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Director versus Shareholder Primacy in New Zealand Company Law as Compared to U.S.A. Corporate Law

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Any model of corporate governance must answer two basic sets of questions: (1) Who decides? In other words, when push comes to shove, who has ultimate control? (2) Whose interests prevail? When the ultimate decision maker is presented with a zero sum game, in which it must prefer the interests of one constituency class over those of all others, whose interests prevail? On the means question, prior scholarship has almost uniformly favored either shareholder primacy or managerialism. On the ends question, prior scholarship has tended to favor either shareholder primacy or various stakeholder theories. In contrast, this author has proposed a “director primacy” model in which the board of directors is the ultimate decision maker but is required to evaluate decisions using shareholder wealth maximization as the governing normative rule. Shareholder primacy is widely assumed to be a defining characteristic of New Zealand company law. In assessing that assumption, it is essential to distinguish between the means and ends of corporate governance. As to the latter, New Zealand law does establish shareholder wealth maximization as the corporate objective. As to the former, despite assigning managerial authority to the board of directors, New Zealand company law gives shareholders significant control rights. Comparing New Zealand company law to the considerably more board-centric regime of U.S. corporate law raises a critical policy issue. If the separation of ownership and control mandated by the latter has significant efficiency advantages, as this article has argued, why has New Zealand opted for a more shareholder-centric model? The most plausible explanation focuses on domain issues, which suggest that there are a small number of New Zealand firms for which director primacy would be optimal. The unitary nature of the New Zealand government may also be a factor, because the competitive federalism inherent in the U.S. system of government promotes a race to the top in which efficient corporate law rules are favored.

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