Tag Archives: short-termism

Another critique of market fundamentalism–by the chairman of a major bank

In my research on Public Interest Capitalism, I argue that markets and self interest do not necessarily serve the public interest.  This research draws on theoretical work by the respected economist Douglass North, who argues that institutions (i.e., values, social norms, and regulations) determine whether economic actors engage in wasteful redistributive activities, or productive value-creating activities.  When resources are squandered on redistributive activities, societies decline.  Recently, similar concerns have been echoed by Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s prime minister to be.  Today, the Telegraph reports on a remarkable speech by Stephen Green, the chairman of HSBC.  The following are quotes from his speech, as reported by the Telegraph.

At their worst, financial markets can be engines of destructive excess. In recent years, banks have chased short-term profits by introducing complex products of no real use to humanity.

capitalism generally, and banking specifically, needs to reaffirm its commitment to contributing to social and economic development

There is no question that the markets – in the form of investors and traders – have often put pressure on boards to pursue short-term strategies and profits.

The results of that pressure are now plain to see in the broken businesses and weakened economies around the world. This was the basic failure of corporate governance.

Legislation is not and can not be sufficient without a culture of values in our industry

If this crisis leads to a genuine reassessment of the role of business and banking in market economies, it may come to rank as one of the great turning points in history of the modern world.

These points closely parallel the arguments that my colleagues and I make in our research on Public Interest Capitalism, so it’s encouraging to see these views articulated by a senior bank executive.  North would surely applaud Green, too, for recognizing that values are an essential complement to legislation (see also my discussion of Why Greed is Bad).  Finally, I think that Green could be right about the potential historical significance of reassessing the role of business in society: if businesses seek to profit through contributing to the general welfare, instead of seeking to profit at its expense, we may enjoy more equitable, sustainable, satisfying, and rapid economic growth.

I doubt that Green or any of his close associates will stumble across this blog, but I invite anyone at HSBC to contact me to discuss Public Interest Capitalism.

The case for restricting stock buybacks

William Lazonick makes the case against stock buybacks in the latest issue of BusinessWeek.  In his article “The Buyback Boondoggle“, He argues that companies spend huge sums of money on buybacks that they could have invested in innovation and employment.  From the article:

The amount of money spent on buybacks is staggering. From 1997 through last year, 438 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index spent $2.4 trillion on them. In 2007, as profits soared, the average buyback bill for each was about $1.2 billion—a record amount. And faced with a dramatic drop in their combined net income in 2008, these companies trimmed buyback spending, but not proportionately: The buyback-to-profit ratio, which was already unprecedented in 2007, more than tripled in 2008, from 0.90 to 2.80.

He further observes that buybacks helped weaken major American firms to the point that they required government bailouts when the economy deteriorated:

If bailed-out General Motors (GM) had banked the $20.4 billion distributed to shareholders as buybacks from 1986 through 2002 (with a 2.5% aftertax annual return), it would have had $35 billion in 2009 to stave off bankruptcy and respond to global competition.

And the bailed-out banks? Eight of the biggest spent a total of $182 billion on buybacks from 2000 to 2007. That reduced their ability to cover their bets on derivatives, exacerbating the crisis they created in the first place.

At the heart of the issue is the conflict of interest between shareholders and management, on one hand, and other corporate stakeholders such as employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, and nations, on the other.  Shareholders have limited liability, so they can profit by extracting as much money from companies as possible during good times, even to the point of taking on debt to pay dividends–a common private equity practice.  If the companies subsequently go bankrupt, the shareholders have already pocketed their profits.  The greater the likelihood of bankruptcy, the greater the incentive for shareholders to take money out.

A more subtle problem is that shareholders have difficulty quantifying and verifying the value of long-term investments, so they prefer short-term investments or cash distributions.  Thus managing for shareholder value becomes managing for the short term, leading to underinvestment in innovation, human capital, and organizational capital.

As Lazonick points out, executive compensation in the form of stock shares and options create incentives for senior managers to buy back shares, since buybacks both distribute cash to shareholders and increase demand for shares.

In the article, Lazonick proposes banning share buybacks, but this won’t solve the problem of short-termist incentives embedded in executive compensation linked to stock price.  So how about limiting the value of stock grants and options to 5% of base salary for employees of publicly traded companies?