The challenges that directors of public companies face in carrying out their duties continue to grow. The end goal remains the same, to oversee the successful, profitable and sustainable operations of their companies. But the pressures that confront directors, from activism and short-termism, to ongoing shifts in governance, to global risks and competition, are many. A few weeks ago we issued an updated list of key issues that boards will be expected to deal with in the coming year (accessible at this link: The Spotlight on Boards, and discussed on the Forum here). Highlighted below are a few of the more significant issues and trends that we believe directors should bear in mind as they consider their companies’ priorities and objectives and seek to meet their companies’ goals.
Posts Tagged ‘Short-termism’
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.
Last week, The Federalist Society’s 2014 National Lawyers Convention featured a session dedicated to the short-termism debate and the evidence put forward by Professors Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, and Wei Jiang in their study, The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism. The session began with a presentation by Professor Bebchuk that outlined the key findings and implications of the study. Three panelists then offered their reactions to the study: Jonathan Macey, Sam Harris Professor of Corporate Law, Corporate Finance, and Securities Law, Yale Law School; Robert Miller, Professor of Law and F. Arnold Daum Fellow in Corporate Law, University of Iowa College of Law; and Steven Rosenblum, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The debate was moderated by E. Norman Veasey, former Chief Justice, Delaware Supreme Court.
Professor Bebchuk’s presentation slides are available here. The Bebchuk-Brav-Jiang study is available here, and posts about the study, including one published by critics of the study, are available on the Forum here.
Last Monday I ventured into the belly of the beast by presenting the attached decks (available here and here) in Professor Bebchuk’s class at Harvard Law School. The class and discussion focused on short-termism, using the Airgas case as a jumping off point (see first deck available here) to the broader governance issues canvassed by the second deck (available here). Once again there were no answers given to the “inconvenient questions” listed on the two pager available here.
In our paper, Real Effects of Frequent Financial Reporting, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we examine the impact of financial reporting frequency on firms’ investment decisions. Whether increased financial reporting frequency improves or adversely influences a manager’s investments decision is ambiguous. On the one hand, increased transparency through higher reporting frequency can beneficially affect firms’ investment decisions in two ways. First, increased transparency can reduce firms’ cost of capital and improve access to external financing, allowing firms to invest in a larger set of positive NPV projects. Second, increased transparency can improve external monitoring and help mitigate over- or under-investment stemming from managerial agency problems. On the other hand, frequent reporting can distort investment decisions. In particular, frequent reporting can cause managers to make myopic investment decisions that boost short-term performance measures at the cost of long run firm value. Which of these two forces dominate is an open empirical question that we explore in this study.
The experience of the overwhelming majority of corporate managers, and their advisors, is that attacks by activist hedge funds are followed by declines in long-term future performance. Indeed, activist hedge fund attacks, and the efforts to avoid becoming the target of an attack, result in increased leverage, decreased investment in CAPEX and R&D and employee layoffs and poor employee morale.
Several law school professors who have long embraced shareholder-centric corporate governance are promoting a statistical study that they claim establishes that activist hedge fund attacks on corporations do not damage the future operating performance of the targets, but that this statistical study irrefutably establishes that on average the long-term operating performance of the targets is actually improved.
In a memorandum issued by the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (Wachtell) last week, Do Activist Hedge Funds Really Create Long Term Value?, the firm’s founding partner Martin Lipton and another senior partner of the law firm criticize again my empirical study with Alon Brav and Wei Jiang, The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism. The memorandum announces triumphantly that Wachtell is not alone in its opposition to our study and that two staff members from the Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations (IGOPP) in Montreal issued a white paper (available here) criticizing our study. Wachtell asserts that the IGOPP paper provides a “refutation” of our findings that is “academically rigorous.” An examination of this paper, however, indicates that it is anything but academically rigorous, and that the Wachtell memo is yet another attempt by the law firm to run away from empirical evidence that is inconsistent with its long-standing claims.
About a year ago, Professor Lucian Bebchuk took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to declare that he had conducted a study that he claimed proved that activist hedge funds are good for companies and the economy. Not being statisticians or econometricians, we did not respond by trying to conduct a study proving the opposite. Instead, we pointed out some of the more obvious methodological flaws in Professor Bebchuk’s study, as well as some observations from our years of real-world experience that lead us to believe that the short-term influence of activist hedge funds has been, and continues to be, profoundly destructive to the long-term health of companies and the American economy.
Are private firms more efficient than public firms? Jensen (1986) suggests that going-private could result in efficiency gains by aligning managers’ incentives with shareholders and providing better monitoring. In our paper, Do Going-Private Transactions Affect Plant Efficiency and Investment?, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, we examine a broad dataset of going-private transactions, including those taken private by private equity, management and private operating firms between 1981 and 2005. We link data on going-private transactions to rich plant-level US Census microdata to examine how going-private affects plant-level productivity, investment, and exit (sale and closure). While we find within-plant increases in measures of productivity after going-private, there is little evidence of efficiency gains relative to a control sample composed of firms from within the same industry, and of similar age and size (employment) as the going-private firms. Further, our productivity results hold excluding all plants that underwent a change in ownership after going-private, alleviating the potential concern that control plants may undergo improvements through ownership changes.
The protest against short termism in corporate America is rising. Business and political leaders are decrying the emphasis on quarterly results—which they claim is preventing corporations from making long-term investments needed for sustainable growth.
However, these critics of short termism have a skewed view of the facts and there are logical flaws in their arguments. Moreover, their proposals would dramatically cut back on shareholder rights to hold companies accountable.
The critics of short termism stress how much the average daily share volume has increased over the last few decades. Although this is factually correct, this sharp average increase is caused primarily by a tremendous rise in intraday trading.