Stakeholder capitalism is a system in which corporations are oriented to serve the interests of all their stakeholders. Among the key stakeholders are customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders and local communities. Under this system, a company's purpose is to create long-term value and not to maximize profits and enhance shareholder value at the cost of other stakeholder groups.

Supporters of stakeholder capitalism believe that serving the interests of all stakeholders, as opposed to only shareholders, is essential to the long-term success and health of any business. Notably, they make the case for stakeholder capitalism being a sensible business decision in addition to being an ethical choice.

Key Takeaways

  • Corporations should serve the interests of all their stakeholders
  • Focus is on long-term value creation, not merely enhancing shareholder value
  • Was the norm in the U.S. until Milton Friedman argued that corporate executives are only beholden to owners (shareholders)
  • Supporters believe it should replace shareholder primacy

The History of Stakeholder vs. Shareholder Capitalism in the U.S.

The debate about the role and responsibilities of businesses in society has produced various theories throughout history. Proponents of stakeholder capitalism, like economist Joseph Stiglitz, believe it should replace shareholder primacy as a principle of corporate governance. Shareholder primacy, or the idea that a corporation is only responsible for increasing shareholder value, was made popular by Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman in the 1970s. He argued that executives work for the owners (shareholders) and the only social responsibility of a business is "to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud." 

His writings on the theory were so influential they helped shape corporate governance laws in the U.S. This period saw executive and employee stock-based compensation explode in the country as the interests of top executives were being aligned with shareholders, who were increasingly perceived as being the most important stakeholders. There was also a rise in hostile takeovers, with corporate raiders neglecting the well-being of non-investor stakeholders. In 1997, the association Business Roundtable began endorsing principles of shareholder primacy.

The tide is shifting, however, and companies and business leaders are now calling for a return to stakeholder capitalism, which is currently prevalent in Europe and was formerly the norm, even in the U.S.

Despite the comparisons to shareholder-focused companies, investors themselves may lead the charge to institute stakeholder capitalism. Investors can try to use their shares in a company to influence its behavior, encouraging it to be more heedful of the welfare of all stakeholders. Known as shareholder advocacy, this is done through dialogue or shareholder resolutions. Alternatively, investors use negative screening to avoid companies that harm other stakeholders, which is known as socially responsible investing (SRI), or they practice impact investing by only buying shares in companies whose strategies have a positive impact on society or the environment.

Stakeholder Capitalism at the 2019 Business Roundtable

In August 2019, Business Roundtable released a new "Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation" which said all its member companies share a fundamental commitment to all their stakeholders. “The American dream is alive, but fraying,” said Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and chairman of Business Roundtable, in a statement. “Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.”

Billionaire philanthropist and Salesforce.com Inc. (CRM) co-founder Marc Benioff attributes his company's impressive financial returns to its policy of valuing all stakeholders equally:

"Capitalism, as we know, it is dead. We’re going to see a new kind of capitalism—and it won't be the Milton Friedman capitalism, that is just about making money. The new capitalism is that businesses are here to serve their shareholders, but also their stakeholders — employees, customers, public schools, homeless and the planet." — Marc Benioff, Chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce

Stakeholder Capitalism at Davos 2020

The World Economic Forum's 50th Annual Meeting in Davos will focus on stakeholder capitalism with the theme "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World." One of the forum's aims will be to help corporations define new methods for updating their key performance indicators to account for the shift in stated goals.

"People are revolting against the economic ‘elites’ they believe have betrayed them, and our efforts to keep global warming limited to 1.5°C are falling dangerously short,” said Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman at the World Economic Forum.

What Does It Look Like in Practice?

Stakeholder capitalism can either be an ideology adopted by leaders at individual companies or a model enforced by governments through laws and regulations. Some of the ways companies can independently demonstrate a commitment to stakeholder capitalism:

  • Paying fair wages
  • Reducing the CEO-worker pay ratio
  • Ensuring safety in the workplace
  • Lobbying for higher tax rates and avoiding tax loopholes
  • Providing good customer service
  • Engaging in honest marketing practices
  • Investing in local communities
  • Preventing environmental damage

There is no defined set of expectations of companies that make such a commitment. However, JUST Capital, an independent research nonprofit, surveyed 4,000 Americans on what issues they believe U.S. companies should prioritize most. The top priorities of corporations, according to the respondents, should be paying a fair wage, acting ethically at the leadership level, paying a living wage, providing benefits and work-life balance, providing equal opportunity and making beneficial products.

According to a Stanford University study based on a survey of over 200 CEOs and CFOs of companies in the S&P 1500 Index, most executives believe they are already doing a satisfactory job of incorporating stakeholder concerns into their corporate planning and not receiving sufficient recognition. Only 50% believe their stakeholders understand what the company does to meet their needs. This figure is 33% and 10% when the question is about institutional investors and the media, respectively.

Criticism

Critics of stakeholder capitalism tend to believe corporate leaders are self-serving and would enrich themselves if allowed to control the purpose and role of companies. An emphasis on shareholders, it is believed, keeps executives adequately restricted and focused on increasing profits. This is said to ensure companies do not become stagnant or uncompetitive. Critics also argue that shareholder capitalism is the reason public companies in the U.S. have immense value versus public companies in other regions like Europe where stakeholder theory is more popular.