Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Myth of Shareholder Primacy |  In the late 1960s, a young banker named Joel Stern was working on a project to transform corporate management. Stern’s hunch was that the stock market could help managers work out how their strategies were performing. Simply, if management was effective, demand for the firm’s stock would be high. A low price would imply bad management.

What sounds obvious now was revolutionary at the time. Until then profits were the key barometer of success. But profits were a crude measure and easy to manipulate. Financial markets, Stern felt, could provide a more precise measure of the value of management because they were based on more ‘objective’ processes, beyond the firm’s direct control. The value of shares, he believed, represented the market’s exact validation of management. Because of this, financial markets could help managers determine what was working and what was not.

In doing this, Stern laid the foundation for a ‘shareholder value’ management that put financial markets at the core of managerial strategy.

Stern would probably never have imagined that these ideas would 50 years later be castigated as a fundamental threat to the future of liberal capitalism. In recent times everyone from the Business Roundtable group of global corporations, to the Financial Times, to the British Labour Party has lined up to condemn the shareholder ideology.

“Fifty years of shareholder primacy,” wrote the Financial Times, “has fostered short-termism and created an environment of popular distrust of big business.”

It is not the first time Stern’s creation has come under fire. A decade ago Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Electric declared shareholder value “probably the dumbest idea in the world”. And 15 years before then, British political commentator Will Hutton, among others, found paperback fame with his book The State We’re In preaching much the same message.

To critics, the rise of shareholder value is a straightforward story, that has been told over and over again. Following a general crisis of postwar profitability in the late 1970s, corporate managers came under fire from disappointed shareholders complaining about declining returns. Shareholder revolts forced managers to put market capitalisation first. The rise of stock options to compensate corporate managers entrenched shareholder value by aligning the interests of managers and shareholders. 
Companies began sacrificing productive investments, environmental protections, and worker security to ensure shareholder returns were maximised. The fear of stock market verdicts on quarterly reports left them no choice.

This account fits a widespread belief that financiers and rentiers mangled the postwar golden era of capitalism. More importantly, it suggests a simple solution: liberate companies from the demands of shareholders. Freed from the short-term pursuit of delivering shareholder returns, companies could then return to long-term plans, productive investments, and higher wages.