Why do governments repay external sovereign borrowing? This is a question that has been central to discussions of sovereign debt capacity, yet the answer is still being debated. Models where countries service their external debt for fear of being excluded from capital markets for a sustained period (or some other form of harsh punishment such as trade sanctions or invasion) seem very persuasive, yet are at odds with the fact that defaulters seem to be able to return to borrowing in international capital markets after a short while. With sovereign debt around the world at extremely high levels, understanding why sovereigns repay foreign creditors, and what their debt capacity might be, is an important concern for policy makers and investors. In our paper, Sovereign Debt, Government Myopia, and the Financial Sector, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, we attempt to address these issues.
Posts Tagged ‘Short-termism’
Complaints that investors only look for short-term gains are nothing new. As early as 1990 an Economist article proclaimed: “The old bugbear of businessmen — that fund managers are too obsessed with the short term, and unwilling to buy shares in companies with ambitious research projects — is back on the prowl.”
Recently, the turnover of shares in listed companies has grown to numbers far exceeding those of 1990. Does this change in investor behavior influence the behavior of managers in listed firms?
The institutional innovation of freely tradable shares, traceable to Holland in the 17th century, made it possible for companies such as the Dutch East India Company to have longer investment horizons than individual investors. Listing shares ensured that an investor could recoup his money from other investors and that, as a result, companies didn’t have to repay individual investors. Seen in this light, one might assume that investor short-termism would have little influence on board decisions at listed companies and much more influence on board decisions at privately held companies. General opinion, however, disagrees.
Last month I posted to SRRN Corporate Short-Termism – In the Boardroom and in the Courtroom, which the Business Lawyer will publish this August.
In this paper, I examine a long-held view in corporate circles has been that furious rapid trading in stock markets has been increasing in recent decades, justifying more judicial measures that shield managers and boards from shareholder influence, so that boards and managers are freer to pursue sensible long-term strategies in their investment and management policies.
However, when I evaluate the evidence in favor of that view, the evidence turns out to be insufficient to justify insulating boards from markets further. While there is evidence of short-term distortions, the view is countered by several under-analyzed aspects of the American economy, each of which alone could trump the board isolation prescription. Together they make the case for further judicial isolation of boards from markets untenable.
In a new study, The Myth that Insulating Boards Serves Long-Term Value (forthcoming, Columbia Law Review, October 2013), I comprehensively analyze – and debunk – the view that insulating corporate boards serves long-term value.
Advocates of board insulation claim that shareholder interventions, and the fear of such interventions, lead companies to take myopic actions that are costly in the long term – and that insulating boards from such pressure therefore serves the long-term interests of companies and their shareholders. This claim is regularly invoked to support limits on the rights and involvement of shareholders and has had considerable influence. I show, however, that this claim has a shaky conceptual foundation and is not supported by the data.
In contrast to what insulation advocates commonly assume, short investment horizons and imperfect market pricing do not imply that board insulation will be value-increasing in the long term. I show that, even assuming such short horizons and imperfect pricing, shareholder activism, and the fear of shareholder intervention, will produce not only long-term costs but also some significant countervailing long-term benefits.
Furthermore, there is a good basis for concluding that, on balance, the negative long-term costs of board insulation exceeds its long-term benefits. To begin, the behavior of informed market participants reflects their beliefs that shareholder activism, and the arrangements facilitating it, are overall beneficial for the long-term interest of companies and their shareholders. Moreover, a review of the available empirical evidence provides no support for the claim that board insulation is overall beneficial in the long term; to the contrary, the body of evidence favors the view that shareholder engagement, and arrangements that facilitate it, serve the long-term interests of companies and their shareholders.
I conclude that, going forward, policy makers and institutional investors should reject arguments for board insulation in the name of long-term value.
Here is a more detailed account of the analysis in the article:
I recently examined the problem of corporate short-termism from two nonstandard angles. One was that some short-termism is sensible. Large firms face an increasingly fluid economic, technological, and political environment – owing to more global and competitive markets, to the greater potential of technological change to alter firms’ business environment, and to governments’ growing influence over what makes business sense. In this kind of a fluid environment, large companies must be cautious before making large, long-term commitments.
“One-share, one-vote,” a bedrock principle of Anglo-Saxon corporate governance, is back in the spotlight. Except this time the aim is to diminish its application rather than to extend its global footprint. Rising short-termism among investors — which threatens to destabilize both companies and the wider economy — is prompting a reconsideration of the principle that all shareholders should have equal say.
Prominent commentators such as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, McKinsey Managing Director Dominic Barton and blog, and Vanguard Group founder John Bogle have advocated bolstering the voting rights of long-term shareholders or, conversely, withholding them from short-term investors. Significantly, the Financial Times reported last week that the European Commission was preparing a proposal to give “loyal” shareholders extra voting influence.
Seeking insulation from near-term pressures, Facebook, LinkedIn, Groupon, and other Silicon Valley outfits went public in recent years with dual-class shares that gave their founders — believed to be the most committed to their long-term success — voting power of up to 150 times greater than those accorded outside investors. Google, which adopted a similar share structure at the time of its initial public offering in 2004, has gone further with its decision last spring to issue non-voting stock.
I respectfully take issue with Professor Bebchuk’s analysis and conclusions. Professor Bebchuk’s empirical evidence consists basically of cherry-picked stock market prices and a unanimous vote in favor of shareholder-centric governance by institutional shareholders. Professor Bebchuk’s hyperbole cannot disguise the fact that his shareholder-centric model promotes short-termism and that it is this short-term focus on capital allocation and other business decisions that has led to the decline of the American economy and greater unemployment. When one attempts to parse his syllogism, it doesn’t hold-together. Apparently, Professor Bebchuk believes that classified boards can’t be bad unless directors are bad, or else they would have all committed ritual suicide rather than ever agree to declassification.
The power of short-term shareholders in widely-held public firms is widely blamed for “short-termism”: directors and executives feel pressured to boost the short-term stock price at the expense of creating long-term economic value. The recent financial crisis, which many attribute to the influence of short-term shareholders, has renewed and intensified these concerns.
To reduce short-termism, reformers have sought to strengthen the number and power of long-term shareholders in public corporations. For example, the Aspen Institute has recommended imposing a fee on securities transactions and making favorable long-term capital gains rates available only to investors that own shares for much longer than a year. Underlying these proposals is a long-standing and largely uncontested belief: that long-term shareholders, unlike short-term shareholders, will want managers to maximize the economic pie created by the firm.
I recently posted a paper on SSRN explaining why this rosy view of long-term shareholders is wrong. In my paper, The Uneasy Case for Favoring Long-term Shareholders, I demonstrate that long-term shareholder interests do not align with maximizing the economic pie created by the firm – even when shareholders are the only residual claimants on the firm’s value. In fact, long-term shareholder interests might be less well aligned with maximizing the economic pie than short-term shareholder interests. In short, we can’t count on long-term shareholders to be better stewards of the firm simply because they hold their shares for a longer period of time.
In what can only be considered a form of extortion, activist hedge funds are preying on American corporations to create short-term increases in the market price of their stock at the expense of long-term value. Prominent academics are serving the narrow interests of activist hedge funds by arguing that the activists perform an important service by uncovering “under-valued” or “under-managed” corporations and marshaling the voting power of institutional investors to force sale, liquidation or restructuring transactions to gain a pop in the price of their stock. The activist hedge fund leads the attack, and most institutional investors make little or no effort to determine long-term value (and how much of it is being destroyed). Nor do the activist hedge funds and institutional investors (much less, their academic cheerleaders) make any effort to take into account the consequences to employees and communities of the corporations that are attacked. Nor do they pay any attention to the impact of the short-termism that their raids impose and enforce on all corporations, and the concomitant adverse impact on capital investment, research and development, innovation and the economy and society as a whole.
The activist-hedge-fund attack on Apple—in which one of the most successful, long-term-visionary companies of all time is being told by a money manager that Apple is doing things all wrong and should focus on short-term return of cash—is a clarion call for effective action to deal with the misuse of shareholder power. Institutional investors on average own more than 70% of the shares of the major public companies. Their voting power is being harnessed by a gaggle of activist hedge funds who troll through SEC filings looking for opportunities to demand a change in a company’s strategy or portfolio that will create a short-term profit without regard to the impact on the company’s long-term prospects. These self-seeking activists are aided and abetted by Harvard Law School Professor Lucian Bebchuk who leads a cohort of academics who have embraced the concept of “shareholder democracy” and close their eyes to the real-world effect of shareholder power, harnessed to activists seeking a quick profit, on a targeted company and the company’s employees and other stakeholders. They ignore the fact that it is the stakeholders and investors with a long-term perspective who are the true beneficiaries of most of the funds managed by institutional investors. Although essentially ignored by Professor Bebchuk, there is growing recognition of the fiduciary duties of institutional investors not to seek short-term profits at the expense of the pensioners and employees who are the beneficiaries of the pension and welfare plans and the owners of shares in the managed funds. In a series of brilliant speeches and articles, the problem of short-termism has been laid bare by Chancellor Leo E. Strine, Jr. of the Delaware Court of Chancery, e.g., One Fundamental Corporate Governance Question We Face: Can Corporations Be Managed for the Long Term Unless Their Powerful Electorates Also Act and Think Long Term?, and is the subject of a continuing Aspen Institute program, Overcoming Short-Termism.