Corporate Fiduciary Duties and Prudential Regulation of Financial Institutions

Edward M. Iacobucci


While corporate fiduciary duties in many jurisdictions are generally understood to be owed to shareholders, recent Canadian Supreme Court cases have held that directors owe their duties to the corporation, period, not to shareholders or any other stakeholders. This development has introduced significant indeterminacy to the law since it is not clear what such a conception of the duty requires. The Supreme Court did, however, make one clear statement: it held that directors owe a fiduciary duty to ensure that their corporations obey statutory law. Such a duty encourages compliance with law, but may over-encourage compliance: individual directors do not gain personally from legal breaches, but may lose personally from them because of fiduciary liability, so they will have excessively strong incentives to avoid such breaches. The Article connects the fiduciary duty to obey law with recent developments in financial regulation that have increased the obligations on directors of financial institutions to oversee risk. By requiring directors to be engaged with risk at a governance level, regulators have enhanced the probability that directors will face liability under their fiduciary duties if their institutions do not comply with financial regulations. As the Article explains, the policy tradeoff between enhanced compliance benefits and over-compliance costs of fiduciary liability is different in the context of financial regulation from that in other settings. For example, significant corporate penalties, as opposed to penalties borne by individual directors, may be inconsistent with the prudential goals of regulation, perhaps because of too-big-to-fail concerns. The fiduciary duty to cause the corporation to obey financial regulation, and a stricter application of this duty than the highly deferential standard that exists in Delaware law, has advantages that do not exist in other legal and regulatory contexts.

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