How Shareholder Democracy Failed the People

Larry Fink, the chairman of BlackRock, deserves to be doing laps for putting these ideas into his annual letters years ago, when some of those who signed Monday’s statement laughed at the idea.

Credit should go, too, to Howard Schultz, the former chief executive of Starbucks, whose company embraced its employees as stakeholders from the beginning. And companies like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s, which are so-called B Corporations, committed to community principles early.

The investor Paul Tudor Jones II has been talking about this for years. So has Judith F. Samuelson, an executive director at the Aspen Institute who has pressed corporate leaders to embrace a view of service to society, and told me about a dinner where she and others leaned on Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan chief executive and chairman of the Business Roundtable, to change the group’s mission statement.

And there was Prof. Klaus Schwab, who founded the World Economic Forum, drafting the Davos Manifesto of 1973: “The purpose of professional management is to serve clients, shareholders, workers and employees, as well as societies, and to harmonize the different interests of the stakeholders.”

If you suspect that the Business Roundtable’s statement changes little, there may be reason for skepticism. Some big companies didn’t sign on, including the Blackstone Group, General Electric and Alcoa.

And the Council of Institutional Investors — which represents many of the same companies as Business Roundtable and many of the nation’s largest pension funds — distributed a response that forcefully disavowed the ideas set forth in the roundtable’s statement.

“Accountability to everyone means accountability to no one,” the council said. “It is government, not companies, that should shoulder the responsibility of defining and addressing societal objectives with limited or no connection to long-term shareholder value.”

For whatever progress may have been made Monday, it is hardly clear the debate is over. In fact, the fight for corporate identity is just beginning.