Gerald F. Davis


During the five decades after Berle and Means published The Modern Corporation and Private Property in 1932, their analysis became the dominant understanding of the American corporation. Social scientists, policymakers, and the broader interested public knew about the separation of ownership and control, the potentially fraught relations between shareholders and managers, and the image of the corporation as a social institution. Berle and Means’s view of an economy dominated by a handful of ever-larger corporations run by an unaccountable managerial class inspired scholarship from sociologists (who were convinced they were right) to financial economists (who wanted to prove them wrong) to lawyers (who contemplated the rights and obligations implied by this system).

A decade into the twenty-first century, however, the public corporation may have reached its twilight in the United States. The “shareholder value” movement of the past generation has succeeded in turning managers into faithful servants of share price maximization, even when this comes at the expense of other considerations. But the shareholder value movement also brought with it a series of changes that have undone many core features of the Berle and Means corporation. Corporate ownership is no longer dispersed; the concentration of assets and employment have been in decline for three decades; and today’s largest corporations bear little resemblance to the companies analyzed by Berle and Means. Moreover, there are far fewer of them than there used to be: the United States had half as many publicly traded domestic corporations in 2009 as it did in 1997. In another generation, the Berle and Means corporation may be just a memory, overtaken by new forms of organization and financing.