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A Multilevel Perspective on Corporate Governance: Firm, Industry, and Macro Environments  

Alessandro Zattoni and Hans van Ees

At the beginning of the 20th century, the publication of The Modern Corporation and Private Property opened the debate about the potential negative consequences associated with ownership dispersion. Since then, governance scholars aimed at understanding which corporate governance mechanisms could help companies both to prevent the agency problems connected with managerial opportunism, and to improve the strategic decision-making at the top of the firm. These early studies were mostly (or almost only) focused on the corporate governance of widely held companies listed in Anglo-American countries, thus neglecting for a long time the investigation of governance issues and mechanisms in other geographical settings. In addition, the main objective of these studies was to identify universal best practices (like an independent board, the separation of the CEO and Chair positions, or the use of high-powered incentives) that could address the agency problems of large listed companies. An implicit assumption in this stream of research was that firm-level agency problems do not vary across industry and macro environments, i.e., industry- and macro-environmental variables cannot either aggravate or attenuate agency problems. This long-standing tradition has been increasingly criticized by scholars arguing that industry- or macro-environmental variables could directly (or indirectly through their influence on governance mechanisms) affect corporate governance problems. Based on this idea, they started to develop sound theoretical models and to adopt rigorous empirical research methods in order to investigate if and how the characteristics of industry and macro environments could address firm-level agency problems. A first stream of studies argued and empirically analyzed whether some industry conditions (e.g., high competitiveness) could attenuate managerial discretion and, thus, partly solve firm-level agency problems. A second stream of research argued and empirically tested whether, instead, the high quality of the macro environment (e.g., the national or supranational level of investor protection, transparency, or rules enforcement) could directly address corporate governance problems, with beneficial effects on firm performance. More recently, scholars started to develop a multilevel investigation of corporate governance problems and mechanisms by including firm-, industry- and macro-environmental variables in their theoretical frameworks. In particular, through building new theoretical frameworks (e.g., based on the resource dependence or the institutional theory) and profiting from the development of new statistical techniques (like the multilevel statistical analysis or the fuzzy-set qualitative comparative analysis), scholars increasingly explored if and how the interaction among firm-level governance mechanisms and industry- and/or macro-environmental variables could address agency problems and produce positive consequences on firm long-term results. This new research stream suggests that the industry and macro environments affect the effectiveness of governance mechanisms and processes, and so represents boundary conditions that limit the generalizability of our research findings outside a specific context. In this way, they invite governance scholars either to contextualize their theories and results about firm-level governance mechanisms within a specific industry and macro context, or to explore the potential influence of one or more contextual variables (e.g., at the industry, country, or supranational level). Thanks to the results of this new stream of research, scholars and practitioners have been able to develop a richer and more contextual understanding of both (a) the relationships among corporate governance mechanisms and industry- and/or macro-environmental conditions, and (b) their direct and indirect impact on various company results.