Do Shareholders Own The Company?

Excellent piece from John Kay,

Shareholders in England have more rights — but even there, the obligation of a company director is to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the members. The company comes first, the benefit to the members follows from its success.

And English shareholders are definitely not owners. The Court of Appeal declared in 1948 that “shareholders are not, in the eyes of the law, part owners of the company”. In 2003, the House of Lords reaffirmed that ruling, in un­equivocal terms.

Ownership is not a simple concept. The classic account of its meaning was given 50 years ago by another legal scholar, Tony Honoré.

Ownership, like friendship, has many characteristics and if a relationship has enough of them we can describe it as ownership.

They have no more right than other customers to the services of the business they “own”. The company’s actions are not their responsibility, and corporate assets cannot be used to satisfy their debts.

Shareholders do not have the right to manage the company in which they hold an interest, and even their right to appoint the people who do is largely theoretical. They are entitled only to such part of the income as the directors declare as dividends, and have no right to the proceeds of the sale of corporate assets — except in the event of the liquidation of the entire company, in which case they will get what is left; not much, as a rule.

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