“Shareholder value ……. the biggest idea in business” – Really?

The Economist has published a useful analysis of the place of “Shareholder Value” in contemporary thinking about business and the firm (Shareholder Value: the enduring power of the biggest idea in business*, The Economist, 2 April 2016).

The article describes the evolution of the idea that the purpose of the firm is to maximise shareholder value, its primacy first in the Anglo Saxon world, but its pervasiveness today globally wherever commerce is practised. It also cites the objections to capitalism of a society that sees corrupt and failing businesses and widening social inequality.

It describes the challenges faced by Shareholder Value. The first that is it

is a licence for bad conduct, including skimping on investment, exorbitant pay, high leverage, silly takeovers, accounting shenanigans and a craze for share buy-backs, which are running at $600 billion a year in America”

but the Economist then argues that these are essentially perversions of Shareholder Value:

“These things happen, but none has much to do with shareholder value. A premise of “Valuation” is that there is no free lunch. A firm’s worth is based on its long-term operating performance, not financial engineering. It cannot boost its value much by manipulating its capital structure. Optical changes to accounting profits don’t matter; cashflow does (a lesson WorldCom and Enron ignored). Leverage boosts headline rates of return but, reciprocally, raises risks (as Lehman found). Buy-backs do not create value, just transfer it between shareholders. Takeovers make sense only if the value of synergies exceeds the premium paid (as Valeant discovered). Pay packages that reward boosts to earnings-per-share and short-term share-price pops are silly.

“Outbreaks of madness in markets tend to happen because people are breaking the rules of shareholder value, not enacting them. This is true of the internet bubble of 1999-2000, the leveraged buy-out boom of 2004-08 and the banking crash. That such fiascos occur is a failure of governance and human nature, not of an idea.”

The second is the challenge of the stakeholder model:

“that firms should be run for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. In a trite sense the goals of equity-holders and others are aligned. A firm that sufficiently annoys customers, counterparties and staff cannot stay in business.”

The Economist then goes on to describe the difficulty finding an objective to replace shareholder value, including risk of potentially unintended consequences of placing too much emphasis on specific stakeholder, for example by protecting employment to the point that a company goes under. It then concludes that “For these reasons shareholder value—properly defined—will remain the governing principle of firms” but with the qualification that “shareholder value is not the governing principle of societies. Firms operate within rules set by others.”

The Escondido Framework turns a lot of this thinking on its head. Maximising shareholder valuation is not an absolute objective: rather the management of a company need to deliver sufficient shareholder returns, including the prospect of returns, to secure the capital the company requires and to satisfy shareholder that they would not be better off using such influence as they have in the financial instruments they hold to replace them with other managers. This is fundamentally no different to the task they face setting terms of employment to secure the necessary workforce, and designing products and services and setting prices to attract and retain customers. The Escondido Framework also argues that other, non-financially mediated markets have also to be considered, to keep regulators on-side and to maintain a favourable climate among the public at large who may ultimately influence the behaviour of governments or even do such perverse things as consequence of their alienation as to cast votes to leave a continental economic union that underpins the welfare of the economy.

One of the underlying conclusions of the Escondido Framework is that shareholder value is not the governing principle of firms. This is a descriptive not a normative statement. Firms are managed to keep shareholders of management’s backs. Inefficiencies in capital markets and corporate governance result in perverse and/or satisficing behaviours by managers in relation to shareholders, as evidenced by the lack of control of executive salaries and value destroying M&A activity. Firms that are successful in the long term in terms of market presence, satisfying customers and being places that employees report as attractive places to work, whose standing and reputation with the public helps reduce pressure for adverse regulation from government, happen also to be those who are successful in providing returns to shareholders over the long haul that attract long term investors who, like Warren Buffet, manage to generate superior returns. The deal works this way round, not the other way!

*The authors regrettably seem unaware that Jack Welch once described Shareholder Value as “the dumbest idea in the world” – see blog post 10th April 2010