What is agency conflict?

A conflict arising when people (the agents) entrusted to look after the interests of others (the principals) use the authority or power for their own benefit instead.

It is a pervasive problem and exists in practically every organization whether a business, church, club, or government. Organizations try to solve it by instituting measures such as tough screening processes, incentives for good behavior and punishments for bad behavior, watchdog bodies, and so on but no organization can remedy it completely because the costs of doing so sooner or later outweigh the worth of the results.

It’s also called principal-agent problem or principal-agency problem.

The different mechanisms used by the modern corporate firm to reduce agency conflict.

In finance, there are two primary agency relationships:

  1. Stockholders versus Managers
  • If the manager owns less than 100% of the firm’s common stock, a potential agency problem between managers and stockholders exists.
  • Managers may make decisions that conflict with the best interests of the For example, managers may grow their firms to escape a take on the attempt to increase their own job security. However, a take over may be in the shareholders’ best interest.
  1. Stockholders versus Creditors
  • Creditors decide to loan money to a corporation based on the riskiness of the company, its capital structure, and its potential capital structure. All of these factors will affect the company’s potential cash flow, which is a creditors’ main concern.
  • Stockholders, however, have control of such decisions.
  • Through the managers. Since stockholders will make decisions based on their best interests, a potential agency problem exists between the stockholders and creditors. For example, managers could borrow money to repurchase shares to lower the corporation’s share base and increase shareholder return. Stockholders will benefit; however, creditors will be concerned given the increase in debt that would affect future cash flows.

Motivating Managers to Act in Shareholders’ Best Interests

There are four primary mechanisms for motivating managers to act in stockholders’ best interests:

  1. Managerial Compensation

Managerial compensation should be constructed not only to retain competent managers but to align managers’ interests with those of stockholders as much as possible.

  • This is typically done with an annual salary plus performance bonuses and company
  • Company shares are typically distributed to managers either as:
  • Performance shares, where managers will receive a certain number shares based on the company’s performance
  • Executive stock options, which allow the manager to purchase shares at a future date and price. With the use of stock options, managers are aligned closer to the interest of the stockholders as they themselves will be stockholders.
  1. Direct Intervention by Stockholders

Today, the majority of a company’s stock is owned by large institutional investors, such as mutual funds and pensions. As such, these large institutional stockholders can exert influence on managers and, as a result, the firm’s operations.

  1. Threat of Firing

If stockholders are unhappy with current management, they can encourage the existing board of directors to change the existing management, or stockholders may re-elect a new board of directors that will accomplish the task.

  1. Threat of Takeovers

If a stock price deteriorates because of management’s inability to run the company effectively, competitors or stockholders may take a controlling interest in the company and bring in their own managers.