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Illustration: © Hayley Warnham

RIP PLC: the rise of the ghost corporation

The ascent and demise of the listed company, and where—for better or worse—private equity will lead business next

By John Kay   April 2021

From the mid-19th century to the end of the 20th, one form of economic organisation seemed to be displacing all others—the limited liability corporation with widely dispersed share ownership. Indeed in the 1980s, partnerships—investment banks, estate agents and legal firms—converted to corporate form, enriching the lucky individuals who happened to be partners at the time, while disappointing the hopes of more junior employees (the “mezzanine layer”) who had aspired to a future share of profits. Something similar happened as mutual building societies and insurance companies also became public limited companies (PLCs). State-owned industries such as telecoms, gas, water and electricity were privatised, and even agencies such as Companies House and the Royal Mint—which necessarily remained under public control—were restructured into corporate form.

But if the 1980s was the zenith of the listed corporation, the decade also saw the emergence of a very different trend. The buyout of food…

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