Current Issue

Volume 80, Number 3

June 2005

Sacrificing Corporate Profits in the Public Interest

Einer Elhauge

The canonical law and economics view holds that corporate managers do and should have a duty to profit-maximize because such conduct is socially efficient given that general legal sanctions do or can redress any harm that corporate or noncorporate businesses inflict on others. Professor Elhauge argues that this canonical view is mistaken both descriptively and normatively. In fact, the law gives corporate managers considerable implicit and explicit discretion to sacrifice profits in the public interest. They would have such discretion even if the law pursued the normative goal of corporate profit-maximization because minimizing total agency costs requires giving managers a business judgment rule deference that necessarily confers such profit sacrificing discretion. Nor is corporate profit-maximization a socially efficient goal because even optimal legal sanctions are necessarily imperfect and require supplementation by social and moral sanctions to fully optimize conduct. Accordingly, pure profit-maximization would worsen corporate conduct by overriding these social and moral sanctions. In addition to being socially inefficient, pure profit-maximization would harm shareholder welfare whenever shareholders value the incremental profits less than avoiding social and moral sanctions. For companies with a controlling shareholder, that shareholder is exposed to social and moral sanctions and has incentives to act on them, and thus controlling shareholders are well-placed to decide when to sacrifice corporate profits in the public interest. In contrast, the structure of large publicly-held corporations insulates dispersed shareholders from social and moral sanctions and creates collective action obstacles to acting on any social or moral impulses they do feel. Thus, in public corporations, optimizing corporate conduct requires giving managers some operational discretion to sacrifice profits in the public interest even without shareholder approval because, unlike shareholders, managers are sufficiently exposed to social and moral sanctions. Managerial incentives toward excessive generosity are constrained by various market forces, which generally mean that any managerial decision to sacrifice profits in the public interest substitutes for more self-interested profit sacrificing exercises of agency slack. Managerial discretion to sacrifice profits is further constrained by legal limits on the amount of profit sacrificing, which become much tighter when market constraints are inoperable because of last-period problems. Managers should have donative discretion because courts cannot distinguish profit-enhancing donations from profit sacrificing ones, because shareholders are insulated from the social and moral processes that desirably generate the special donative impulses that arise from running business operations, and because otherwise managers would often inefficiently substitute more costly operational profit sacrificing decisions to avoid social and moral sanctions. This explains the legal requirement that corporate donations have a nexus to corporate operations. Antitakeover laws can partly be explained as necessary to preserve sufficient managerial discretion to consider social and moral norms.