Compliance and Regulation Law bilingual Dictionnary

Conflict of interest

by Marie-Anne Frison-Roche

Paradoxically, the notion of conflict of interest seems to be at the center of Economic Law only recently in Economic Law, in both Corporate and Public Law. This is due to the philosophy which animates these two branches of Law, very different for each, and which has changed in each.

In fact, and in the first place in Public Law, in the Continental legal systems and especially in French legal tradition, on the side of the State, the one who serves it, by a sort of natural effect,, makes the general interest incarnated by the State pass before its personal interest. There is an opposition of interests, namely the personal interest of this public official who would like to work less and earn more, and the common interest of the population, who would like to pay less taxes and for example benefit trains that always arrive on time and the general interest which would be for example the construction of a European rail network.

But this conflict would be resolved "naturally" because the public official, having "a sense of the general interest" and being animated by the "sense of public service", sacrifices himself to serve the general interes. He stays late at his office and gets the trains on time. This theory of public service was the inheritance of royalty, a system in which the King is at the service of the People, like the aristocracy is in the "service of the King." There could therefore be no conflict of interest, neither in the administration nor in the public enterprises, nor to observe, manage or dissolve. The question does not arise ...

Let us now take the side of the companies, seen by the Company Law. In the classical conception of corporate governance, corporate officers are necessarily shareholders of the company and the profits are mandatorily distributed among all partners: the partnership agreement is a "contract of common interest". Thus, the corporate officer works in the knowledge that the fruits of his efforts will come back to him through the profits he will receive as a partner. Whatever its egoism - and even the agent must be, this mechanism produces the satisfaction of all the other partners who mechanically will also receive the profits. Selfishness is indeed the motor of the system, as in the classical theory of Market and Competition. Thus, in the corporate mechanism, there is never a conflict of interest since the corporate officer is obligatorily associated: he will always work in the interest of the partners since in this he works for himself. As Company Law posits that the loss of the company will also be incurred and suffered by all partners, he will also avoid this prospect. Again, there is no need for any control. The question of a conflict of interest between the mandatary and those who conferred this function does not structurally arise...

These two representations both proved inaccurate. They were based on quite different philosophies - the public official being supposed to have exceeded his own interest, the corporate officer being supposed to serve the common interest or the social interest by concern for his own interest - but this was by  a unique reasoning that these two representations were defeated.

Let us take the first on Public Law: the "sense of the State" is not so common in the administration and the public enterprises, that the people who work there sacrifice themselves for the social group. They are human beings like the others. Researchers in economics and finance, through this elementary reflection of suspicion, have shattered these political and legal representations. In particular, it has been observed that the institutional lifestyle of public enterprises, very close to the government and their leaders, is often not very justified, whereas it is paid by the taxpayer, that is, by the social group which they claimed to serve. Europe, by affirming in the Treaty of Rome the principle of "neutrality of the capital of enterprises", that is to say, indifference to the fact that the enterprise has as its shareholder a private person or a public person, validated this absence of exceeding of his particular interest by the servant of the State, become simple economic agent. This made it possible to reach the conclusion made for Company Law.

Disillusionment was of the same magnitude. It has been observed that the corporate officer, ordinary human being, is not devoted to the company and does not have the only benefit of the profits he will later receive as a partner. He sometimes gets very little, so he can receive very many advantages (financial, pecuniary or in kind, direct or indirect). The other shareholders see their profits decrease accordingly. They are thus in a conflict of interest. Moreover, the corporate officer was elected by the shareholders' meeting, that is to say, in practice, the majority shareholder or the "controlling" shareholder (controlling shareholder) and not by all. He may not even be associated (but a "senior officer").

The very fact that the situation is no longer qualified by lawyers, through the qualifications of classical Company Law, still borrowing from the Civil Contract Law, the qualifications coming more from financial theories, borrowing from the theory of the agency, adically changed the perspective. The assumptions have been reversed: by the same "nature effect", the conflict of interest has been disclosed as structurally existing between the manager and the minority shareholder. Since the minority shareholder does not have the de facto power to dismiss the corporate officer since he does not have the majority of the voting rights, the question does not even arise whether the manager has or has not a corporate status: the minority shareholder has only the power to sell his securities, if the management of the manager is unfavorable (right of exit) or the power to say, protest and make known. This presupposes that he is informed, which will put at the center of a new Company Law information, even transparency.

Thus, this conflict of interests finds a solution in the actual transfer of securities, beyond the legal principle of negotiability. For this reason, if the company is listed, the conflict of interest is translated dialectically into a relationship between the corporate officer and the financial market which, by its liquidity, allows the agent to be sanctioned, and also provides information, Financial market and the minority shareholder becoming identical. The manager could certainly have a "sense of social interest", a sort of equivalent of the state's sense for a civil servant, if he had an ethics, which would feed a self-regulation. Few people believe in the reality of this hypothesis. By pragmatism, it is more readily accepted that the manager will prefer his interest to that of the minority shareholder. Indeed, he can serve his personal interest rather than the interest for which a power has been given to him through the informational rent he has, and the asymmetry of information he enjoys. All the regulation will intervene to reduce this asymmetry of information and to equip the minority shareholder thanks to the regulator who defends the interests of the market against the corporate officers, if necessary through the criminal law. But the belief in managerial volunteerism has recently taken on a new dimension with corporate social responsability, the social responsibility of the company where managers express their concern for others.

The identification of conflicts of interests, their prevention and their management are transforming Financial Regulatory Law and then the Common Law of Regulation, because today it is no longer believed a priori that people exceed their personal interest to serve the interest of others. It is perhaps to regain trust and even sympathy that companies have invested in social responsibility. The latter is elaborated by rules which are at first very flexible but which can also express a concern for the general interest. In this, it can meet Compliance Law and express on behalf of the companies a concern for the general interest, if the companies provide proof of this concern.

To take an example of a conflict of interest that resulted in substantial legal changes, the potentially dangerous situation of credit rating agencies has been pointed out when they are both paid by banks, advising them and designing products, While being the source of the ratings, the main indices from which the investments are made. Banks being the first financial intermediaries, these conflicts of interest are therefore systematically dangerous. That is why in Europe ESMA exercises control over these rating agencies.

The identification of conflicts of interest, which most often involves changing the way we look at a situation - which seemed normal until the point of view changes - the moral and legal perspective being different, Trust one has in this person or another one modifying this look, is today what moves the most in Regulation Law.
This is true of Public and Corporate Law, which are extended by the Regulation Law, here itself transformed by Compliance Law, notably by the launchers of alerts. But this is also true that all political institutions and elected officials.

For a rule emerges: the more central the notion of conflict of interest becomes, the more it must be realized that Trust is no longer given a priori, either to a person, to a function, to a mechanism, to a system. Trust is no longer given only a posteriori in procedures that burden the action, where one must give to see continuously that one has deserved this trust.

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