Revisiting Colin Mayer’s “Firm Commitment”

I first read Firm Commitment[1] when it was first published in 2013 and found the opening chapters – which include a well-constructed critique of the shareholder value paradigm – offered the tantalising prospect that Colin Mayer might be about to expound a theory similar to the Escondido Framework description of the firm occupying a solution space bounded by market interfaces. Unable to recall where his diagnosis of the failings of the modern firm and his prescription for addressing them departed from my own, I recently revisited his book.

Returning to Firm Commitment, I rejoiced again at much of the description in the early chapters of the shortcomings in the classical model of the firm, in which share ownership is linked to provision of investment capital and the assumption of risk. In common with the Escondido Framework, he describes the company as an structure independent of ownership and sees one of its purposes being long term survival, delivering value to society at large. He comes close on occasion to describing some of the other risk bearing parties, the market related transactional considerations and the interests of different stakeholders. In particular, he bemoans the failure of corporations to engage with wider social and environmental concerns.

But rather than continuing down the path developed in the Escondido Framework he focuses on the shareholder and sees the failure of the modern corporation lying in the lack of commitment of shareholders to the company. His prescription is reform to tie in shareholders to the company, to increase their commitment to the firm – hence the book’s title. In contrast to our model, Mayer remains committed to a view that shareholders “own” the company, rather than owning pieces of paper that entitle them a share in the profits of the company and which have a value reflecting a market perspective on the discounted value of the expected future cash flows. What he is unable to explain is how tying in shareholders in this way will improve the quality of decision taking by managers, enhance their accountability, or contain their ability to extract economic rent in the form of salaries, bonuses and equity incentives.

[1] Firm Commitment, Colin Mayer, Oxford University Press 2013