University of Chicago Law Review

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Traditionally, corporate fiduciary duties are said to run to the corporation itself. But what does this mean? Something, this Article argues, that is quite different from what both shareholder and stakeholder value maximization proponents think. Specifically, the argument is that corporate fiduciary duties are owed not to any flesh-and-blood stakeholder, including current shareholders, but rather to a hypothetical permanent investor whose holding period is forever. Like any statement of corporate purpose, this “permanent equity maximization norm” is rooted in an underlying model of the corporation. In this case, the underlying model must be one that sees the corporation as a vehicle uniquely designed for long-term capital allocation and therefore emphasizes the corporation’s perpetual existence as the most important attribute for understanding its nature.

This interpretation of corporate fiduciary duties—what this Article calls the “neoclassical view”—does a better job than alternatives in explaining various puzzling features of corporate law, including the apparently conflicting focus on shareholder value maximization on the one hand and the reluctance, on the other, to hold corporate fiduciaries who engage in insider trading liable for common law fraud. It also explains the allocation of decision rights in the corporation, including why decision-making power is located in the board but also why shareholders have the right to bring derivative lawsuits and vote on certain matters. Under this view, the shareholder franchise is less about giving voice to shareholders and more about providing a tool the board can use at its choosing to generate information to help it in the difficult task of long-term capital allocation.

Perhaps the most important implication stemming from this neoclassical view of corporate fiduciary duty law is that, although a corporation deals in contracts, the corporation itself is not a creature of contract, and corporate law is not necessarily contractarian as a fundamental matter. Rather, the corporation represents a policy decision to create an entity designed for extreme long-term capital allocation without sacrificing a liquid securities market. More generally, this analysis demonstrates that the concern over “short-termism” in the corporation is not simply a passing fancy but rather is deeply embedded in fiduciary duty law and lies at the core of what a corporation is.

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