Is a 21st century capitalist society best served by the primacy of company shareholders, or more inclusive recognition of stakeholders, of whom shareholders are but one? It is a question that has been debated in one form or another over the decades, as evidenced in the concepts of corporate social responsibility, public interest criteria in takeovers, and the like.
Now concern over the impact of climate change and rising populism have prompted politicians and activists to step up pressure on companies to look at their wider impact on society beyond immediate shareholder returns. It has resulted in the most significant departure yet from the shareholder-first creed followed by corporate America for half a century. One of the most prominent US business groups, the Business Roundtable, has issued a new "statement of purpose" of a corporation that says companies should protect the environment and treat workers with dignity and respect while also delivering long-term profits for shareholders. The association counts the leaders of dozens of the biggest American companies as its members, including technology, industrial and institutional investment giants, and is a powerful voice in Washington.
The shareholder-first creed, ahead of employees, customers, or the local community from which a firm derives its support services, is often blamed for short-termism exemplified by expectations of juicy dividends and the takeover culture. But firms need not operate in this way in free-market economies. An example is Germany, which requires directors on non-executive supervisory boards to represent all the interest groups that come together in a firm, not just the shareholders. This is said to have encouraged a long-term approach to investment decisions, employment practices and customer relations. It helped inspire the concept of a "stakeholder" economy advanced by former British prime minister Tony Blair's New Labour Party government in the 1990s.
Few places typify the shareholder primacy creed more than Hong Kong, where big companies are expected to generate as much profit as possible for shareholders. Yet it is also associated with e-commerce giant Alibaba, owner of this newspaper, and its well-established corporate culture to put customers and employees ahead of shareholders. The focus on growing the business went down well with shareholders because ultimately they benefited more from a higher share price. The Roundtable's conversion from shareholder to stakeholder philosophy, putting profits on a par with environmental protection and worker well-being, is not to be discounted lightly. It has been described as a reflection of an emerging consensus about the importance of more inclusive capitalism. It is a concept that needs to be promoted more in Hong Kong. To succeed, capitalism has to adapt and change with the times.
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