The dumbest idea in the world?

In an article in today’s FT Michael Skapinker describes how the debate around shareholder value is turning. He notes that Richard Lambert, his former boss now at the CBI, has suggested that the era “Jack Welch capitalism” – the elevation of shareholder value – was drawing to a close, but that the celebrated Jack had marked this himself last year when described shareholder value as “the dumbest idea in the world”, adding that “Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy … Your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”

Skapinker notes that Unilever’s chief executive, Paul Polman, has recently said the said same to the FT: “I do not work for the shareholder, to be honest; I work for the consumer, the customer. I discovered a long time ago that if I focus on … the long term to improve the lives of consumers and customers all over the world, the business results will come.”

Skapinker’s own observation on these comments, and what has been going wrong, are worth repeating in full:

“I am sure these leaders did not mean shareholders did not matter; rather that they were best served by businesses that performed well over the years. That meant selling goods and services to customers who were happy to come back, and employing staff committed enough to encourage them to do so. Doing that, and doing it profitably, would, over the years, be reflected in the share price.

“The problem has been the rise of shareholders who are not prepared to wait years, but who want a return now, so that they can sell their shares and repeat the trick elsewhere.”

He observes that the focus on shareholder value has resulted in the design of the executive remuneration packages that were designed to address the “agency problem” and to encourage them to do what was best for shareholders. However, any scheme designed to reward a manager will reflect the relatively short time horizon of the individual – unlikely to be in post for more than ten years and probably a great deal less, so in due course retired and on their way to satisfying Keynes’s “long-run” condition. In contrast, companies or, for that matter, their investors, particularly institutions like pension funds and life insurance companies have very long term, even unbounded, time horizons. It is also worth reflecting on the time that it can take to create a great corporation – building a Unilever, a GE, a McKinsey or BCG, one of the great universities, or even one of the sustainable technology companies (Microsoft is now 45 years old and Apple 44 years old), is a matter of generations.

The second issue that Skapinker refers to is interesting.  It is hard to see a moral argument for the promiscuous shareholder who trades shares on short term price movements having pre-eminence over the other constituencies (to use Jack Welch’s terminology). With well-developed equity markets, the investor has a far more fungible stake in the company than most employees, suppliers or customers. However, there are parallel issues to executive pay in the rewards in the fund management industry. Many fund management remuneration packages encourage short term trading rather than long term active engagement with investee companies. This is despite mounting evidence (probably best illustrated by the success of an even more iconic figure than Jack Welch – one Warren Buffet, sage of Omaha) for the superiority of long term investment strategies over playing short term market movements.

Skapinker completes his challenge to the primacy of shareholders by observing that “it is the customers who provide the revenue, the employees who produce the goods and services and society that tolerates the company’s presence. It is hard to reward one when the others suffer.”