Golden leashes – compensation arrangements between activists and their nominees to target boards – have emerged as the latest advance (or atrocity, depending on your point of view) in the long running battle between activists and defenders of the long-term investor faith. Just exactly what are we worried about?
With average holding periods for U.S. equity investors having shriveled from five years in the 1980s to nine months or less today, the defenders of “long-termism” would seem to have lost the war, though perhaps not the argument. After all, if the average shareholder is only sticking around for nine months, and if directors owe their duties to their shareholders (average or otherwise), then at best a director on average will have nine months to maximize the value of those shares. Starting now. Or maybe starting nine months ago.
But this assumes that the directors of any particular company have a real idea of just how long their particular set of “average” shareholders will stick around, and it also assumes that the directors owe duties primarily to their average shareholders, and not to their Warren Buffett investors (on one hand) or their high speed traders (on the other). So, in the absence of any real information about how long any then-current set of shareholders will invest for on average, and in the absence of any rational analytical framework to decide which subset(s) of shareholders they should be acting for, what is a director to do?
Here is what I think directors do, in one form or fashion or another: