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Share Holder Wealth Maximization Vis a Vis Social Responsibility Essay


Limited information is found on how economic enterprises can incorporate business ethics and social responsibility as a means through which their primary objective of shareholder wealth maximization is achieved (Hawley 1991, p. 714).

This lack of ethical considerations seems to be not only confined within the academic sphere but there is evidence of it taking a toll in the realm of corporate practice in the economy. Enterprises have ignored the ethical concerns in strategizing on how they will achieve their goal of wealth maximization.

Through their total disregard of ethical issues, corporates are assuming that the mere pursuit of the wealth maximization goal meets the social responsibilities that could possibly be expected from any entity. However, there has been limited research and analysis of the ethical foundations and the perceived implications of the goal of shareholder wealth maximization.

This paper seeks to analyze to what extent the corporate world incorporates business ethics and social responsibility in pursuing their primary objective of maximizing the shareholders’ wealth and how this pays back in terms of increased returns to the shareholders.

It highlights the main differences between the goal of profit maximization and that of wealth maximization and the role played by market forces in the pricing of stocks within the shareholder wealth maximization paradigm. It argues that empirical and theoretical evidence on this subject will most usually lead to overlapping interpretations (Smith 2003, p. 58).

Share Holder Wealth Maximization

Since Milton Friedman’s largely criticized position that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”, the ethical aspect in the maximization of shareholder wealth has been given a wide consideration. In order to build a logical analysis of this notion, it is of paramount that we understand the crucial link between the two distinct goals of a corporation, i.e. Wealth maximization and profit maximization.

While the two may share some similarities, they are also characterized by various inconsistencies as analysed by Solomon in his work, (Solomon 1963, p. 2). For instance, profit maximization as an objective best suits a traditional macroeconomic market which is characterized by minimal uncertainties; the entrepreneur is the main decision-maker, the shareholding is fixed and determines within a given period.

This kind of business structure is especially of great utility in analyzing the variables, i.e. Prices of raw materials and end products, production level etc., which occupies a central position for any corporate whole. According to Winch (1971, p. 14), profit maximization goes hand in hand with the ethical goal of the utilitarian mode of resource allocation.

Contrary to the microeconomic world, proper allocation of resources is very integral to a corporate entity in regard to its financial dealings (Beurden & Gossling 2008, p. 412). This difference in terms of the central focus of each establishes new fundamentals which the profit maximization paradigm declines to involve itself with.

For example, this whole new structure separates the entity’s decision making from its ownership and places it in the hands of a separate and distinct management body. As this happens, uncertainties on the future earning capability of the firm sets-in when capital stock features in as a variable to be determined too.

The goal of wealth maximization is developed by maximally utilizing the utility maximization strategy, i.e. management, being agents of the shareholders are required to maximize the projected utility of the shareholders’ wealth.

If for instance wealth is the main argument in the utility of the shareholder, maximizing the anticipated utility of the wealth of the shareholder reduces the core objective of the entity as maximization of shareholder wealth.

To this end, the ethical concept of a corporate finance adopts the same approach as that of microeconomics as use of utility maximization incorporates characteristics of the utilitarian ethic (Shaw 2009, p. 569).

Conversely, the introduction of an element of the future, uncertainty, separated decision making structure creates complications in utilitarian allocation of resources. When even this basic objective cannot be achieved, it only holds strong for the argument that wealth maximization is incapable of providing a feasible ethical foundation for a corporate entity.

Nevertheless, some essential features of wealth maximization are not included in the utilitarian resource allocation framework. For instance, the wealth of the shareholder is directly linked to the price of capital stock and in extension, the mode through which marketing for ownership claims contains elements of ethical concerns by the entity (Wilcke 2004, p. 198).

Working on the assumption that the main objective of an entity is wealth maximization, various issues can be identified. For instance, since wealth maximization is completely dependent on market forces in order to create a strong value for the ownership of the firm, a question arises whether these market forces bring about stock prices incorporating the value of the social responsibility of the firm.

To answer this question, we need to determine to what extent security prices reflects information on a firm’s ethical concern. Unfortunately, if this debate continues, it will take us to the more irresolvable question of what the world perceives as constituting proper ethical behaviour.

It even gets more complex when management, as the agents of shareholders, gets into the picture and we are faced with the question of whether shareholders would count management actions as constituting acceptable ethical behaviour (Cosans 2009, p. 396).

Determining Share Prices

Determination of security prices is a fundamental concern of corporate finance. Through efficient market hypothesis, the price of securities is a reflection of the information available to investors when making investment decisions.

Through the market hypothesis, we can attempt to analyze the ethical impacts of the wealth maximization goal. For example, if wealth maximization is to meet a specified ethical standard, the price of securities should incorporate information containing ethical elements.

In order to succeed in this, we need to first set an ethical standard. Then empirical tests will be carried out based on the changes in prices of securities and determine the impact of ethical issues on the market prices.

The analysis will be made based on the assumption the main goal of the management is maximization of shareholder’s wealth (Husted & Salazar 2006, p. 83). The hypothesis could also test on separate aspects, for example when a certain firm has been known to exhibit differing degrees of adherent to ethical issues.

But this latter hypothesis will present various challenges. For example, there may be a situation whereby an organization allows management to engage in both socially acceptable behaviour as well as unethical acts which are perceived to result into positive effects.

This may occur where the returns of the illegal acts are significant as compared to the costs to be suffered when such acts come to light such as litigation costs, fines and other penalties, reduced goodwill, etc. there could also be other mitigating factors such as the ability to keep the illegal activities as well hidden company secrets or by putting up strategies for timely damage control when such activities come to light.

Besides, even when using efficient market hypothesis, it is hard to tell whether if an alternative course of action was taken it would have resulted in a different price change pattern. For example, it would be difficult to determine whether the unethical behaviour was a reflection of the ethical failures of the wealth maximization goal or that management diverted from practices consistent with wealth maximization objectives.

This debate is premised on the idea that the efficient market hypothesis, by its very nature is characterized by joint hypothesis, i.e. price determination models are usually implied. Such an assumed model of price determination if it dictates that we assess a particular ethical issue, then a null hypothesis of the efficient market hypothesis requires that unethical act would violate the primary goal of wealth maximization.

According to Treynor (1981, p. 7), management should address financial demands of the different factions within the organization if it is to emerge as a successful entity. These factions include customers, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders.

The wealth maximization goal requires that in pursuing its objectives, a corporation should take into consideration the interests of all the stakeholders of the organization, not just the shareholders. Thus we can use this argument to say that wealth maximization encourages the adoption of socially responsible business behaviour.

The crucial connection between wealth maximization and the efficient market hypothesis can be well illustrated using the classical corporate theory. This theory proposes that a firm would most likely invest in a project projecting positive net present value.

The variables used to calculate the projected cash flows is based on the performance of the firm which has been theorized by the management where it may have or may have not incorporated ethical behaviour.

Here, the price of securities will be based on the management’s assessment of the market. Including social responsibility and ethical behaviour in calculating the projected cash flows will be in line with wealth maximization where such considerations are reflected on the prices of securities.

Empirical Considerations

As we have noted above, empirical evidence does not help us determine whether pursuing wealth maximization will amount to a socially responsible and ethical managerial behaviour.

It requires us to define what constitutes proper ethical behaviour and since ethical issues are complex in themselves, it will create conflicting opinions on the subject. Nevertheless, we can draw from the few theoretical and empirical studies relating to the impact of socially responsible behaviour on the price of stocks.

In this light, it has been argued that price fixing has the potential to increase new entrants into the market industry leading to higher competition and thus diminishing returns (Waldman 1988, p. 78). Therefore, if the wealth maximization is the main objective, price-fixing is aimed at offsetting losses in profit by offering a lower discount rate facilitated by a reduced business risk leading to a higher net profit margin.

Yet, if this is not the end result, then price fixing will ultimately have the effect of reducing shareholders’ wealth. Research has shown that disclosing a legal action intended to correct corporate price fixing has resulted in significant negative returns (Skantz et al. 1990, p. 159).

On this basis, while the reduced returns could be the market’s punitive costs for behaving unethically, it could also have arisen from a perceived increased business risk which has nothing to do with ethical issues.

This is further evidence of the difficulties encountered in attempting to use market data to determine whether pursuing wealth maximization leads to ethical outcomes. Since the reduced returns arose because the market became aware of the unethical behaviour and not because of engaging in the actual price fixing, a question arises as to what information was originally included in the prices.

If the original share price were impacted by information on the firm’s engagement in price fixing, then the reduced returns could mean that the entity needs to adopt a risky, highly competitive, reduced profit margin business policy.

Here, the anticipated litigation costs arising from court cases will be expected to have been discounted into the stock prices. However, if price fixing was done in secrecy, then news on a legal action would lead to price adjustment to reflect the resulting costs of unethical act, which would include the lost goodwill. For this, the costs that would be involved in adopting a more competitive strategy are already reflected in the price.

The probability of reaching different conclusions using the same piece of evidence has been found in other areas of our present concern. There is evidence that in making investment decisions, investors do indeed rely on the information available on social responsibility (Patten 1990, p. 581).

Other sources reveal superior investment performance of previously divested portfolios, though these results could have resulted from a combination of factors as opposed to mere social concerns. This may be explained in a number of ways.

For example, following the net profit value method, the corporate financial theory holds that slight changes in either the projected net cash flows or the perceived discount rate impacts on the returns of capital stocks. Therefore, the grand performance of the divested funds may have resulted from a continuing increased risk or a weakening expected corporate performance as opposed to any ethical issues concerned.

This argument can also be applied to the impact of ethical behaviour on investment in the nuclear industry. It has been found that markets place a lower value on nuclear firms at 20% as compared to other industries (Fuller at al. 1990, p. 124).

On careful consideration, the results reveal that perceived risk changes could have contributed to the valuations observed. Thus this leaves us with the option that social responsibility concerns could have had a positive effect on the whole affair.

As witnessed above, untangling the effect of a certain activity on the prices of stock has its own complexities. Besides, we have to give room for the possible assumption that management may not be pursuing wealth maximization.

There is significant evidence that often times, management has been known to unethically chase their own selfish ends especially if they are in conflict with shareholder wealth maximization (Findlay & Whitmore 1974, p. 28).

This will give rise to additional agency costs which the shareholders will incur to monitor management activity and in effect, will lead to reduced returns. When agency costs are involved the equation becomes even more complicated as we need to now to assess the effect of agency costs on the security prices.

Evidence of price fixing can be used to explain how agency costs bring-out a whole new interpretation of the empirical data. For example, working on the assumption that there is no diverging information, the stock market values its own stocks from the assumption that wealth maximization is the main objective of the firm.

On this basis, announcement of a legal action could produce reduced returns because of the additional costs incurred in monitoring the activities of the management and not because of the unethical behaviour.

Therefore, without a way of determining what kind of information was included in the original share price, major difficulties arise in trying to assess whether a certain pricing activity was impacted on by social responsibility behaviour. This raises the requirement for exercise of caution in interpreting the results of any given Empirical Study.

The effect of agency costs may also help in the analysis of study results obtained for other perceived unethical activities, more so in the area of mergers and acquisition whereby there are insider dealings by the management. Of particular relevance is the case of hostile takeovers.

Drawing from debates on what constitutes ethical behaviour (Jones & Hunt 1991, 839), we can base our argument on the assumption that hostile takeovers are unethical. As such, it would appear that, ethical behaviour is being rewarded in this scenario.

This is because, ordinarily, the returns of the target group increase significantly while those of the hostile bidders become negative to zero following the announcement of the intended takeover, (Franks & Harris 1989, p. 238).

Further, due to the existence of agency costs, the use of ‘poison pills’ or ‘shark repellants’ by target management will most probably result in negative returns on the part of the target shareholders (Meulbroek et al. 1990, p. 1113).

So do these results support the argument that ethical considerations on hostile takeovers are evidenced in stock prices? Unfortunately, this evidence raises even more questions rather than answering them.

For instance, given the potentially negative returns suffered by bidding shareholders, it would not be appropriate to say that the management bidders are pursuing wealth maximization for their shareholders, thus increasing the likelihood of incurring agency costs.

On the other hand, it is likely that the bidding management only pays high prices to the target group innocently since the target bid premium payable is in most cases given back through wage concessions. Besides, the ‘unethical’ bidders will most likely be the targets in the future other than the bidders who helped increase the firm value.

Thus from this conflicting evidence, it is only the unethical takeover activities that are properly reflected in the ultimate prices of stock. Undoubtedly, this is as a result of the obvious reduction in firm value that is a unique feature of the anti-takeover strategies.


This paper has argued that wealth maximization as an objective will naturally adopt the ethical expectations inherent in its particular niche of operation. The best indicator of management’s performance is the price changes of the entity’s stocks in the capital market.

Though management decisions could incorporate ethical concerns, it is the security market to determine whether these decisions are in accordance with wealth maximization goal through a valuation of stocks. Thus, this raises the question of to what degree is ethical behaviours reflected in the prices of securities?

This question requires a careful study on the implications of unethical behaviour to the ultimate stock prices. But this presents a problem in that there is no established procedure on how to determine what does or does not constitute ethical behaviour, among other difficulties.

For instance, assuming that stock markets rewards certain business ethical behaviour through attractive prices of securities, it does not automatically follow that when one pursues wealth maximization it will result into a socially responsible corporate behaviour.

However, enterprises would most likely choose this path by choosing to believe that as long as actions are geared towards wealth maximization, then they are ethical and, therefore, justifiable. With this, changing management policy may become a big challenge since even reduced securities prices may not be adequate market sanctions.

Thus even if it was determined that managerial decisions need to incorporate ethical considerations, market forces will not be sufficient to induce this. From this we can conclude that pursuing wealth maximization for the shareholders will definitely not result to a socially responsible corporate behaviour.

However, evidence shows that the pursuit of wealth maximization could deter an entity from engaging in illegal activities. For example, a negative pattern of security price changes is noted whenever it is revealed that an entity has been engaging in illegal activities.

Generally, it would appear reasonable to conclude that the stock market presumes that entities try to avoid engaging in illegal activities because of the possible incidental costs that they may suffer from engaging in such activities.


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