The headline quote comes from Mylan’s Executive Chairman Robert Coury, in response to why his firm was rejecting a rather generous buyout offer from Teva.
I get it. Coury believes in the long term. He believes that “shareholders benefit from a well-run business, and to run a business well, you need to focus on all of the stakeholders we touch on a daily basis, including customers, patients, employees, suppliers, creditors and communities.” Mylan used that to defend a decision that would cause its stock to drop over 30 percent below the value of Teva’s offer, yielding a collective value deficit of $10 billion.
As a shareholder, I would love to know how Mr. Coury’s expansive focus on his stakeholders will make up for that $10 billion opportunity cost. That’s a lot of EpiPens.
Alas, Mr. Coury doesn’t have to give a [vloek] about what shareholders want to know. Even if they voted off all of the board members, he retains the sole right to appoint new ones. That’s the kind of power that would get good governance folks in America to freak out.
Or be perfectly OK with it, depending upon one’s perspective.
There is a long-running tension in corporate governance circles between the classic view of directors and managers serving as agents of the shareholders, working primarily in the shareholders’ interest, versus stakeholder theory that says the board should not overweight shareholder interests at the expense of other stakeholders, such as customers, employees, and communities.
The usual objection to the former view–sometimes called “shareholder primacy”–is that managers should not be allowed to exploit or undermine their other stakeholders in their relentless pursuit of profit for their shareholders. But this is generally a straw man objection; Mylan was right in claiming that any company pursuing shareholder value must take good care of its stakeholders. Most businesses, especially large corporations with highly evolved stakeholder ecosystems, understand this.
The “stakeholder” idea, however, goes a step further. It says that when a company arrives at a decision point where the marginal benefits to non-shareholder constituencies come at the expense of shareholders, that management should somehow balance shareholder and other stakeholders interests. This view is at once inevitable and untenable.
It is inevitable in the sense that nothing can really stop managers from making decisions that hurt shareholders. Their decisions can be “enlightened” or “wasteful,” depending on your perspective, but the business judgment rule leaves shareholders no practical recourse for challenging most management actions. That is as it should be. Corporate governance would become destructively unwieldy if shareholders could second-guess operational decisions.
But the business judgment defense only works up to a point, after which it becomes untenable. In America, that point is this: Management cannot publicly admit that their aim is to screw the shareholders. This principle goes back to Dodge v. Ford (1919), in which Henry Ford decided to eliminated all dividends because, as he said publicly, he wanted to prioritize customers and workers over shareholders, who he considered “parasites.” Most people think of this case as affirming shareholder primacy because the court ordered Ford to pay a dividend. But the case also affirmed the business judgment rule by letting Ford otherwise do what he wanted. In other words, Ford did not lose because wanted to subordinate shareholder interests; he (partially) lost because he publicly proclaimed that he wanted to subordinate shareholder interests.
So, taking a lesson from history, Mr. Coury could have argued that Mylan was refusing Teva’s kind offer because he felt that his management’s strategy would be better for shareholders in the long run. Sure, he might have had trouble keeping a straight face, with a $10 billion gap to fill, but he may have gotten away with it. But Mylan is now headquartered in The Netherlands, where the governance rules are different. There, Mr. Coury does not even have to pretend to care about the shareholders.
How this announcement ripples out to valuations of Dutch companies is, I’m sure, an interesting subject for future studies. You won’t get my surprised look if the research somehow shows that the 0.2% relative drop of Dutch stocks versus the EAFE index since Coury’s pronouncement is statistically significant. That’s because, in my experience, when top executives say they care about stakeholders instead of shareholders, what they are really saying is they are looking for a respectable way of ignoring the shareholders for their personal benefit.
A permanent discount on valuations would be the ultimate arbiter of how tenable it is to completely brush off your shareholders. A firm can possibly benefit from paying above-market wages by getting greater loyalty and talent. A firm can possibly afford to be generous in its supporting the community by having a useful ally when scandal rears its head. Paying more to suppliers can garner better quality and terms. But there is no countervailing benefit to an above-market cost of capital. That just undermines your competitiveness, and hurts the economy of your host nation.