European Corporate Governance: Readings & Perspectives

This new reader, edited by Thomas Clarke and Jean-Francois Chanlat offers up one of the first critiques of the subprime financial crisis within a framework that compares Anglo-American governance features with those of Europe.

At the heart of the collapse was the growth of the derivatives market that was supposed to hedge against losses. Settlements grew from $106 trillion in 2002 to $531 trillion by 2008. In the introduction, Clarke and Chanlat provide an excellent overview of how the crisis unfolded, both in the US and in Europe. They then turn to the contributions of the governance framework: re-regulation, ratings agencies, risk management, incentivization and to more specifics within the framework of financial institutions.

Convergence is in progress but there is tension between the parallel universes. The Anglo-American is characterized by liquid markets, high transparency and where the market for corporate control provides the major discipline… until markets fail. Europe and Asia are characterized by controlling shareowners, weak markets, less transparency and more monitoring by banks.

Many are now questioning convergence and what appears to be a basic philosophy behind the American model… growing inequality. “In the last few years alone, $400 billion of pretax income flowed from the bottom 95% of earners to the top 5%, a loss of $3,660 per household on average in the bottom 95%.”

With the highest level of inequality and poverty among its peers and the lowest job satisfaction rate in two decades, why follow the US? What about the rights of workers and citizens to a more sustainable system? Can the EU transform its economies so that they can sustainably continue to provide a high standard of living? Those are just a few of the topics addressed in the reader through an examination of various dimensions and examples.

Most of the essays are excellent. I especially enjoyed Robert Boyer’s, “From Shareholder Value to CEO Power: The Paradox of the 1990s.” Boyer looks at why CEO remuneration continues to skyrocket in an era of shareholder value. Labor long ago lost power in the US and managers have used the pressure of institutional investors to their own benefit.

Boyer reviews the rise of concern over CEO pay, various options that have been used and their limitations. A series of long-run transformations has occurred in the bargaining positions of workers, consumers, financial markets, the international economy and nation states. The 1960 were characterized by an alliance between workers and managers.

By the 1980s internationalization eroded worker power and by the 1990s we entered a period of hidden alliances between managers and financiers. Managers used the demands institutional investors to redesign their own compensation. Part of that alliance involved a shift away from defined benefit plans to 401(k) type plans and a huge inflow of savings into the stock market with workers at risk.

As support for a political hypothesis of increased managerial power, Boyer analyzes the micro-structure evidence concerning insider trading, diffusion of stock options, lower CEO pay sensitivity of large firms, surge in M&A activity, windfall profits, asymmetrical power on compensation committees, distortion of profit statements, innovation in hiding compensation and the financialization of CEO compensation in a corporate culture that has shifted from engineering to financial management.

He then looks at the larger political arena where economic power is converted into political power. Here he discusses the context of rising inequality and growth of the super-rich with evidence that concentration of wealth is enhanced by stock market bubbles and a tax system that tilts in favor of the rich.

How do we extricate ourselves from this situation? Boyer’s analysis provides some hints. A shift towards a stakeholder conception “would reduce the probability of managerial greed and erroneous strategic decisions.”  More public control of accounting practices is needed “to prevent an alliance between CEOs and auditors, at the expense of rank-and-file shareholders.” Last, we need to recognize that monetary policy has been “at the heart of erroneous business strategies and unjustified wealth from CEOs.”

The volume should give readers pause concerning the desirability of convergence on an Anglo-American model and provides well-informed analysis of European models that may lead to a more sustainable path.

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