Public company boards have experienced real turbulence for the better part of five years. Some of this turbulence is the product of internal dynamics—the need to improve liquidity, strengthen balance sheets and cut costs. Some is the product of external factors—volatile capital markets and government action and inaction. So, who can blame directors for being cautious? The answer: shareholders and activists.
In response to this turbulence, boards have chosen to seek steady shareholder returns, return shareholder capital and modestly adjust portfolios over executing large-scale transactions, combinations or investments. As a result of this restraint, the overwhelming strength of U.S. corporations is unmistakable: cash balances are at an all-time high and there is an abundance of cheap financing. Yet corporate investment in the economy remains muted.
Directors remain cautious while shareholders are increasingly moving in favor of more aggressive action. The evolving dynamic between boards and the shareholders they serve presents new challenges that require a different set of tools in the boardroom. New efforts to bridge what may be a growing divide between boards and shareholders should be undertaken directly by U.S. boards and management teams with a view toward increasing shareholder value, advancing investment stability, and maintaining sound governance.