Socially Responsible Firms

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation 2014-08-06


Editor's Note: Allen Ferrell is Greenfield Professor of Securities Law, Harvard Law School. The following post is based on the paper co-authored by Professor Ferrell, Hao Liang and Professor Luc Renneboog.

The desirability of corporations engaging in “socially responsible” behavior has long been hotly debated among economists, lawyers, and business experts. Two general views on corporate social responsibility (CSR) prevail in the literature. The CSR “value-enhancing view” argues that socially responsible firms, such as firms that promote efforts to help protect the environment, promote social equality, improve community relationships, can and often do adhere to value-maximizing corporate governance practices. Indeed, well-governed firms are more likely to be socially responsible. In short, CSR can be consistent with shareholder wealth maximization as well as achieving broader societal goals. The opposite view on CSR begins with Milton Friedman’s (1970) well-known claim that "the only social responsibility of corporations is to make money". Extending this view, several researchers argue that CSR is often simply a manifestation of managerial agency problems inside the firm (Benabou and Tirole, 2010; Cheng, Hong, and Shue, 2013; Masulis and Reza, 2014) and hence problematic (“agency view”). That is to say, socially responsible firms tend to suffer from agency problems which enable managers to engage in CSR that benefits themselves at the expense of shareholders (Krueger, 2013). Furthermore, managers engaged in time-consuming CSR activities may lose focus on their core managerial responsibilities (Jensen, 2001). Overall, according to the agency view, CSR is generally not in the interests of shareholders.

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Allen Ferrell, Harvard Law School,

Date tagged:

08/06/2014, 15:50

Date published:

08/06/2014, 09:02