The conventional understanding in corporate law is that shareholders are the residual claimants of corporations because they own the residual right to profits. Based on this understanding, shareholders are entitled to a host of corporate law rights and protections—including the right to vote and fiduciary duty protections. However, a review of the origin and history of residual claimant theory shows that the theory originally envisaged a broad conception of the residual claim that goes beyond profits, leading to a diverse array of stakeholders being the residual claimants of corporations over time. Depending on which of the theories of rent, interest, wages, or profit was adopted, each of the landlord, capitalist, laborer, and entrepreneur has been considered the residual claimant of the corporation. This history shows that the prevailing view of shareholders as the exclusive residual claimants of the corporation is a relatively recent understanding and that the historical record supports a more diverse conception of the residual claimant. In that sense, residual claimant analysis is better understood as a theory for the stakeholder model of the firm than the shareholder primacy model, as it is presently understood.
* Professor of Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law. I am grateful to Mehrsa Baradaran, Joshua Blank, Jill Fisch, Vic Fleischer, Jonathan Glater, Alex Lee, Jennifer Koh Lee, Stephen Lee, Christopher Leslie, Omri Marian, L. Song Richardson, and Arden Rowell for reading prior versions of this Article and providing helpful comments. I also benefitted from the opportunity to present and receive feedback on this project at the Trans-Pacific Business Law Dialogue (September 2020) and the University of Florida Business Law Conference (November 2020). Tianmei Ann Huang and Nick Nikols provided extraordinary research assistance, and Vivian Liu, Mindy Vo, Elizabeth Bell, and Jessica Block of the Southern California Law Review Postscript team, Deborah Choi, and Matthew Perez provided superb editorial assistance. Any errors are my own.