The Dividend Problem


Everyone knows that shareholders receive dividends because they are entitled to the residual returns of a public corporation. Everyone is wrong.

Using the familiar economic model of the firm, I show that shareholders have no special claim on corporate economic returns. No one has an entitlement to rents in a capitalist system. Shareholders, the purely fungible providers of a purely fungible commodity and a sunk cost, are particularly unlikely to be able to command a share of economic profits or, indeed, any return at all.

Shareholders do win much of the corporate surplus. But this is not by market right or moral entitlement. Rather, it is the result of a (possibly temporary) ideological victory in a political battle over economic rents. Surprisingly, since corporate law often assumes a conflict between shareholders and top management, shareholder gains flow from the usefulness of the share-centered ideologies in justifying a tremendous shift of corporate wealth from employees to top managers. Burgeoning CEO salaries are part of the same phenomenon as high shareholder returns, not in opposition to it.

Taking the political nature of the corporation seriously will lead to a series of new and important questions. Are current distributions of corporate wealth justifiable, or should corporate governance treat lower-paid employees as citizens instead of subjects? Why should only one side in a political conflict have the vote, and why per dollar instead of per person? Given undemocratic internal corporate politics, are current levels of deference to corporate autonomy justifiable?


Business Organizations Law | Law and Economics

Date of this Version

March 2006