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Study finds a diverse corporate boards rein in risk, good for shareholders

A diverse corporate board isn’t just good public relations, it can be mean a bigger payoff for shareholders.

That is the finding of a study by a team of university researchers who examined the performance of more than 2,000 companies from 1998 to 2011.

The researchers found that diverse corporate board of directors – in terms of gender, race, age experience, tenure and expertise – were more likely to pay dividends to stockholders and were less prone to take risk than those boards which are more homogenous.

“We find that firms with more diverse boards are more risk averse, spending less on capital expenditure, R&D, and acquisitions, and exhibiting lower volatilities of stock returns than those with less diverse boards,” said Ya-wen Yang, an assistant professor of accounting at Wake Forest University’s business school and the study’s co-author.

The findings,which are being considered for publication in academic journals and will be presented Monday at American Accounting Association annual meeting, comes at a time when there is growing pressure for boards to diversify. Yang noted the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission approved rules in 2009 requiring companies to disclose in proxy statements whether and how they consider diversity in evaluating director candidates.

Clothing retailer American Apparel, for example, just named its first female board member last week. Colleen Brown, a former CEO at media firm Fisher Communications, will join American Apparel’s board following the ouster of CEO Dov Charney amid allegations of sexual harassment.

The study also adds to a growing debate on the benefits of moving away from board compromised solely of white men. Several studies have found that adding women to boards improves corporate governance. Female directors “pursue less aggressive acquisition strategies, suggesting that gender diverse boards are more risk averse,” Yang said.

“The differences between male and female executives and directors in their decision-making process can be explained by the differences in, among other things, their level of overconfidence, risk tolerance, diligence and monitoring,” according to the study.

Compared to diverse boards, homogenous boards may come to a consensus quicker and take a “let’s try it mentality,” Yang wrote. A more diverse board faces “greater challenges in communicating and accepting one shared decision,” so are likely to shy away from risks.

The study’s other co-authors are Rini Laksmana, associate professor of accounting at Kent State University, and Agus Harjoto, associate professor of finance at Pepperdine University.

When it comes to firm performance and diversity, the results are mixed. Oklahoma State’s David Carter found a correlation between the two when he and several other researchers examined all Fortune 500 firms from 1998 to 2002. But a study by Harvard University’s Frank Dobbin and several others found no linkage.

In their study, Yang and her colleagues found that firms with more diverse boards spend less on capital expenditure, research and development and acquisitions and exhibit lower volatilities in stock returns and accounting returns.

The upside is that “firms with more diverse boards are more likely to pay dividends as well as pay greater amount of dividend per share than those with less diverse boards.” But those same boards may miss out on a risky venture that could reap long-term benefits.

“One the one hand, diverse boards could reduce the level of corporate risk taking, discouraging innovative and risky projects,” Yang said. “On the other hand, if firm management is overly aggressive in its use of corporate funds for investing in risky projects, our results suggest that more diverse boards could perform better oversight of corporate risk taking than less diverse boards.”