Money for Nothing: How the Failure of Corporate Boards Is Ruining American Business and Costing Us Trillions by John Gillespie and David Zweig begins with a story familiar to just about everyone on the globe — corporate and economic collapse brought on by greedy CEOs. The authors look behind the headlines to reveal and document the systematic failure of corporate boards who are supposed to look out for shareowner interests but are still too often picked by the very ones they are supposed to advise and monitor… the CEOs.
They discuss how companies spend enormous sums of shareholder money to fight off reforms, either directly or through organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce or the Business Roundtable. According to the authors, “corporate boards remain the weakest link in our free enterprise system.”
A brief overview is provided on how we got here and what it means for shareowners and society. Much of the book is given over to example after example of conflicts of interest, overlapping boards, and a world driven by the greed and status needs of CEOs. Studies have shown that 80% of acquisitions fail to deliver and many fail outright. Too often they are driven by incentives that reward empire building over the generation of profits.
Jennifer Lerner, the only psychologist on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, finds that “Americans tend to exhibit anger more readily than those in many other cultures, and the effects of being in power closely resemble those of being angry.” CEOs and other executives, it turns out, have substantially larger appetites for risk and are more optimistic about outcomes. Changing the context can improve outcomes, especially where the environment demands “predecisional accountability to an audience with unknown views.” In the case of corporations, that would be a diverse independent board, not predictable lapdogs of management.
Later chapters review “The Myth of Shareholders’ Rights” and other issues, including proxy mechanics that allow moving shares to be voted multiple times based on the “day of record,” when large blocks of stocks may be most likely to have several different owners. They document that not only do shareowners have little power, the gatekeepers and guardians paid to protect shareowner interests are almost always conflicted, leading to de facto control by management. At the same time, laws like the “business judgment rule” make it nearly impossible to hold fiduciaries accountable. Pension assets that are turned over to plan managers who provide kickbacks back to corporations earned 29% lower returns, according to a cited 2009 GAO report. The failures documented by Gillespie and Zweig cost investors and the public trillions, bringing the world economy to its knees.
It is time boards stopped being the CEOs friend and instead took on the role of the CEO’s boss. After a thorough examination of the issues, documented with an abundance of real-life examples, Gillespie and Zweig close with a list of recommendations that could go far in changing the culture of the boardroom, strengthening accountability, reducing conflicts of interest, and getting shareowners involved. In a very abbreviated form:
- Create a new class of public directors and a training consortium
- Insist of gender, ethnic, and perceptual diversity
- Limit directors to three or fewer boards and require substantial “skin in the game”
- Initiate more communication between directors and shareowners
- Split chair/CEO roles & learn lessons from nonprofits
- Allow 10% of shareowners to call an extraordinary general meeting
- Add clout to say-on-pay, reform executive compensation, and shareholder approval of golden parachutes
- Ban staggered boards and require majority votes elections
- Proxy access for shareowners, daylight nominating & election processes, & require real board evaluations
- Require board risk committees & empower boards to gather independent information
- End conflict of interest in mutual fund voting by allowing third party voters per Investor Suffrage Movement
- Reform voting mechanics to end manipulation by management
- Reform auditor business model & Fix “up the ladder” provision of SOX
- Reform rating agency model, fully disclose lobbyist expenses, provide real funding for SEC enforcement
- Federalize corporate law
- Better coverage of governance issues by the financial media
- Better financial education, including how corporate governance works
Gillespie and Zweig hit all the bases for a solid home run. They tell us how the game is fixed and how the rules can be changed to play fair. After all, shareowners own the “ball” and all the other equipment. Will we listen? Even more importantly, will we act?