Working Papers

Shareholder Value and Changes in American Industries, 1984-2000


There is now a solid set of results from economic sociologists concerning the spread and implementation of “shareholder value” strategies across publicly held corporations in the United States during the 1980s. Corporations were financially reorganized and used the tactics of selling off unrelated product lines, engaging in mergers with firms in similar industries, various financial ploys such as stock buybacks, and downsizing their labor forces. This paper explores empirically the connections between mergers, layoffs, de-unionization, computer technology, and subsequent industry profitability. Mergers occurred in sectors where economic conditions were not good in line with shareholder value arguments. Mergers subsequently led to layoffs, consistent with the shareholder value perspective that emphasizes that firms needed to deploy their resources more efficiently as they reorganized. There is also evidence that managers who engaged in mergers invested in computer technology. This technology directly displaced workers through layoffs and was focused on reducing unionized work forces. There is no evidence that mergers or layoffs returned industries to profitability. Only industry growth and computer investment led to increased profits. This suggests that shareholder value ideology was not, by itself, successful in righting the problems of American business.