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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.

BREAKING DOWN 'Agency Problem'

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. Agents are commonly engaged by principals due to different skill levels, different employment positions or restrictions on time and access. For example, a principal will hire a plumber — the agent — to fix plumbing issues. Although the plumber‘s best interest is to collect as much income as he can, he is given the responsibility to perform in whatever situation results in the most benefit to the principal.

The agency problem arises due to an issue with incentives and the presence of discretion in task completion. 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, 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.

Agency problems are common in fiduciary relationships, such as between trustees and beneficiaries; board members and shareholders; and lawyers and clients. These relationships can be stringent in a legal sense, as is the case in the relationship between lawyers and their clients due to the U.S. Supreme Court's assertion that an attorney must act in complete fairness, loyalty and fidelity to their clients.

Minimizing Risks Associated with the Agency Problem

Agency costs are a type of internal cost that a principal may incur as a result of the agency problem. They include the costs of any inefficiencies that may arise from employing an agent to take on a task, along with the costs associated with managing the principal-agent relationship and resolving differing priorities.

While it is not possible to eliminate the agency problem, principals can take steps to minimize the risk of agency costs. Principle-agent relationships can be regulated, and often are, by contracts, or laws in the case of fiduciary settings. The Fiduciary Rule is an example of an attempt to regulate the arising agency problem in the relationship between financial advisors and their clients.

The agency problem may also be minimized by incentivizing an agent to act in better accordance with the principal's best interests. For example, a 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 or the threat of takeovers. Principals can also alter the structure of an agent's compensation. If, for example, an agent is paid not on an hourly basis but by completion of a project, there is less incentive to not act in the principal’s best interest. In addition, performance feedback and independent evaluations hold the agent accountable for their decisions.

Historical Example of the 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.

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