The Economy Needs Corporate Governance Reform

As seen in the Wall Street Journal.

In his inaugural address this week, President Barack Obama said “our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some,” and due in part to “our collective failure to make hard choices.”

He’s offered few policy specifics other than saying we need to undertake massive new infrastructure and education programs. But he is right, there are a lot of hard choices we need to make. And one of them is the decision to fix the way public companies are managed.

Private enterprise forms the basis for our economy. It provides most of the jobs we enjoy and creates the wealth that raises living standards. New government spending can only do so much to repair the economy. Reshaping corporate management can do much more.

The problem with doing nothing is obvious. Faltering companies are now soaking up hundreds of billions of tax dollars and they are not substantially changing their management structures as a price for taking this money.

How does it serve the economy when we subsidize managements that got their companies into trouble? Where is the accountability? More importantly, where are the results?

The economy continues to sink, jobs are being lost, the markets continue on a downward course. Changes are needed and can come if Congress insists on reforms that make corporate boards and managers more accountable to stakeholders.

First, Congress needs to pass legislation giving shareholders enhanced rights to elect new boards, submit resolutions for stockholder votes, and have far more input on executive compensation and other issues. As companion to these reforms, Congress needs to pass legislation that prevents managers from making it more difficult for shareholders to exercise their ownership rights.

Managers often come up with creative ways to perpetuate their reigns of error. These include myriad takeover obstacles like poison pills, bylaw provisions and others devices that thwart shareholder efforts to hold managers accountable.

If Congress is reluctant to make wholesale changes at the federal level, it can enact one simple provision that would allow many of the needed changes to take place on the state level: It can give shareholders the right to vote to move a company’s legal jurisdiction to a more shareholder-friendly state such as North Dakota. Currently that decision is in the hands of company boards.

It is not reasonable to expect managers with failing track records to improve their performance on their own. They will only improve if they are placed under greater pressure by shareholders empowered to exert more influence on management decisions. Nothing will do more to improve our economy than corporate governance changes.

What we need are measures that let the capitalist system produce jobs and economic activity, with minimal but effective government oversight. Government spending is an important catalyst to economic gains, but we need to focus on improving the way private companies are managed so private capital can flow into them.

Our private sector is the greatest wealth creation machine ever devised, far outperforming any other economic model. Still, major improvements could do a lot to mitigate what Mr. Obama calls “the sapping of confidence across our land.”

Lax and ineffective boards, self-serving managements and failed short-term strategies all contributed to the entirely preventable financial meltdown. It is time for battered shareholders to fight back.

Mr. Obama was right when he said that “it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things . . . who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

I hope that this means that the day of reckoning has come for those executives who simply feed at public and private troughs, putting little or no capital of their own at risk, and who produce little of value for the national economy.

It is time for change and the place to start is in the corporate boardrooms of America.

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About Carl Icahn 29 Articles

Carl Icahn is an American billionaire financier, corporate raider, and private equity investor.

Mr. Icahn is the Chairman of Icahn Enterprises, a diversified holding company engaged in a variety of businesses, including investment management, metals, real estate, and consumer goods. He has been the Chairman of American Railcar Industries since 1994 and a Director of Blockbuster since May 2005. He became Chairman of ImClone Systems in 2006. In January 2008, he became the Chairman of Federal-Mogul.

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