Shareholders -- Suppliers or Owners?

An interesting set of questions is raised in SRI Notes about the effect of defining a company's shareholders differenly than the traditional hypothesis that they are a company's "owners" and, therefore, entitled to its earnings (usually in the form of a dividend) after expenses and profitable re-investment. The hypothesis is used by those opposed to investment in responsible corporate conduct or philanthopy to argue that a company's earnings rightfully belong to its shareholders and that it is irresponsible of management to "spend" on financial and strategy intangibles like corporate responsibility programs and community investments.   

In SRI notes, Lloyd Kurst from the University of California at Berkely's Haas School of Business writes that "Miller & Modigliani's famous theorem opened the doors to a broader view of capital - a view in which shareholders are not owners but suppliers of a commodity known as equity capital."

As suppliers of equity capital shareholders are entitled to reasonable compensation for their investment (the product they 'supply'). But they do not de facto have unrestricted access to all of a company's earnings available for distribution. This means that non-financial stakeholders such as employees and communities which give companies the right to use their resources may have at least some claim on distributable earnings.

Frankly, it puts on another level the discussion in corporate theory of the legitimacy of investment in social intangibles. It raises questions -- even doubts -- about Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-LetMathe's assertion that in corporate philanthropy "We need to be very careful, because it is not our money we're handing out, but the money of our shareholders."

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