Nearly two decades ago, Michael Jensen was criticized by many people, including many of his academic colleagues, for his thought-provoking article, The Eclipse of the Public Corporation, published in Harvard Business Review. People dismissed him when the LBO boom of the 1980s faded. They laughed when he wrote, "By the turn of the century, the primacy of public stock ownership in the United States may have all but disappeared." Well, in January 2000, with the dot com bubble raging, Jensen's far-reaching prognostications did seem completely off base. What about today? The dramatic expansion of private equity has validated Jensen's predictions from 18 years ago. Private equity has expanded rapidly, in part because it does solve some of the governance problems posed by the large publicly traded corporation, with its separation of ownership and control.
It's worth revisiting Jensen's arguments for a moment. At the time, Jensen argued that the public corporation's "decline is real, enduring, and highly productive." He explained the benefits of private equity and leveraged buyouts using agency theory, of which he was one of the founding fathers. Jensen wrote, "By solving the central weakness of the public corporation - the conflict between owners and managers over the control and use of corporate resources - these new organizations are making remarkable gains in operating efficiency, employee productivity, and shareholder value."
I can recall being one of Michael Jensen's students back in the early 1990s, long before I became his colleague on the HBS faculty. His class was the most popular elective at HBS back then. Not everyone agreed with him, but he offered thought-provoking theories, and he sparked some wonderful debates. This article, in particular, resonated with me and many of my peers back then, and it sure does seem quite prescient looking back today.