Down With Shareholder Value

I’ve been known to say I was present at the creation of “shareholder value.” It’s an exaggeration, of course. But in 1982, literally half a lifetime ago for me, I wrote an article about first big takeover attempt by T. Boone Pickens. One of his central justifications for the takeover movement he helped spawn was company managements didn’t care enough about company’s owners, aka shareholders. Their cash-based compensation wasn’t properly aligned with desires of shareholders. Shareholders, need to assert their primacy, force executives to start paying attention to the price of their companies’ stock. I later learned that Pickens was not the first person to make this argument, academics had already created the theory that undergirds it. But, at the time, it was still a pretty radical view. (source: Joe Nocera – NYTimes – 11/08/2012)

As the expression goes, be careful what you wish for. Shareholder value has long since become the mantra of business culture. Corporate boards shower executives with stock options to “align” them with shareholders. “Underperforming” companies find themselves under siege from activist investors. Increasing shareholder involvement is viewed as the way to fix whatever ails corporate governance. Over time, “maximizing shareholder value” became viewed as primary task of corporation. And, well, you can see the results all around you. They’re not pretty. Too many chief executives succumb to the pressure to boost short-term earnings at the expense of long-term value creation. After all, their compensation depends on it. In the lead-up to the financial crisis, to take just one extreme example, financial institutions took on far too much risk in search of easy profits that would lead to a higher stock price. Now, though, it feels as if we are at the dawn of a new movement, one aimed at overturning the hegemony of shareholder value. Lynn Stout, a Cornell University law professor, has written a new book, “The Shareholder Value Myth”, in which she argues there is nothing in the law that supports the idea that shareholders should be the only constituency that matters. Other academics, such as Roger Martin, the highly regarded dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, are critical of the emphasis on shareholder value. A number of chief executives, such as Howard Schultz of Starbucks, have said companies need to have a larger purpose than merely raising the stock price. And, most recently, in Harvard Business Review, Jay W. Lorsch, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Justin Fox, editorial director of the HBR Group (a former colleague of mine at Fortune), published an article entitled, “What Good Are Shareholders?” Not much, is their answer. One of their arguments is that calls for increased shareholder democracy are misguided; shareholders, they write, simply aren’t particularly well-suited to be “corporate bosses”.

They are too diffuse, too short-term-oriented, especially now that high-frequency trading dominates market. Indeed, despite increased emphasis on shareholders past few decades, companies haven’t gotten noticeably better. A second argument, though, is that central idea led us to elevate shareholders above all others is off-base. According to the reigning academic theory, shareholders are “principals”, management serves as their “agent.” Thus, it is the job of principals to keep the agents in line. But, said Fox, “The more you treat executives that way, the more they are going to act like mercenaries, and the more they get away from seeing themselves as stewards of an organization with lasting value”. “Look at almost any company that has lasted”. “It is inevitably because executives see themselves as trying to move the organization forward, and not because they are incented by their pay package to maximize the share price.” Lorsch, for his part, says that he believes “the function of business in a society is not just a return to investors, but to provide goods and services, provide employment, pay taxes, and so on”. A half-dozen other business school professors I spoke to held similar views. To the extent this new movement is taking root, it is in business schools. Still, it is hard to know yet whether this new movement will have legs. Measuring chief executives on the basis of their companies’ stock prices is easy to understand, that was always part of its appeal. Those who want to change that, including Lorsch and Fox, have struggled to come up with breakthrough ideas that would be similarly appealing. Besides, shareholder value is so deeply entrenched, it will be difficult to dislodge. On the other hand, the other day, Marissa Mayer, new chief executive at Yahoo, ordered stock ticker be removed from company’s internal home page. “I want you thinking about users,” told employees, according to Wall Street Journal. That’s progress. 


Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

One Response to Down With Shareholder Value

  1. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: How about the shareholder value maximization model applied to the World Bank? The evidence shows that it was impossible to ‘align’ owner’s objectives i.e., economic development and end of poverty in 170 plus countries with its US DESIGNATED President. In 65 years of existence, not a single country became developed under the guidance of the World Bank. South Korea — the country of origin of the current World Bank’s President Jim Yong Kim — is the only example of success because it DID NOT follow bank’s economic advice, particularly in the area of industrial policy and high technology development. In sum, shareholders (170 plus countries) need to assert their primacy and force the President and board to start paying attention to their primary objective of becoming developed economies. The MAIN CHALLENGE is: Can this still be done in the new century with a US President?


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