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Principal-Agent Relationship: What It Is, How It Works


The Principal-Agent Relationship refers to an arrangement between two parties, where one party (the agent) is authorized to act on behalf of the other party (the principal). This relationship typically arises where the principal hires the agent to perform a service, where decision-making authority is endowed to the agent. It is common in various scenarios such as between shareholders (principal) and company executives (agent), or between an insurer (principal) and an insurance agent (agent).


The phonetics for the keyword – “Principal-Agent Relationship: What It Is, How It Works” are:Principal – ‘Prin-suh-puhl’Agent – ‘Ey-jent’Relationship – ‘Ri-ley-shuhn-ship’What – ‘Wuht’It – ‘It’Is – ‘Iz’How – ‘Hou’Works – ‘Wurks’ Please note, these are given in the standard American English phonetics.

Key Takeaways

  1. Definition and Nature: A Principal-Agent relationship is an arrangement in which one entity (the principal) employs another (the agent) to perform tasks on their behalf. The principal delegates decision-making authority to the agent, usually because the agent is more skilled or better positioned to make choices that benefit the principal.
  2. Risk of Conflicting Goals: Principal-Agent relationships can be challenging due to the risk of misaligned interests. This is often referred to as the Principal-Agent Problem. The agent, who has more information about the work, might act in their own self-interest rather than their principal’s interest. It’s important for principals to establish clear expectations and incentives to ensure alignment.
  3. Incentives and Solutions: There are many solutions designed to mitigate Principal-Agent Problems and align the interests of both parties. These strategies include performance-based incentives, monitoring systems, and contract stipulations that punish agents for acting against the best interests of the principal.


The Principal-Agent Relationship is a fundamental concept in business and finance that describes the relationship between a person known as the principal, who assigns a task and gives authority to another person known as the agent, to perform on their behalf. This concept is important because it forms the backbone of many business transactions and interactions such as the relationship between shareholders and company executives, or between a client and their lawyer. The principal-agent relationship helps in defining the rights, duties, and expectations of both parties, and is instrumental in dealing with the ‘agent problem’ that occurs when the agent acts in their best interest over the principal’s. Therefore, understanding the principal-agent relationship is crucial in ensuring effective, ethical, and responsible decision-making and performance in a business or financial setting.


The principal-agent relationship serves a pivotal role in business and finance by aligning interests and facilitating transactions between two parties who might otherwise struggle to cooperate. The relationship is grounded on an agreement where the principal delegates responsibilities to the agent, who then acts on their behalf. This relationship’s primary purpose is to enable the principal to outsource certain functions, activities, or decisions to the agent, who has specialist knowledge or expertise. For instance, in finance, investors (principals) often delegate investment decisions to professional fund managers (agents).In the principal-agent relationship, the agent’s role is to act in the best interest of the principal, with the intent of reducing asymmetry of information and managing risk more effectively. The agent’s expertise and informed decision-making are employed to safeguard the principal’s interests and ensure that business activities are conducted successfully. For instance, a real estate agent uses their proficiency in property values and negotiation skills to represent a homeowner (principal) in the sale of their property. Consequently, the principal-agent relationship is an essential framework in finance and business that offers principals the advantage of specialized knowledge while freeing them to focus on other areas of interest.


1. Real Estate Transactions: A classic example of a principal-agent relationship is that between a home seller and a real estate agent. The homeowner (principal) hires the real estate agent (agent) to sell their property on their behalf. The homeowner gives the agent the authority to negotiate the deal, and the agent is obligated to act in the homeowner’s best interests, aiming to get the highest sale price and favorable terms.2. Company Management: In a corporation, the shareholders are the principals and the executives or managers act as the agents. Shareholders entrust these agents to run the daily business operations, make decisions and establish strategic direction with the objective of maximizing shareholder value. The principal-agent issue arises if executives prioritize their personal interests — for instance, high salaries, benefits or risky business ventures — which could be in conflict with the shareholders’ interest of maximizing returns on their shares.3. Financial Advisory Services: When individuals or businesses hire investment advisors or financial planners, a principal-agent relationship is established. As the principal, the client entrusts the advisor (agent) with their capital to invest in a manner that aligns with their financial goals, risk tolerance, and interests. The advisor has a duty to act in the best interest of their client, providing the best possible advice or investment options. However, conflicts may occur if the advisor recommends investment products that offer them higher commissions rather than what would be in the client’s best interest.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

What is a Principal-Agent Relationship?

A Principal-Agent relationship is a common arrangement in finance and business where one entity, known as the agent, is allowed to make decisions and take actions on behalf of another entity, known as the principal.

How does a Principal-Agent Relationship work?

The relationship works when the principal gives the agent the authority or power to act on his/her behalf. The agent fulfills certain tasks or makes certain decisions while ideally prioritizing the principal’s best interests.

What is the fundamental concept behind the Principal-Agent Relationship?

The fundamental premise is trust. The principal trusts the agent to act in their best interests, carry out specified services, and take decisions that would be beneficial for them.

Where is the Principal-Agent Relationship commonly seen?

This relationship is commonly seen in various facets of business and finance, including real estate, insurance, law, and companies where managers (agents) are hired by shareholders (principals).

What is the ‘Principal-Agent Problem’ or ‘Agency Problem’?

The Principal-Agent Problem, also known as the Agency Problem, occurs when there is a conflict of interest between the agent’s motives and the principal’s expectations. For instance, if an agent is more inclined towards their personal gain rather than the principal’s interests.

How can the Principal-Agent Problem be mitigated?

There are several ways to mitigate these problems, such as implementing robust incentive structures for agents, increasing transparency and better communication between the principal and agent, conducting regular audits, etc.

Are there any laws or regulations governing the Principal-Agent Relationship?

Yes, there are laws and regulations at both state and federal levels that define the scope and nature of the Principal-Agent Relationship, especially in sectors like real estate and finance services.

Is a written agreement necessary in a Principal-Agent Relationship?

Although it depends on the nature of the relationship and the jurisdiction, it is always best to have a written agreement detailing responsibilities, expectations, and powers granted to the agent.

Can a Principal-Agent Relationship be ended?

Yes, a Principal-Agent Relationship can end, either by completing the predetermined task, or if either party, with a proper reason, decides to terminate the relationship.

: What are the main responsibilities of agents in a Principal-Agent Relationship?

: An agent’s responsibilities could vary, but generally they involve acting on the principal’s behalf, making decisions that align with the principal’s interests, being loyal, obedient, and maintaining confidentiality.

Related Finance Terms

  • Agency theory
  • Fiduciary duty
  • Moral hazard
  • Incentive alignment
  • Contracts

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