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What is the 'Agency Problem'

The agency problem is a conflict of interest inherent in any relationship where one party is expected to act in another's best interests. In corporate finance, the agency problem usually refers to a conflict of interest between a company's management and the company's stockholders. The manager, acting as the agent for the shareholders, or principals, is supposed to make decisions that will maximize shareholder wealth even though it is in the manager’s best interest to maximize his own wealth.

!--break--While it is not possible to eliminate the agency problem completely, the manager can be motivated to act in the shareholders' best interests through incentives such as performance-based compensation, direct influence by shareholders, the threat of firing and the threat of takeovers.

Principal-Agent Relationship

The agency problem does not exist without a relationship between a principal and an agent. In this situation, the agent performs a task on behalf of the principal. This may arise due to different skill levels, different employment positions or restrictions on access.

For example, a principal will hire a plumber — the agent — to fix plumbing issues. Although the plumber‘s best interest is to make as much income as he can, he is given the responsibility to perform in whatever situation results in the most benefit to the principal.

Incentives

The agency problem arises due to an issue with incentives. An agent may be motivated to act in a manner that is not favorable for the principal if the agent is presented with an incentive to act in this way. For example, in the plumbing example earlier, the plumber may make three times as much money by recommending a service the agent does not need. An incentive (three times the pay) is present, and this causes the agency problem to arise.

Reducing and Eliminating the Agency Problem

The agency problem may be minimized by altering the structure of compensation. If the agent is paid not on an hourly basis but by completion of a project, there is less incentive to not act on the principal’s behalf. In addition, performance feedback and independent evaluations hold the agent accountable for their decisions.

Historical Example of Agency Problem

In 2001, energy giant Enron filed for bankruptcy. Accounting reports had been fabricated to make the company appear to have more money than what was actually earned. These falsifications allowed the company’s stock price to increase during a time when executives were selling portions of their stock holdings. Although management had the responsibility to care for the shareholder’s best interests, the agency problem resulted in management acting in their own best interest.

BREAKING DOWN 'Agency Problem'

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