The default rules of corporate law make shareholders’ control rights a function of their voting power. Whether a director is elected or a merger is approved depends on how shareholders vote. Yet, in private corporations shareholders routinely alter their rights by contract. This phenomenon of shareholder agreements—contracts among the owners of a firm— has received far less attention than it deserves, mainly because detailed data about the actual contents of shareholder agreements has been lacking. Private companies disclose little, and shareholder agreements are thought to play a trivial or nonexistent role in public companies.
I show that this is false—fifteen percent of corporations that went public in recent years did so subject to a shareholder agreement. With this dataset in hand, I show the dramatic extent to which these shareholders redefine their control rights by contract. Shareholders restrict the sale of shares and waive aspects of the duty of loyalty. Above all, however, shareholders use their agreements to bargain with each other over votes for directors, and to bargain with the corporation itself for other control rights, such as vetoes over major corporate actions. In essence, while statutory corporate law makes control rights a function of voting power, shareholder agreements make control rights a function of contract instead, separating voting and control.
Studying this phenomenon raises new questions of doctrine, theory, and empirics that go to foundational issues in corporate law. Is it desirable to let shareholders redesign corporate control rights wholesale by contract? What law should govern their contracts when they do so? I provide a novel account of shareholder agreements’ use in public firms, before offering preliminary views on their welfare effects, implications for corporate theory, and on their governing law, which remains strikingly underdeveloped.