Corporate Purpose and Corporate Competition
42 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2021 Last revised: 14 Jul 2021
Date Written: March 31, 2021
The large American corporation faces ever-rising pressure to pursue a purpose beyond shareholder profit. This rising pressure interacts with changes in industrial organization in a way that has not been comprehensively analyzed and is generally ignored. It’s not just purpose pressure that is rising: firms’ capacities to accommodate that pressure for a wider purpose is rising as well.
Three changes in industrial organization are most relevant: the possibility of declining competition, the counter-possibility of increasing winner-take-all competition, and the possibility that the ownership of the big firms has concentrated (even if the firms themselves have not), thereby diluting competitive zeal. Consider competitive decline: In robustly competitive economies, firms cannot deviate much from profit maximization for expensive corporate purpose programs unless they bolster profitability (by branding the firm positively for consumers or by better motivating employees, for example). In economies with slack competition, in contrast, monopolistic and oligopolistic firms can accommodate purpose pressure from their excess profits, redirecting some or much excess profit from shareholders to stakeholders—to customers, employees, or the public good. By many accounts, competition has been declining in the United States. By some accounts, it has declined precipitously.
That decline suggests three possibilities: One—the central thesis of this Article— purpose pressure has greater potential to succeed if competition has declined or rents have otherwise grown; in competitive markets, the profit-oriented but purpose-pressured firm has no choice but to refuse the purpose pressure (or to give it only lip service), while in monopolistically-organized industries, the purpose-pressured firm has more room to maneuver. Two, the normative bases undergirding shareholder primacy, although still strong, are less powerful in monopolistic markets. Three, declining corporate competition and rising corporate profits create a lush field for social conflict inside the firm and the polity for shareholders and stakeholders each to seek a share of those profits. The result can infuse basic corporate governance with social conflict, contributing to or exacerbating our rising political and social instability. Expanding purpose pressure is one manifestation of this conflict.
Keywords: corporate governance, corporate purpose, stakeholders, hedge funds, shareholder activism, rents, agency costs, political economy, corporate interests
JEL Classification: G30, G38, G41, J42, J50, K21, K22, L1, L21, M14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation