“The Dumbest Idea in the World”: Corporate America's False - and Dangerous - Ideology of Shareholder Value
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After months of investigation, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling concluded the Macondo blowout could be traced to multiple decisions by BP employees and contractors to ignore standard safety procedures in the attempt to cut costs. (At the time of the blowout, the Macondo project was more than a month behind schedule and almost $60 million over budget, with each day of delay costing an estimated $1 million.)2 Nor was this the first time BP had sacrificed safety to save time and money. The Commission concluded, “BP’s safety lapses have been chronic.”3
The Ideology of Shareholder Value
Why would a sophisticated international corporation make such an enormous and costly mistake? In trying to save $1 million a day by skimping on safety procedures at the Macondo well, BP cost its shareholders alone a hundred thousand times more, nearly $100 billion. Even if following proper safety procedures had delayed the development of the Macondo well for a full year, BP would have done much better. The gamble was foolish, even from BP’s perspective.
This book argues that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is only one example of a larger problem that afflicts many public corporations today. That problem might be called shareholder value thinking. According to the doctrine of shareholder value, public corporations “belong” to their shareholders, and they exist for one purpose only, to maximize shareholders’ wealth. Shareholder wealth, in turn, is typically measured by share price—meaning share price today, not share price next year or next decade.
Shareholder value thinking is endemic in the business world today. Fifty years ago, if you had asked the directors or CEO of a large public company what the company’s purpose was, you might have been told the corporation had many purposes: to provide equity investors with solid returns, but also to build great products, to provide decent livelihoods for employees, and to contribute to the community and the nation. Today, you are likely to be told the company has but one purpose, to maximize its shareholders’ wealth. This sort of thinking drives directors and executives to run public firms like BP with a relentless focus on raising stock price. In the quest to “unlock shareholder value” they sell key assets, fire loyal employees, and ruthlessly squeeze the workforce that remains; cut back on product support, customer assistance, and research and development; delay replacing outworn, out- moded, and unsafe equipment; shower CEOs with stock options and expensive pay packages to “incentivize” them; drain cash reserves to pay large dividends and repurchase company shares, leveraging firms until they teeter on the brink of insolvency; and lobby regulators and Congress to change the law so they can chase short-term profits speculating in credit default swaps and other high-risk financial derivatives. They do these things even though many individual directors and executives feel uneasy about such strategies, intuiting that a single-minded focus on share price may not serve the interests of society, the company, or shareholders themselves.
This book examines and challenges the doctrine of shareholder value. It argues that shareholder value ideology is just that—an ideology, not a legal requirement or a practical necessity of modern business life. United States corporate law does not, and never has, required directors of public corporations to maximize either share price or shareholder wealth. To the contrary, as long as boards do not use their power to enrich themselves, the law gives them a wide range of discretion to run public corporations with other goals in mind, including growing the firm, creating quality products, protecting employees, and serving the public interest. Chasing shareholder value is a managerial choice, not a legal requirement.