A rising ideology of shareholder value in the United States

How and why corporations make decisions has changed over the decades. Here is a quick argument of what has changed in the US:

Such is the power of the ideology known as shareholder value. This notion that shareholder interests should reign supreme did not always so deeply infuse American business. It became widely accepted only in the 1990s, and since 2000 it has come under increasing fire from business and legal scholars, and from a few others who ought to know (former General Electric CEO Jack Welch declared in 2009, “Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world”). But in practice—in the rhetoric of most executives, in how they are paid and evaluated, in the governance reforms that get proposed and occasionally enacted, and in almost every media depiction of corporate conflict—we seem utterly stuck on the idea that serving shareholders better will make companies work better. It’s so simple and intuitive. Simple, intuitive, and most probably wrong—not just for banks but for all corporations.

As Cornell University Law School’s Lynn Stout explains in her 2012 book, The Shareholder Value Myth, maximizing returns to shareholders is not something U.S. corporations are legally required to do. Yes, Congress and regulators have begun pushing the rules in that direction, and a few court rulings have favored shareholder primacy. But on the whole, Stout writes, the law spells out that boards of directors are beholden not to shareholders but to the corporation, meaning that they’re allowed to balance the interests of shareholders against those of stakeholders such as employees, customers, suppliers, debt holders, and society at large…

To be sure, the case against putting shareholders first is not quite the slam dunk for all corporations that it is for highly indebted, too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Outside of banking, the empirical evidence against the doctrine is more suggestive than dispositive. Supporters of shareholder rights can point to studies showing that certain shareholder-friendly changes, such as removing defenses against hostile takeovers, tend to bring higher share prices. Skeptics argue that this says little about long-term impact, and point instead to a more expansive, but impressionistic, set of indicators. The performance of U.S. stock markets since shareholder value became doctrine in the 1990s has been disappointing, and the number of publicly traded companies has declined sharply. The nation in which shareholders have the most power, the United Kingdom, has an anemic corporate sector; on Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s 100 largest companies, it claims only three, compared with nine from France and 11 from Germany, where shareholders hold less sway. Multiple studies of corporations that stay successful over time—most famously the meticulously researched books of the Stanford-professor-turned-freelance-business-guru Jim Collins, such as Good to Great—have found that they tend to be driven by goals and principles other than shareholder returns.

Collins’s books embody the most common criticism of shareholder value: that while delivering big returns to shareholders over time is great (it is, in fact, Collins’s chief measure of “greatness”), focusing on shareholder value won’t get you there. That’s what Jack Welch was getting at, too. In a complex world, you can’t know which actions will maximize returns to shareholders 15 or 20 years hence. What’s more, most shareholders don’t hold on to any stock for long, so focusing on their concerns fosters a counterproductive preoccupation with short-term stock-price swings. And it can be awfully hard to motivate employees or entice customers with the motto “We maximize shareholder value.”

Corporations and what their directors want, what their investors want, and how they operate changes over time based on surrounding economic and social forces. They can also innovate and develop new ways of pursuing profit or contributing to the public good. Thus, to understand them, invest in them, and develop regulations and policies involving them, we need to know their social context and their patterns of development.

One of the more interesting books I’ve read related to this topic is Frank Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. Dobbin shows there was no “right” way to promote and develop railroads. France’s approach was to develop a centralized railroad system based on Paris and highly regulated by technocrats. Britain took the opposite tack: no regulation to start as railroad firms could build and do what they wanted. After a while, Britain had to introduce regulations because corporations were putting profits first over public concerns like railroad safety (an example: a need to regulate railroad brakes to avoid large crashes). The United States took a middle approach: some public-private partnerships with some regulation but also with the ability for corporations to make big money. Looking back from today, the “right” way might seem obvious but this whole process was strongly driven by social and cultural circumstances and norms.

Knowing all of this, perhaps the next question to ask is how might corporations change in 20 or 50 years?

How Wal-Mart plans to regain its edge

Here is an interesting summary of Wal-Mart’s corporate plans for the near future. The headline of the article says it all: “Wal-Mart, humbled king of retail, plots comeback.”

Three years ago, Wal-Mart ruled for convenience, selection and price. But today it is losing customers and revenue, and smarting from decisions that backfired.

Wal-Mart is not in danger of ceding its place atop the retail world. But competitors have begun to chip away at its dominance.

Over the last year, revenue at Wal-Mart stores open at least a year has fallen by an average 0.75 percent each quarter, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Revenue rose by an average of nearly 1.7 percent at Target, 8 percent at Costco and 5.9 percent at Family Dollar.

To fight back, Wal-Mart is again emphasizing low prices and adding back thousands of products it had culled in an overzealous bid to clean up stores. It’s also plotting an expansion into cities, even neighborhoods where others dare not go.

Even as the article talks about stagnant or slightly declining sales at existing stores plus some questionable decisions (like reducing the number of products on the shelves), the main issue seems to be perceptions. On the business side, Wal-Mart has been challenged, particularly on the lower end by dollar stores. But business has not tanked and Wal-Mart still thinks it has new markets to tap in the United States, particularly in urban areas. What do investors and shareholders think – is it just about stronger growth right now? On the public image side, stores like Target have offered an enticing alternative. And yet Wal-Mart has changed the layout and design of its stores to look more like Target and this seems to have helped. Ultimately, the article says Target’s revenues are still one-sixth of that of Wal-Mart.

It sounds like Wal-Mart thinks they need to make some changes. There is no guarantee that any business, even a behemoth like Wal-Mart, will continue to expand or even be profitable. And just by virtue of its size, Wal-Mart’s actions will continue to be scrutinized.