Large firms in the United States, such as Ford and Microsoft, are almost all organized as corporations. We examine the three different legal forms of business organization—sole proprietorship, partnership, and corporation—to see why this is so. Each form has distinct advantages and disadvantages for the life of the business, the ability of the business to raise cash, and taxes. A key observation is that as a firm grows, the advantages of the corporate form may come to outweigh the disadvantages.
A sole proprietorship is a business owned by one person. This is the simplest type of business to start and is the least regulated form of organization. Depending on where you live, you might be able to start a proprietorship by doing little more than getting a business license and opening your doors. For this reason, there are more proprietorships than any other type of business, and many businesses that later become large corporations start out as small proprietorships.
sole proprietorship A business owned by a single individual.
Page 5The owner of a sole proprietorship keeps all the profits. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the owner has unlimited liability for business debts. This means that creditors can look beyond business assets to the proprietor’s personal assets for payment. Similarly, there is no distinction between personal and business income, so all business income is taxed as personal income.
The life of a sole proprietorship is limited to the owner’s life span, and the amount of equity that can be raised is limited to the amount of the proprietor’s personal wealth. This limitation often means that the business is unable to exploit new opportunities because of insufficient capital. Ownership of a sole proprietorship may be difficult to transfer because this transfer requires the sale of the entire business to a new owner.
A partnership is similar to a proprietorship except that there are two or more owners (partners). In a general partnership, all the partners share in gains or losses, and all have unlimited liability for all partnership debts, not just some particular share. The way partnership gains (and losses) are divided is described in the partnership agreement. This agreement can be an informal oral agreement, such as “let’s start a lawn mowing business,” or a lengthy, formal written document.
partnership A business formed by two or more individuals or entities.
In a limited partnership, one or more general partners will run the business and have unlimited liability, but there will be one or more limited partners who will not actively participate in the business. A limited partner’s liability for business debts is limited to the amount that partner contributes to the partnership. This form of organization is common in real estate ventures, for example.
The advantages and disadvantages of a partnership are basically the same as those of a proprietorship. Partnerships based on a relatively informal agreement are easy and inexpensive to form. General partners have unlimited liability for partnership debts, and the partnership terminates when a general partner wishes to sell out or dies. All income is taxed as personal income to the partners, and the amount of equity that can be raised is limited to the partners’ combined wealth. Ownership of a general partnership is not easily transferred because a transfer requires that a new partnership be formed. A limited partner’s interest can be sold without dissolving the partnership, but finding a buyer may be difficult.
Because a partner in a general partnership can be held responsible for all partnership debts, having a written agreement is very important. Failure to spell out the rights and duties of the partners frequently leads to misunderstandings later on. Also, if you are a limited partner, you must not become deeply involved in business decisions unless you are willing to assume the obligations of a general partner. The reason is that if things go badly, you may be deemed to be a general partner even though you say you are a limited partner.
Based on our discussion, the primary disadvantages of sole proprietorships and partnerships as forms of business organization are (1) unlimited liability for business debts on the part of the owners, (2) limited life of the business, and (3) difficulty of transferring ownership. These three disadvantages add up to a single, central problem: the ability of such businesses to grow can be seriously limited by an inability to raise cash for investment.
The corporation is the most important form (in terms of size) of business organization in the United States. A corporation is a legal “person,” separate and distinct from its owners, and it has many of the rights, duties, and privileges of an actual person. Corporations can borrow money and own property, can sue and be sued, and can enter into contracts. A corporation can even be a general partner or a limited partner in a partnership, and a corporation can own stock in another corporation.
corporation A business created as a distinct legal entity composed of one or more individuals or entities.
Page 6Not surprisingly, starting a corporation is somewhat more complicated than starting the other forms of business organization. Forming a corporation involves preparing articles of incorporation (or a charter) and a set of bylaws. The articles of incorporation must contain a number of things, including the corporation’s name, its intended life (which can be forever), its business purpose, and the number of shares that can be issued. This information must normally be supplied to the state in which the firm will be incorporated. For most legal purposes, the corporation is a “resident” of that state.
The bylaws are rules describing how the corporation regulates its existence. For example, the bylaws describe how directors are elected. These bylaws may be a simple statement of a few rules and procedures, or they may be quite extensive for a large corporation. The bylaws may be amended or extended from time to time by the stockholders.
In a large corporation, the stockholders and the managers are usually separate groups. The stockholders elect the board of directors, who then select the managers. Managers are charged with running the corporation’s affairs in the stockholders’ interests. In principle, stockholders control the corporation because they elect the directors.
As a result of the separation of ownership and management, the corporate form has several advantages. Ownership (represented by shares of stock) can be readily transferred, and the life of the corporation is therefore not limited. The corporation borrows money in its own name. As a result, the stockholders in a corporation have limited liability for corporate debts. The most they can lose is what they have invested.
The relative ease of transferring ownership, the limited liability for business debts, and the unlimited life of the business are why the corporate form is superior for raising cash. If a corporation needs new equity, for example, it can sell new shares of stock and attract new investors. Apple is an example. The company was a pioneer in the personal computer business. As demand for its products exploded, it had to convert to the corporate form of organization to raise the capital needed to fund growth and new product development. The number of owners can be huge; larger corporations have many thousands or even millions of stockholders. For example, in 2014, General Electric Company (better known as GE) had about 4 million stockholders and about 10.1 billion shares outstanding. In such cases, ownership can change continuously without affecting the continuity of the business.
The corporate form has a significant disadvantage. Because a corporation is a legal person, it must pay taxes. Moreover, money paid out to stockholders in the form of dividends is taxed again as income to those stockholders. This is double taxation, meaning that corporate profits are taxed twice: at the corporate level when they are earned and again at the personal level when they are paid out.1
Today, all 50 states have enacted laws allowing for the creation of a relatively new form of business organization, the limited liability company (LLC). The goal of this entity is to operate and be taxed like a partnership but retain limited liability for owners, so an LLC is essentially a hybrid of partnership and corporation. Although states have differing definitions for LLCs, the more important scorekeeper is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The IRS will consider an LLC a corporation, thereby subjecting it to double taxation, unless it meets certain specific criteria. In essence, an LLC cannot be too corporation-like, or it will be treated as one by the IRS. LLCs have become common. For example, Goldman, Sachs and Co., one of Wall Street’s last remaining partnerships, decided to convert from a private partnership to an LLC (it later “went public,” becoming a publicly held corporation). Large accounting firms and law firms by the score have converted to LLCs.
Page 7TABLE 1.1 Intemational Corporations
As the discussion in this section illustrates, the need of large businesses for outside investors and creditors is such that the corporate form will generally be the best for such firms. We focus on corporations in the chapters ahead because of the importance of the corporate form in the U.S. and world economies. Also, a few important financial management issues, such as dividend policy, are unique to corporations. However, businesses of all types and sizes need financial management, so the majority of the subjects we discuss bear on any form of business.
A CORPORATION BY ANOTHER NAME …
The corporate form of organization has many variations around the world. The exact laws and regulations differ from country to country, of course, but the essential features of public ownership and limited liability remain. These firms are often called joint stock companies, public limited companies, or limited liability companies, depending on the specific nature of the firm and the country of origin.
Table 1.1 gives the names of a few well-known international corporations, their countries of origin, and a translation of the abbreviation that follows the company name.