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Board Independence Gone Too Far?

Board Independence Gone Too Far? published on

The corporate governance literature has long argued that corporate boards should be comprised of a majority of independent directors. This is the result of a simple agency theory argument: Boards comprised of insiders (i.e., firm employees) will put their own interests ahead of the shareholders’. Moreover, any insider other than the CEO may have incentive to accommodate, rather than challenge, the CEO in the boardroom. Independent directors are assumed not to have such conflicts of interest and therefore to be better monitors of management on behalf of shareholders.

This argument, combined with corporate scandals in the early 2000s, has led to both regulatory requirements and shareholder activist pressure for increased board independence–to the point that many firms now have only one insider on the board, the CEO. That’s well beyond the theoretical justification for increased independence. But is it actually a good thing for the CEO to be “home alone” as the sole insider on the board? Has the push for board independence gone too far?

A forthcoming paper in the Strategic Management Journal by Michelle Zorn, Christine Shropshire, John Martin, James Combs and David Ketchen, titled “Home Alone: The Effect of Lone-Insider Boards on CEO Pay, Financial Misconduct, and Firm Performance,” suggests that such extreme independence is actually a bad thing. The abstract follows:

ABSTRACT

Research summary

Corporate scandals of the previous decade have heightened attention on board independence. Indeed, boards at many large firms are now so independent that the CEO is ‘home alone’ as the lone inside member. We build upon ‘pro-insider’ research within agency theory to explain how the growing trend toward lone-insider boards affects key outcomes and how external governance forces constrain their impact. We find evidence among S&P 1500 firms that having a lone-insider board is associated with (1) excess CEO pay and a larger CEO-top management team pay gap, (2) increased likelihood of financial misconduct, and (3) decreased firm performance, but that stock analysts and institutional investors reduce these negative effects. The findings raise important questions about the efficacy of leaving the CEO ‘home alone.

Managerial summary

Following concerns that insider-dominated boards failed to protect shareholders, there has been a push for greater board independence. This push has been so successful that the CEO is now the only insider on the boards of more than half of S&P 1500 firms. We examine whether lone-insider boards do in fact offer strong governance or whether they enable CEOs to benefit personally. We find that lone-insider boards pay CEOs excessively, pay CEOs a disproportionately large amount relative to other top managers, have more instances of financial misconduct, and have lower performance than boards with more than one insider. Thus, it appears that lone-insider boards do not function as intended and firms should reconsider whether the push towards lone-insider boards is actually in shareholders’ best interests.

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