AS THEY slid down the streets of Davos this week, many executives will have felt a question gnawing in their guts. Who matters most: shareholders or the people? Around the world a revolt seems under way. A growing cohort—perhaps a majority—of citizens want corporations to be cuddlier, invest more at home, pay higher taxes and wages and employ more people, and are voting for politicians who say they will make all that happen. Yet according to law and convention in most rich countries, firms are run in the interest of shareholders, who usually want companies to use every legal means to maximise their profits.
Naive executives fear that they cannot reconcile these two impulses. Should they fire staff, trim costs and expand abroad—and face the wrath of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, the disgust of their children and the risk that they’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes? Or do they bend to popular opinion and allow profits to fall, inviting the danger that, in the run up to their 2018 annual general meeting, a fund manager from, say, Fidelity or Capital will topple them for underperformance?
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