound theorist. And his intellectual dishonesty was evident in his populist exploitation of that credibility. For example, on 1st September, 1976, Friedman, addressed the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. The title of his talk was ‘The Road to Economic Freedom: The Steps from Here to There’. His prescription for Britain was the ’shock treatment’ of low flat rate taxes and wholesale privatisation, both of which a few years later the Thatcher government implemented.
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A New and Legal Orthodox Wisdom

Unilever’s Paul Polman must be a Chief Executive in a million. Or more. In his interview with Guardian Sustainable Business, Polman calls on business leaders, politicians and NGOs to recognise they cannot deal with the world’s environmental and social challenges by pursuit of Milton Friedman’s target of maximising shareholder wealth. Polman names a few other companies who are moving in that same direction, and suggests their numbers are growing. But it is a drop in the ocean.

“Why,” he asks, “would you invest in a company which is out of synch with the needs of society, that does not take its social compliance in its supply chain seriously, that does not think about the costs of externalities, or of its negative impacts on society?”

Sadly, the answer is simple and obvious: to make a quick buck. Friedman said that corporate officials had no other social responsibility than to make as much money as possible for shareholders, and that is what the business schools and university departments have been teaching ever since. So that is how the world now works. The world – business leaders, politicians, academics, and even the people in the street – have come to believe that it is the legal duty of those who run businesses to maximise the wealth of shareholders, and to hell with everything else. But it is simply not the case. We should not need heroic figures like Paul Polman to change the world. It should simply be a matter of compliance with the law.
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Changing Economics

A retrospective of this year’s postings would highlight some of the flaws in accepted economic theory. Many have been flagged up elsewhere: economic theory is not, and never has been, without its severe and knowledgeable critics. However, there are a couple of errors which are fundamental to the study of economics which are not often mentioned elsewhere.

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The Root Flaw in Economic Thinking

The idea of economic man, sometimes given a Latin nomenclature to increase its gravitas, is the real cause of economics’ more recent failures. Forty years ago it was referred to as a nineteenth century idea, as though the study of economics had moved on since that primitive Victorian era. But with Friedman’s shareholder primacy in the ascendancy with its supporting “theories” of agency, transaction costs and the market in corporate management, economic man resurged and is still dominant today, and wreaking its massive destruction.

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The Institutional Truth of Transaction Costs

Since Adam Smith’s example of the pin factory, economists have never been able to produce a satisfactory theory of the industrial firm. They’ve thought of it as a black box, expressed it as a production function involving such illuminating variables as price and quantity, and they’ve reduced it to the agency relationship falsely claiming managers to be the agents of shareholders (see other postings on this site). This inadequacy may be part of the reason why, despite Adam Smith, mainstream economists give markets pride of place over the firm.

Belief in the extreme power of market forces, so long as they were free from regulation or any other form of interference, led to the curious belief that the market could produce any item at some cost: the costs of transactions in the market. Only if a firm could produce cheaper than the cost of market transactions, would the firm be justified in production. This fertile thread of economic theory, originated in an article by Coase in 1937, but was developed in the 1960s by a group led by Williamson – last year’s joint Nobel laureate. It challenged the legitimacy of managerial decision makers, arguing the power of market forces to decide.

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BP, the BBC and Agency Theory Again

Nowhere in British or United States law are directors (and/or managers) of the incorporated limited liability company, claimed to be the agents of shareholders. The principal, for which directors act as agent, is the company itself. And as agents of the company, directors have a legal duty to act in its best interests at all times. But the business, academic and media worlds have bought the theoretical economists’ lie that company directors are the agents of shareholders and must act in their interests, which are interpreted as solely short term financial, even if it means selling the company down the river.

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The Importance of Agency in ‘The Rise and Fall of Management’

‘The Rise and Fall of Management’ highlights some issues as of particular importance to the current situation. For instance, the universal adoption of agency theory. Agency is a legal relationship where the agent acts on behalf of the principal who is bound by the agent’s actions, and the agent is bound to act, in his or her professional capacity, in the principal’s best interests. So much is not in doubt. Moreover, early examples of this legal relationship related to the commercial world, as in the old overseas trading companies where the ship’s captain acted as the agent of the ship’s owners. That origin too is not questioned.

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