The investing public is a major source of funds for new or expanding operations. As companies have grown, their need for funds has grown, with the consequence that legal ownership of companies has become widely dispersed. For example, in large American corporations, shareholders may run into the hundreds of thousands and even more. Although large blocks of shares may be held by wealthy individuals or institutions, the total amount of stock in these companies is so large that even a very wealthy person is not likely to own more than a small fraction of it.
The chief effect of this stock dispersion has been to give effective control of the companies to their salaried managers. Although each company holds an annual meeting open to all stockholders, who may vote on company policy, these gatherings, in fact, tend to ratify ongoing policy. Even if sharp questions are asked, the presiding officers almost invariably hold enough proxies to override outside proposals. The only real recourse for dissatisfied shareholders is to sell their stock and invest in firms whose policies are more to their liking. (If enough shareholders do this, of course, the price of the stock will fall quite markedly, perhaps impelling changes in management personnel or company policy.) Occasionally, there are «proxy battles,* when attempts are made to persuade a majority of shareholders to vote against a firm's managers (or to secure representation of a minority bloc on the board), but such struggles seldom involve the largest companies. It is in the managers' interest to keep the stockholders happy, for, if the company's shares are regarded as a good buy, then it is easy to raise capital through a new stock issue.
Thus, if a company is performing well in terms of sales and earnings, its executives will have a relatively free hand. If a company gets into trouble, its usual course is to agree to be merged into another incorporated company or to borrow money. In the latter case, the lending institution may insist on a new chief executive of its own choosing. If a company undergoes bankruptcy and receivership, the court may appoint someone to head the operation. But managerial autonomy is the rule. The salaried executives typically have the discretion and authority to decide what products and services they will put on the market, where they will locate plants and offices, how they will deal with employees, and whether and in what directions they will expand their spheres of operation.
The markets that corporations serve reflect the great variety of humanity and human wants; accordingly, firms that serve different markets exhibit great differences in technology, structure, beliefs, and practice. Because the essence of competition and innovation lies in differentiation and change, corporations are in general under degrees of competitive pressure to modify or change their existing offerings and to introduce new products or services.
Similarly, as markets decline or become less profitable, they are under pressure to invent or discover new wants and markets. Resistance to this pressure for change and variety is among the benefits derived from regulated manufacturing, from standardization of machines and tools, and from labour specialization. Every firm has to arrive at a mode of balancing change and stability, a conflict often expressed in distinctions drawn between capital and revenue and long-and short-term operations and strategy. Many corporations have achieved relatively stable product-market relationships, providing further opportunity for growth within particular markets and expansion into new areas. Such relative market control endows corporate executives and officers with considerable discretion over resources and, in turn, with considerable corporate powers. In theory these men and women are hired to manage someone else's property; in practice, however, many management officers have come increasingly to regard the stockholders as simply one of several constituencies to which they must report at periodic intervals through the year.
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