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Enhancing shareholder value with social responsibility

By Shann Turnbull - posted Friday, 30 December 2005


The ability of corporations to operate efficiently and add value for investors is under threat from new laws being considered by governments to make corporations socially responsible. Unless directors introduce a new reporting architecture described below to simplify and enhance their role, they are likely to be burdened with additional duties, reporting, and compliance obligations.

Excessive regulation is strangling capitalism as described by P.D. and E.P. Jonson 11 years ago in their article “Financial regulation and moral suasion” on the Henry Thornton website July 1, 1994.

They identified the problems of relying on black letter and as an alternative recommended the use of moral persuasion, information, and incentives. Following this approach this article suggests governments’ exempt corporations from many of the detailed prescriptive and intrusive one size fits all provisions in corporate law and regulations on condition that they introduce creditable self-enforcing provisions in their corporate constitutions.

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The UK Government has proposed that directors’ duties take into account the interests of employees, customers, suppliers, community, the environment and standards of behaviour (UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) White Paper, March 2005, on Company Law Reform, Section 3.3, p. 20 and Section B(3) p 90) (pdf file 1.2MB). In an attempt to justify additional duties and to deflect concern the government described this as “Enlightened Shareholder Value”.

In Australia, the Federal Government and the Parliament have set up separate inquiries to consider corporate responsibility. This was in response to public outrage over inadequate compensation provided by a company responsible for manufacturing asbestos that had caused many deaths with more expected.

However, corporations could enhance both shareholder value and social responsibility if they took the initiative to change the processes by which they reported. If governments and their regulators endorsed the corporate reporting architecture described below, significant simplification could be achieved in company law, regulations and codes to reduce compliance costs for companies and risks for directors. It would allow directors and shareholders to become more reliably informed to enhance shareholder value and at the same time protect the interests of stakeholders while reducing the volume of information disclosed publicly.

The reason these apparently contradictory objectives can be achieved is because much of the information corporations are required to report is provided on a contingency basis and so rarely used. For example, some disclosure is mandated on the belief that “sunlight” prevents or “disinfects” undesirable behaviour. Other disclosures are required on the expectation that the information may be contentious for some companies at some times. Increasingly, process information is being required to be disclosed in an attempt to reveal the integrity of decision making and of reports. Examples are information on the formation, charter, membership and activities of board committees established to manage conflicts of interest such as those involved in compliance, auditing, director nomination and remuneration.

Substantial reduction in disclosure could be achieved for most companies, for most of the time, if information was only made public on a need-to-know basis and or there were people who had the will and ability to act on the information without disclosure. At present much disclosed information is not used and or there are not people with the interest or ability to use it. In any event, what is disclosed may be subject to spin, even if it has been audited.

A fundamental problem with the current reporting architecture is that it depends upon directors reporting on themselves.

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This state of affairs cannot make sense to ordinary folk who elect our law makers. It shows how law makers have allowed common sense to be overruled by the vested interest of the accounting profession who obtain much of its income from servicing corporate interests.

The obsession by accountants to establish standards of reporting and auditing reinforces a belief that the integrity of the reporting architecture is sound when it is fundamentally conflicted with directors reporting on their own actions. The vested interests of WHO is doing the reporting are much more important in determining the integrity of information than establishing standards. In any event, standards are based on the unrealistic assumption that “one size fits all”.

The reason why corporate laws, regulations and codes have become so complex, prescriptive and intrusive is that they are attempting to compensate for, and patch up, the fundamental problem of directors reporting on themselves. The manifold conflicts of directors are identified in the author’s paper presented to The First European Conference on Corporate Governance in 2000. Much simplification could be achieved by removing this intrinsic flaw in the architecture of corporate reporting. Instead of relying on directors and the law to specify what should be reported, a new architecture is required that allows representatives of shareholders to undertake this task.

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Article edited by Peter Coates.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in Henry Thornton on November 21, 2005. This article is based on his submissions the Australian Joint Parliamentary Committee inquiring into Corporate Responsibility.



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About the Author

Dr Shann Turnbull BSc (Melb); MBA (Harvard) is the Principal of the International Institute for Self-governance based in Sydney and a co-founding member of the Sustainable Money Working Group established in the UK. He is a founding life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Senior Fellow of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia, Fellow of the Governance Institute of Australia and Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management. He co-authored in 1975 the first course in the world to provide company directors an educational qualification and wrote Democratising the Wealth of Nations. His bibliography reveals he is a prolific author on reforming the theories and practices of capitalism.

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