Economists have long worried that a stock market listing can induce short-termist pressures that distort the investment decisions of public firms. Back in 1985 Narayanan wrote in the Journal of Finance that “American managers tend to make decisions that yield short-term gains at the expense of the long-term interests of the shareholders.” More recently, a growing number of commentators blame the sluggish performance of the U.S. economy since the 2008–2009 financial crisis on short-termism. For example, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, Barton and Wiseman, global managing director at McKinsey & Co. and CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, respectively, argue that “the ongoing short-termism in the business world is undermining corporate investment, holding back economic growth.”
Yet, systematic empirical evidence of widespread short-termism has proved elusive, largely because identifying its effects is challenging. A chief challenge is the difficulty of finding a plausible counterfactual for how firms would invest absent short-termist pressures. In our paper, Corporate Investment and Stock Market Listing: A Puzzle?, which is forthcoming at the Review of Financial Studies, we address this difficulty by comparing the investment behavior of stock market-listed firms to that of comparable privately held firms, using a novel panel dataset of private U.S. firms covering more than 400,000 firm years over the period 2001–2011. Building on prior work, our key identification assumption is that, on average, private firms suffer from fewer agency problems and, in particular, are subject to fewer short-termist pressures than are their listed counterparts. This assumption is motivated by the fact that private firms are often owner managed and, even when not, are both illiquid and typically have highly concentrated ownership. These features encourage their owners to monitor management more closely to ensure long-term value is maximized.