While it was this new “market for corporate control,” as economists like to call it, that created the imperative to boost near-term profits and share prices, an elaborate institutional infrastructure has grown up to reinforce it.
This infrastructure includes business schools that indoctrinate students with the shareholder-first ideology and equip them with tools to manipulate quarterly earnings and short-term share prices.
It includes corporate lawyers who reflexively advise against any action that might lower the share price and invite shareholder lawsuits, however frivolous.
It includes a Wall Street establishment that is thoroughly fixated on quarterly earnings, quarterly investment returns and short-term trading.
And most of all, it is reinforced by gluttonous pay packages for top executives that are tied to the short-term performance of the company stock.
The result is a self-reinforcing cycle in which corporate time horizons have become shorter and shorter. The average holding periods for corporate stocks, which for decades was six years, is now down to less than six months. The average tenure of a public company chief executive is down to less than four years. And the willingness of executives to sacrifice short-term profits to make long-term investments is rapidly disappearing.
A recent study by the consultants at McKinsey & Co. and Canada’s public pension board found alarming levels of short-termism in the corporate executive suite. They reported that nearly 80 percent of top executives and directors reported feeling most pressured to demonstrate a strong financial performance over a period of two years or less, with only 7 percent feeling pressure to deliver a strong performance over a period of five years or more. They also found that 55 percent of chief financial officers would forgo an attractive investment project today if it would cause the company to even marginally miss its quarterly earnings target.
The real irony surrounding this focus on maximizing shareholder value is that it hasn’t, in fact, done much for shareholders.
Just replace "share prices" with "test scores."