Executives, not investors, may be to blame for short-termism
How best should managers be incentivised? In the biblical parable of the talents, a master divides his property among three servants before going away. Two put his money to work and double its value; the third buries it in the ground. The first two servants are rewarded and the third is punished.
The biblical story is an early example of the principal-agent problem. When delegating authority, how can a principal be sure that their agents will act responsibly? The problem is usually discussed in terms of the potential for the agents to be greedy, and take money for themselves. The unfortunate servant in the parable acts out of fear, declaring: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man.” Sure enough, the servant is cast into the “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
In the corporate world, some say, fear plays as big a part as greed in distorting manager incentives. Critics claim that managers are unwilling to invest in long-term projects because they fret this will damage the company’s profit growth in the short term. If that happens, the managers may worry that they will be fired by the board, or that the company will be subject to a takeover bid.
Companies have several layers of agents. The board is worried about pressure from fund managers who are themselves acting on behalf of the underlying investors, and fear losing clients if they do not deliver above-average returns.
Lucian Bebchuk of Harvard Law School argues that there has been too much focus on the role of institutional, and particularly activist, investors in driving short-termism. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he notes that managers at both Amazon and Netflix have been able to pursue long-term growth at the expense of short-term profits without experiencing any significant pressure from shareholders. Indeed, growth stocks in general (defined as those where the value depends on the expectation of future increases in profits) have been very much in fashion in recent years.
Mr. Bebchuk says this short-termism “bogeyman” has been enlisted to argue in favour of insulating managers from shareholder control using restricted voting rights, special shares and the rest. Some think executives may be constrained by the concentration of ownership in a few institutional hands, as the fund-management industry consolidates. Mr. Bebchuk believes it is foolish to think back to a “golden era” when share ownership was dispersed. Managers may have felt no pressure to produce short-term results. “But”, he says, “they felt no pressure to produce long-term results either.”
Perhaps the problem lies not with investors, but with the incentives used to motivate executives. Andrew Smithers, an economist, has calculated that the proportion of operating cashflow paid out to shareholders by non-financial American companies was just 19.6% between 1947 and 1999. By the end of that era, share options became a popular means of motivating managers. Subsequently, the proportion of cashflow paid to shareholders averaged 40.7% between 2000 to 2017, while cash used for investment fell.
To examine the effects of incentives, Xavier Baeten, a professor at the Vlerick Business School in Belgium, studied the Stoxx Europe 600 index of big European companies between 2014 and 2019. When he compared individual firms’ returns on assets with the chief executives’ remuneration, he found a positive impact of high pay on performance over the short term, defined as the next 12 months. Yet no such relationship showed up over a three-year period, implying that the initial gains soon dissipated. (The study controls for variables including a firm’s size.)
Mr. Baeten then examined the composition of the executives’ packages. He found that short-term performance was better when incentives were more than 200% of base pay than when incentives were less than 100%. He also found that after the first 12 months, the impact switched. Executives with incentives of more than 300% of base pay performed significantly worse in the next two years than those who received less than 100%.
This is not proof that executive incentives have led to an excessive short-term focus. But it suggests the need for carefully-designed incentive schemes. The principal-agent problem requires eternal vigilance by shareholders. Get the formula wrong and weeping and gnashing of teeth will follow.