08 March 2010

Collective Fixation on Short-Term Profits

Vivek Sehgal brings up an important point in the post Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is (3 March 2010) here at Supply Chain Expert Commnity. Even though, at GeeWhiz To R.O.I. I talk a lot about the the goal of business being to make more money, I generally add ...tomorrow than you are making today. Making more money "tomorrow," should not be predicated on actions that will diminish the long-term prospects for making more money. Nevertheless, a lot of companies -- especially publicly traded companies -- have a fixation on short-term profits that is damaging to the long-term health of the enterprise.

W. Edwards Deming diagnosed this issue early and brought it to our attention about 30 years ago. He called it "paper entrepreneurialism." The investing relationship of real entrepreneurs looks like this:
FIG Invest_Entrepreneurs.jpg
Entrepreneurs sitting in this relationship have a vested interest in the ability of the firm to produce profits over the long term. Such investor-entrepreneurs seldom intentionally make decisions to reap short-term profits at the expense of the long-term prospects for the business.

Speculative investors have a slightly different relationship with the firm(s) in which they take stock. That relationships looks like this:
FIG Invest_Investors.jpg
The most connected investors are those that hold a relationship similar to that of the real entrepreneurs. They invest in shares directly with the company (or at least have an more intimate relationships with the firm and knowledge of its management, even if they must make their stock acquisitions through a broker). However, most of the investors agreed to buy stock in the specific firms based on the advice of their broker. They may know little or nothing about the firm or the firm's management directly. They trust the advice of their broker.

The intervention of the broker/brokerage house makes buying and selling of stocks easier, and the brokers are typically incented to produce results (return on investment) for their customers (the shareholders) over both the short-term and long-term. The focus of the broker and the guidance given to the investors will vary based on personal preferences. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that the investors are abstracted from their investments by the borkers and management at the publicly held companies must satisfy the short-term expectations of the brokers or, in the interest of their customers, the brokers are likely to shift investment away from companies performing poorly in the short-term in favor of those with better short-term returns on investment.

Paper entrepreneurs are even further abstracted from their holdings as shown in the following diagram:
FIG Invest_PaperEntrepreneurs.jpg
With the introduction of mutual funds and government-incented retirement plans, more capital has moved into the markets, but at the price of having the investors abstracted from the companies in which their dollars are invested by three or four layers, which layers tend to be focused entirely on short-term performance and profitability. By a huge factor, a majority of the investors in today's capital markets do not even know the names of the companies in which they hold stock. How can they be anything but "paper entrepreneurs"?  They seek the highest return on their investments without any concern for the long-term viability of the companies providing the returns.

Consider that the mutual fund manager. He care not one whit for the companies in which the fund he manages invests beyond the companies' ability to provide solid growth for the mutual fund over the next reporting period. He will gladly shift millions from company A to company B at the hint that company B's short-term return will outstrip company A's performance.

Next in line come the brokers and the brokerage houses. They are willing to recommend mutual fund C over mutual fund D on the basis of their likelihood of producing short-term returns to the investors. The brokers and brokerage houses are incented to provide this kind of advice without consideration for the long-term survivability of the companies which their investments ultimately reside.

Then, of course, for the vast majority of investors, there are the corporate retirement and pension fund managers. They, too, have only one incentive: to see good performance in the funds they manage. They, like the investors themselves, quite often have no knowledge -- ultimately -- about the companies in which their investments ultimately are put to use.

All of this leads to the boards of directors in publicly-held companies providing incentives to their chief executives to provide short-term profitability so as to keep market capitalization up -- which is almost entirely based on stock prices. So, how do CEOs and CFOs react to all of this? They are willing to sacrifice the long-term prospects of their own organization for short-term performance during the particular CEO's or CFO's term in office -- and their successors will do the same.

This constitutes a grave danger to publicly-held companies in the U.S.  What is the answer?

Contact me!

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