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Corporate governance broadly refers to the mechanisms, processes and relations by which corporations are controlled and directed. Governance structures and principles identify the distribution of rights and responsibilities among different participants in the corporation (such as the board of directors, managers, shareholders, creditors, auditors, regulators, and other stakeholders) and includes the rules and procedures for making decisions in corporate affairs. Corporate governance includes the processes through which corporations' objectives are set and pursued in the context of the social, regulatory and market environment. Governance mechanisms include monitoring the actions, policies, practices, and decisions of corporations, their agents, and affected stakeholders. Corporate governance practices are affected by attempts to align the interests of stakeholders. Interest in the corporate governance practices of modern corporations, particularly in relation to accountability, increased following the high-profile collapses of a number of large corporations during 2001–2002, most of which involved accounting fraud; and then again after the recent financial crisis in 2008. Corporate scandals of various forms have maintained public and political interest in the regulation of corporate governance. In the U.S., these include Enron and MCI Inc. (formerly WorldCom). Their demise is associated with the U.S. federal government passing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, intending to restore public confidence in corporate governance. Comparable failures in Australia (HIH, One.Tel) are associated with the eventual passage of the CLERP 9 reforms. Similar corporate failures in other countries stimulated increased regulatory interest (e.g., Parmalat in Italy).
In contemporary business corporations, the main external stakeholder groups are shareholders, debtholders, trade creditors and suppliers, customers, and communities affected by the corporation's activities. Internal stakeholders are the board of directors, executives, and other employees.
Much of the contemporary interest in corporate governance is concerned with mitigation of the conflicts of interests between stakeholders. In large firms where there is a separation of ownership and management and no controlling shareholder, the principal–agent issue arises between upper-management (the "agent") which may have very different interests, and by definition considerably more information, than shareholders (the "principals"). The danger arises that, rather than overseeing management on behalf of shareholders, the board of directors may become insulated from shareholders and beholden to management. This aspect is particularly present in contemporary public debates and developments in regulatory policy.
Ways of mitigating or preventing these conflicts of interests include the processes, customs, policies, laws, and institutions which have an impact on the way a company is controlled. An important theme of governance is the nature and extent of corporate accountability. A related discussion at the macro level focuses on the impact of a corporate governance system on economic efficiency, with a strong emphasis on shareholders' welfare. This has resulted in a literature focussed on economic analysis.  
Corporate governance has also been more narrowly defined as "a system of law and sound approaches by which corporations are directed and controlled focusing on the internal and external corporate structures with the intention of monitoring the actions of management and directors and thereby, mitigating agency risks which may stem from the misdeeds of corporate officers."
One source defines corporate governance as "the set of conditions that shapes the ex post bargaining over the quasi-rents generated by a firm." The firm itself is modelled as a governance structure acting through the mechanisms of contract. Here corporate governance may include its relation to corporate finance.
Contemporary discussions of corporate governance tend to refer to principles raised in three documents released since 1990: The Cadbury Report (UK, 1992), the Principles of Corporate Governance (OECD, 1998 and 2004), the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (US, 2002). The Cadbury and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports present general principles around which businesses are expected to operate to assure proper governance. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, informally referred to as Sarbox or Sox, is an attempt by the federal government in the United States to legislate several of the principles recommended in the Cadbury and OECD reports.
Different models of corporate governance differ according to the variety of capitalism in which they are embedded. The Anglo-American "model" tends to emphasize the interests of shareholders. The coordinated or Multistakeholder Model associated with Continental Europe and Japan also recognizes the interests of workers, managers, suppliers, customers, and the community. A related distinction is between market-orientated and network-orientated models of corporate governance.
Some continental European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, require a two-tiered Board of Directors as a means of improving corporate governance. In the two-tiered board, the Executive Board, made up of company executives, generally runs day-to-day operations while the supervisory board, made up entirely of non-executive directors who represent shareholders and employees, hires and fires the members of the executive board, determines their compensation, and reviews major business decisions.
The Securities and Exchange Board of India Committee on Corporate Governance defines corporate governance as the "acceptance by management of the inalienable rights of shareholders as the true owners of the corporation and of their own role as trustees on behalf of the shareholders. It is about commitment to values, about ethical business conduct and about making a distinction between personal & corporate funds in the management of a company."
The so-called "Anglo-American model" of corporate governance emphasizes the interests of shareholders. It relies on a single-tiered Board of Directors that is normally dominated by non-executive directors elected by shareholders. Because of this, it is also known as "the unitary system". Within this system, many boards include some executives from the company (who are ex officio members of the board). Non-executive directors are expected to outnumber executive directors and hold key posts, including audit and compensation committees. In the United Kingdom, the CEO generally does not also serve as Chairman of the Board, whereas in the US having the dual role is the norm, despite major misgivings regarding the impact on corporate governance.
In the United States, corporations are directly governed by state laws, while the exchange (offering and trading) of securities in corporations (including shares) is governed by federal legislation. Many US states have adopted the Model Business Corporation Act, but the dominant state law for publicly traded corporations is Delaware, which continues to be the place of incorporation for the majority of publicly traded corporations. Individual rules for corporations are based upon the corporate charter and, less authoritatively, the corporate bylaws. Shareholders cannot initiate changes in the corporate charter although they can initiate changes to the corporate bylaws.
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Corporations are created as legal persons by the laws and regulations of a particular jurisdiction. These may vary in many respects between countries, but a corporation's legal person status is fundamental to all jurisdictions and is conferred by statute. This allows the entity to hold property in its own right without reference to any particular real person. It also results in the perpetual existence that characterizes the modern corporation. The statutory granting of corporate existence may arise from general purpose legislation (which is the general case) or from a statute to create a specific corporation, which was the only method prior to the 19th century.
In addition to the statutory laws of the relevant jurisdiction, corporations are subject to common law in some countries, and various laws and regulations affecting business practices. In most jurisdictions, corporations also have a constitution that provides individual rules that govern the corporation and authorize or constrain its decision-makers. This constitution is identified by a variety of terms; in English-speaking jurisdictions, it is usually known as the Corporate Charter or the [Memorandum] and Articles of Association. The capacity of shareholders to modify the constitution of their corporation can vary substantially.
The U.S. passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in 1977, with subsequent modifications. This law made it illegal to bribe government officials and required corporations to maintain adequate accounting controls. It is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Substantial civil and criminal penalties have been levied on corporations and executives convicted of bribery.
The UK passed the Bribery Act in 2010. This law made it illegal to bribe either government or private citizens or make facilitating payments (i.e., payment to a government official to perform their routine duties more quickly). It also required corporations to establish controls to prevent bribery.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 was enacted in the wake of a series of high-profile corporate scandals. It established a series of requirements that affect corporate governance in the U.S. and influenced similar laws in many other countries. The law required, along with many other elements, that:
Corporate governance principles and codes have been developed in different countries and issued from stock exchanges, corporations, institutional investors, or associations (institutes) of directors and managers with the support of governments and international organizations. As a rule, compliance with these governance recommendations is not mandated by law, although the codes linked to stock exchange listing requirements may have a coercive effect.
One of the most influential guidelines has been the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Principles of Corporate Governance—published in 1999 and revised in 2004. The OECD guidelines are often referenced by countries developing local codes or guidelines. Building on the work of the OECD, other international organizations, private sector associations and more than 20 national corporate governance codes formed the United Nations Intergovernmental Working Group of Experts on International Standards of Accounting and Reporting (ISAR) to produce their Guidance on Good Practices in Corporate Governance Disclosure. This internationally agreed benchmark consists of more than fifty distinct disclosure items across five broad categories:
Companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and other stock exchanges are required to meet certain governance standards. For example, the NYSE Listed Company Manual requires, among many other elements:
The investor-led organisation International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN) was set up by individuals centered around the ten largest pension funds in the world 1995. The aim is to promote global corporate governance standards. The network is led by investors that manage 18 trillion dollars and members are located in fifty different countries. ICGN has developed a suite of global guidelines ranging from shareholder rights to business ethics.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has done work on corporate governance, particularly on Accounting and Reporting, and in 2004 released Issue Management Tool: Strategic challenges for business in the use of corporate responsibility codes, standards, and frameworks. This document offers general information and a perspective from a business association/think-tank on a few key codes, standards and frameworks relevant to the sustainability agenda.
In 2009, the International Finance Corporation and the UN Global Compact released a report, Corporate Governance - the Foundation for Corporate Citizenship and Sustainable Business, linking the environmental, social and governance responsibilities of a company to its financial performance and long-term sustainability.
Most codes are largely voluntary. An issue raised in the U.S. since the 2005 Disney decision is the degree to which companies manage their governance responsibilities; in other words, do they merely try to supersede the legal threshold, or should they create governance guidelines that ascend to the level of best practice. For example, the guidelines issued by associations of directors, corporate managers and individual companies tend to be wholly voluntary but such documents may have a wider effect by prompting other companies to adopt similar practices.
Robert E. Wright argues in Corporation Nation that the governance of early U.S. corporations, of which there were over 20,000 by the Civil War, was superior to that of corporations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because early corporations were run like "republics" replete with numerous "checks and balances" against fraud and usurpation of power of managers or large shareholders.
In the 20th century in the immediate aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 legal scholars such as Adolf Augustus Berle, Edwin Dodd, and Gardiner C. Means pondered on the changing role of the modern corporation in society. From the Chicago school of economics, Ronald Coase introduced the notion of transaction costs into the understanding of why firms are founded and how they continue to behave.
US expansion after World War II through the emergence of multinational corporations saw the establishment of the managerial class. Studying and writing about the new class were several Harvard Business School management professors: Myles Mace (entrepreneurship), Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (business history), Jay Lorsch (organizational behavior) and Elizabeth MacIver (organizational behavior). According to Lorsch and MacIver "many large corporations have dominant control over business affairs without sufficient accountability or monitoring by their board of directors."
In the first half of the 1990s, the issue of corporate governance in the U.S. received considerable press attention due to the wave of CEO dismissals (e.g.: IBM, Kodak, Honeywell) by their boards. The California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) led a wave of institutional shareholder activism (something only very rarely seen before), as a way of ensuring that corporate value would not be destroyed by the now traditionally cozy relationships between the CEO and the board of directors (e.g., by the unrestrained issuance of stock options, not infrequently back dated).
In the early 2000s, the massive bankruptcies (and criminal malfeasance) of Enron and Worldcom, as well as lesser corporate scandals, such as Adelphia Communications, AOL, Arthur Andersen, Global Crossing, Tyco, led to increased political interest in corporate governance. This is reflected in the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Other triggers for continued interest in the corporate governance of organizations included the financial crisis of 2008/9 and the level of CEO pay 
In 1997, the East Asian Financial Crisis severely affected the economies of Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines through the exit of foreign capital after property assets collapsed. The lack of corporate governance mechanisms in these countries highlighted the weaknesses of the institutions in their economies.
The Tehran Stock Exchange introduced a corporate governance code in 2007 that reformed "board compensation polices, improved internal and external audits, ownership concentration and risk management. However, the code limits the directors’ independence and provides no guidance on external control, shareholder rights protection, and the role of stakeholder rights." A 2013 study found that most of the companies are not in an appropriate situation regarding accounting standards and that managers in most companies conceal their real performance implying little transparency and trustworthiness regarding operational information published by them. Examination of 110 companies' performance found that companies with better corporate governance had better performance.
Key parties involved in corporate governance include stakeholders such as the board of directors, management and shareholders. External stakeholders such as creditors, auditors, customers, suppliers, government agencies, and the community at large also exert influence. The agency view of the corporation posits that the shareholder forgoes decision rights (control) and entrusts the manager to act in the shareholders' best (joint) interests. Partly as a result of this separation between the two investors and managers, corporate governance mechanisms include a system of controls intended to help align managers' incentives with those of shareholders. Agency concerns (risk) are necessarily lower for a controlling shareholder.
Former Chairman of the Board of General Motors John G. Smale wrote in 1995: "The board is responsible for the successful perpetuation of the corporation. That responsibility cannot be relegated to management." A board of directors is expected to play a key role in corporate governance. The board has responsibility for: CEO selection and succession; providing feedback to management on the organization's strategy; compensating senior executives; monitoring financial health, performance and risk; and ensuring accountability of the organization to its investors and authorities. Boards typically have several committees (e.g., Compensation, Nominating and Audit) to perform their work.
The OECD Principles of Corporate Governance (2004) describe the responsibilities of the board; some of these are summarized below:
All parties to corporate governance have an interest, whether direct or indirect, in the financial performance of the corporation. Directors, workers and management receive salaries, benefits and reputation, while investors expect to receive financial returns. For lenders, it is specified interest payments, while returns to equity investors arise from dividend distributions or capital gains on their stock. Customers are concerned with the certainty of the provision of goods and services of an appropriate quality; suppliers are concerned with compensation for their goods or services, and possible continued trading relationships. These parties provide value to the corporation in the form of financial, physical, human and other forms of capital. Many parties may also be concerned with corporate social performance.
A key factor in a party's decision to participate in or engage with a corporation is their confidence that the corporation will deliver the party's expected outcomes. When categories of parties (stakeholders) do not have sufficient confidence that a corporation is being controlled and directed in a manner consistent with their desired outcomes, they are less likely to engage with the corporation. When this becomes an endemic system feature, the loss of confidence and participation in markets may affect many other stakeholders, and increases the likelihood of political action. There is substantial interest in how external systems and institutions, including markets, influence corporate governance.
Control and ownership structure refers to the types and composition of shareholders in a corporation. In some countries such as most of Continental Europe, ownership is not necessarily equivalent to control due to the existence of e.g. dual-class shares, ownership pyramids, voting coalitions, proxy votes and clauses in the articles of association that confer additional voting rights to long-term shareholders. Ownership is typically defined as the ownership of cash flow rights whereas control refers to ownership of control or voting rights. Researchers often "measure" control and ownership structures by using some observable measures of control and ownership concentration or the extent of inside control and ownership. Some features or types of control and ownership structure involving corporate groups include pyramids, cross-shareholdings, rings, and webs. German "concerns" (Konzern) are legally recognized corporate groups with complex structures. Japanese keiretsu (系列) and South Korean chaebol (which tend to be family-controlled) are corporate groups which consist of complex interlocking business relationships and shareholdings. Cross-shareholding are an essential feature of keiretsu and chaebol groups . Corporate engagement with shareholders and other stakeholders can differ substantially across different control and ownership structures.
Family interests dominate ownership and control structures of some corporations, and it has been suggested the oversight of family controlled corporation is superior to that of corporations "controlled" by institutional investors (or with such diverse share ownership that they are controlled by management). A recent study by Credit Suisse found that companies in which "founding families retain a stake of more than 10% of the company's capital enjoyed a superior performance over their respective sectorial peers." Since 1996, this superior performance amounts to 8% per year. Forget the celebrity CEO. "Look beyond Six Sigma and the latest technology fad. One of the biggest strategic advantages a company can have is blood ties," according to a Business Week study
The significance of institutional investors varies substantially across countries. In developed Anglo-American countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, U.K., U.S.), institutional investors dominate the market for stocks in larger corporations. While the majority of the shares in the Japanese market are held by financial companies and industrial corporations, these are not institutional investors if their holdings are largely with-on group.
The largest pools of invested money (such as the mutual fund 'Vanguard 500', or the largest investment management firm for corporations, State Street Corp.) are designed to maximize the benefits of diversified investment by investing in a very large number of different corporations with sufficient liquidity. The idea is this strategy will largely eliminate individual firm financial or other risk and. A consequence of this approach is that these investors have relatively little interest in the governance of a particular corporation. It is often assumed that, if institutional investors pressing for will likely be costly because of "golden handshakes" or the effort required, they will simply sell out their interest.
Corporate governance mechanisms and controls are designed to reduce the inefficiencies that arise from moral hazard and adverse selection. There are both internal monitoring systems and external monitoring systems. Internal monitoring can be done, for example, by one (or a few) large shareholder(s) in the case of privately held companies or a firm belonging to a business group. Furthermore, the various board mechanisms provide for internal monitoring. External monitoring of managers' behavior, occurs when an independent third party (e.g. the external auditor) attests the accuracy of information provided by management to investors. Stock analysts and debt holders may also conduct such external monitoring. An ideal monitoring and control system should regulate both motivation and ability, while providing incentive alignment toward corporate goals and objectives. Care should be taken that incentives are not so strong that some individuals are tempted to cross lines of ethical behavior, for example by manipulating revenue and profit figures to drive the share price of the company up.
Internal corporate governance controls monitor activities and then take corrective action to accomplish organisational goals. Examples include:
In publicly traded U.S. corporations, boards of directors are largely chosen by the President/CEO and the President/CEO often takes the Chair of the Board position for him/herself (which makes it much more difficult for the institutional owners to "fire" him/her). The practice of the CEO also being the Chair of the Board is fairly common in large American corporations.
While this practice is common in the U.S., it is relatively rare elsewhere. In the U.K., successive codes of best practice have recommended against duality.
External corporate governance controls encompass the controls external stakeholders exercise over the organization. Examples include:
The board of directors has primary responsibility for the corporation's internal and external financial reporting functions. The Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer are crucial participants and boards usually have a high degree of reliance on them for the integrity and supply of accounting information. They oversee the internal accounting systems, and are dependent on the corporation's accountants and internal auditors.
Current accounting rules under International Accounting Standards and U.S. GAAP allow managers some choice in determining the methods of measurement and criteria for recognition of various financial reporting elements. The potential exercise of this choice to improve apparent performance increases the information risk for users. Financial reporting fraud, including non-disclosure and deliberate falsification of values also contributes to users' information risk. To reduce this risk and to enhance the perceived integrity of financial reports, corporation financial reports must be audited by an independent external auditor who issues a report that accompanies the financial statements.
One area of concern is whether the auditing firm acts as both the independent auditor and management consultant to the firm they are auditing. This may result in a conflict of interest which places the integrity of financial reports in doubt due to client pressure to appease management. The power of the corporate client to initiate and terminate management consulting services and, more fundamentally, to select and dismiss accounting firms contradicts the concept of an independent auditor. Changes enacted in the United States in the form of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (following numerous corporate scandals, culminating with the Enron scandal) prohibit accounting firms from providing both auditing and management consulting services. Similar provisions are in place under clause 49 of Standard Listing Agreement in India.
Increasing attention and regulation (as under the Swiss referendum "against corporate Rip-offs" of 2013) has been brought to executive pay levels since the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Research on the relationship between firm performance and executive compensation does not identify consistent and significant relationships between executives' remuneration and firm performance. Not all firms experience the same levels of agency conflict, and external and internal monitoring devices may be more effective for some than for others. Some researchers have found that the largest CEO performance incentives came from ownership of the firm's shares, while other researchers found that the relationship between share ownership and firm performance was dependent on the level of ownership. The results suggest that increases in ownership above 20% cause management to become more entrenched, and less interested in the welfare of their shareholders.
Some argue that firm performance is positively associated with share option plans and that these plans direct managers' energies and extend their decision horizons toward the long-term, rather than the short-term, performance of the company. However, that point of view came under substantial criticism circa in the wake of various security scandals including mutual fund timing episodes and, in particular, the backdating of option grants as documented by University of Iowa academic Erik Lie and reported by James Blander and Charles Forelle of the Wall Street Journal.
Even before the negative influence on public opinion caused by the 2006 backdating scandal, use of options faced various criticisms. A particularly forceful and long running argument concerned the interaction of executive options with corporate stock repurchase programs. Numerous authorities (including U.S. Federal Reserve Board economist Weisbenner) determined options may be employed in concert with stock buybacks in a manner contrary to shareholder interests. These authors argued that, in part, corporate stock buybacks for U.S. Standard & Poors 500 companies surged to a $500 billion annual rate in late 2006 because of the impact of options. A compendium of academic works on the option/buyback issue is included in the study Scandal by author M. Gumport issued in 2006.
A combination of accounting changes and governance issues led options to become a less popular means of remuneration as 2006 progressed, and various alternative implementations of buybacks surfaced to challenge the dominance of "open market" cash buybacks as the preferred means of implementing a share repurchase plan.
Shareholders elect a board of directors, who in turn hire a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to lead management. The primary responsibility of the board relates to the selection and retention of the CEO. However, in many U.S. corporations the CEO and Chairman of the Board roles are held by the same person. This creates an inherent conflict of interest between management and the board.
Critics of combined roles argue the two roles should be separated to avoid the conflict of interest and more easily enable a poorly performing CEO to be replaced. Warren Buffett wrote in 2014: "In my service on the boards of nineteen public companies, however, I’ve seen how hard it is to replace a mediocre CEO if that person is also Chairman. (The deed usually gets done, but almost always very late.)"
Advocates argue that empirical studies do not indicate that separation of the roles improves stock market performance and that it should be up to shareholders to determine what corporate governance model is appropriate for the firm.
In 2004, 73.4% of U.S. companies had combined roles; this fell to 57.2% by May 2012. Many U.S. companies with combined roles have appointed a "Lead Director" to improve independence of the board from management. German and UK companies have generally split the roles in nearly 100% of listed companies. Empirical evidence does not indicate one model is superior to the other in terms of performance. However, one study indicated that poorly performing firms tend to remove separate CEO's more frequently than when the CEO/Chair roles are combined.
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