Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How Can a Free Market Capitalist be Against Management?

In response to my recent criticisms of Carol Bartz, her management team, and board at Yahoo!, I've had some people ask me "How can you be against management? Don't you support business and capitalism?"

When did it became assumed that anyone pro-management was pro-capitalist and anyone pro-shareholder rights was pro-socialist?

When I respond that I'm a free market capitalist in the vein of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, they seem surprised. I suppose they think that any CEO or executive would be a supporter of Friedman's conservative views - not a pro-shareholder person. Typically, on SEC votes, Republicans line up on the side management and Democrats on the side of shareholders. Isn't that the way it works? No.

I think that any individual -- CEO or shareholder (or Republican/Democrat for that matter) -- is self-interested. That's the whole basis of Friedman's views on the power of individual choice. Yet I don't think of most CEOs/boards/execs in America today as true free market capitalists -- at least in how they govern themselves and hang on to power. I think of them as crony capitalists -- not unlike the robber-barrons.

I don't think any of these individuals are inherently good or bad people, but they operate in a system in which they have found how it can be exploited for their self-interest -- especially when it comes to compensation and keeping the system for nominating replacements to the board as closed as possible. Welcome to Club Crony.

Since the beginning of the corporation, the board of directors was to have supposed to represent the will of shareholders. Yet Berle & Means showed that this intent quickly got side-tracked by management self-interest over the interests of the shareholders. The board was always supposed to take the long-view for the interests of its shareholders -- not do the work of management or make executives decisions by frequent referenda of shareholders. If the board wasn't taking the interests of shareholders in mind, the intent was to allow replacing directors until they did properly represent shareholders' interests. Both Friedman and Rand both recognized this.

Yet, in practice, what's happened is that board members became selected by CEOs (who often revamped the board when they took the job in order to be governed by "their people"). If I put my friend on the board, then promote him to the Compensation Committee, he might qualify for whatever definition of "independent director" you like, but he's still going to be my buddy and probably more generous to me in my compensation than if he was some 3rd-party.

Besides picking my directors to govern me as CEO, I can influence the compensation they receive. Therefore, if I wish, I can ensure they get paid a lot. If they're happy with receiving a lot of comp, maybe they will keep paying me a lot. It becomes a mutual admiration and back-scratching society.

The slate of directors runs every year unopposed. Most shareholders (especially retail) are apathetic and don't vote anyway.

If a shareholder wants to run a proxy contest against us, they have to pick up the tab for doing so, while we can use our shareholders' money. If a shareholder wants to sue us, our D&O insurance protects us from any liability (paid for again by shareholders) and the shareholders will also pay our top drawer NY lawyer fees.

This wasn't how it was supposed to be. Management's insulation from being held accountable to shareholders promotes waste, not efficiency; mediocrity, not innovation; wealth-destruction, not wealth-creation.

The solution before the SEC on proxy access isn't perfect, but it will probably do more to bust up crony capitalism and promote truer free market capitalism than any other piece of regulation they've introduced in the last 30 years. Let's hope it passes as is.

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