From The Corporate Saving Glut in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis
From Why Are Corporations Holding So Much Cash?
From FACTSET Cash and Investment Quarterly
Companies are holding on to the large sum of cash. Rather than capital investments (CAPEX), cash is being used for share buybacks, dividend payouts, mergers and acquisitions, and cash investments (short and long term).
From FACTSET Cash and Investment Quarterly
Key Sources of Research:
The Corporate Saving Glut in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis
Why do Firms buyback their Shares? Causes and Consequences.
From Stock buybacks: From retain-and reinvest to downsize-and-distribute
Since the late 1980s, in the name of “maximizing shareholder value” (MSV), U.S. corporate distributions to shareholders have exploded. Dividends are the traditional mode of providing a stream of income to shareholders who, as the name says, hold on to a company’s stock, thus supporting stock-price stability. In contrast, stock repurchases, in which a company buys back its own shares from the marketplace, thus reducing the number of outstanding shares, provide short-term boosts to a company’s stock price, thus contributing to stock-price volatility. Until the mid-1980s dividends were the overwhelmingly predominant form of distributing cash to shareholders. Since then, however, even with dividends on the rise, stock buybacks have added substantially to distributions to shareholders.
Over the decade 2004-2013, 454 companies in S&P 500 Index in March 2014 that were publicly listed over the ten years did $3.4 trillion in stock buybacks, representing 51 percent of net income. These companies expended an additional 35 percent of net income on dividends.5 And buybacks remain in vogue: According to data compiled by Factset, for the 12-month period ending December 2014, S&P 500 companies spent $565 billion on buybacks, up 18 percent from the previous 12-month period.6
Stock buybacks are an important part of the explanation for both the concentration of income among the richest households and the disappearance of middle-class employment opportunities in the United States over the past three decades.7 Over that period the resource-allocation regime at many, if not most, major U.S. business corporations has transitioned from “retain-and-reinvest” to “downsize-and-distribute.” Under retain-and-reinvest, the corporation retains earnings and reinvests them in the productive capabilities embodied in its labor force. Under downsize-and-distribute, the corporation lays off experienced, and often more expensive, workers, and distributes corporate cash to shareholders.8 My research suggests that, with its downsize-and-distribute resource-allocation regime, the “buyback corporation” is in large part responsible for a national economy characterized by income inequity, employment instability, and diminished innovative capability – or the opposite of what I have called “sustainable prosperity.”9
From Buyback Quarterly – Factset/December 2016
From Stock buybacks: From retain-and reinvest to downsize-and-distribute
Five years after the official end of the Great Recession, corporate profits are high, and the stock market is booming. Yet most Americans are not sharing in the recovery. While the top 0.1% of income recipients—which include most of the highest-ranking corporate executives—reap almost all the income gains, good jobs keep disappearing, and new employment opportunities tend to be insecure and underpaid. Corporate profitability is not translating into widespread economic prosperity.
The allocation of corporate profits to stock buybacks deserves much of the blame. Consider the 449 companies in the S&P 500 index that were publicly listed from 2003 through 2012. During that period those companies used 54% of their earnings—a total of $2.4 trillion—to buy back their own stock, almost all through purchases on the open market. Dividends absorbed an additional 37% of their earnings. That left very little for investments in productive capabilities or higher incomes for employees.
The buyback wave has gotten so big, in fact, that even shareholders—the presumed beneficiaries of all this corporate largesse—are getting worried. “It concerns us that, in the wake of the financial crisis, many companies have shied away from investing in the future growth of their companies,” Laurence Fink, the chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in an open letter to corporate America in March. “Too many companies have cut capital expenditure and even increased debt to boost dividends and increase share buybacks.”
Why are such massive resources being devoted to stock repurchases? Corporate executives give several reasons, which I will discuss later. But none of them has close to the explanatory power of this simple truth: Stock-based instruments make up the majority of their pay, and in the short term buybacks drive up stock prices. In 2012 the 500 highest-paid executives named in proxy statements of U.S. public companies received, on average, $30.3 million each; 42% of their compensation came from stock options and 41% from stock awards. By increasing the demand for a company’s shares, open-market buybacks automatically lift its stock price, even if only temporarily, and can enable the company to hit quarterly earnings per share (EPS) targets.
As a result, the very people we rely on to make investments in the productive capabilities that will increase our shared prosperity are instead devoting most of their companies’ profits to uses that will increase their own prosperity—with unsurprising results. Even when adjusted for inflation, the compensation of top U.S. executives has doubled or tripled since the first half of the 1990s, when it was already widely viewed as excessive. Meanwhile, overall U.S. economic performance has faltered.
If the U.S. is to achieve growth that distributes income equitably and provides stable employment, government and business leaders must take steps to bring both stock buybacks and executive pay under control. The nation’s economic health depends on it.
From Value Creation to Value Extraction
For three decades I’ve been studying how the resource allocation decisions of major U.S. corporations influence the relationship between value creation and value extraction, and how that relationship affects the U.S. economy. From the end of World War II until the late 1970s, a retain-and-reinvest approach to resource allocation prevailed at major U.S. corporations. They retained earnings and reinvested them in increasing their capabilities, first and foremost in the employees who helped make firms more competitive. They provided workers with higher incomes and greater job security, thus contributing to equitable, stable economic growth—what I call “sustainable prosperity.”
This pattern began to break down in the late 1970s, giving way to a downsize-and-distribute regime of reducing costs and then distributing the freed-up cash to financial interests, particularly shareholders. By favoring value extraction over value creation, this approach has contributed to employment instability and income inequality.
As documented by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the richest 0.1% of U.S. households collected a record 12.3% of all U.S. income in 2007, surpassing their 11.5% share in 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression. In the financial crisis of 2008–2009, their share fell sharply, but it has since rebounded, hitting 11.3% in 2012.
Since the late 1980s, the largest component of the income of the top 0.1% has been compensation, driven by stock-based pay. Meanwhile, the growth of workers’ wages has been slow and sporadic, except during the internet boom of 1998–2000, the only time in the past 46 years when real wages rose by 2% or more for three years running. Since the late 1970s, average growth in real wages has increasingly lagged productivity growth. (See the exhibit “When Productivity and Wages Parted Ways.”)
When Productivity and Wages Parted Ways
From 1948 to the mid-1970s, increases in productivity and wages went hand in hand. Then a gap opened between the two.
Not coincidentally, U.S. employment relations have undergone a transformation in the past three decades. Mass plant closings eliminated millions of unionized blue-collar jobs. The norm of a white-collar worker’s spending his or her entire career with one company disappeared. And the seismic shift toward offshoring left all members of the U.S. labor force—even those with advanced education and substantial work experience—vulnerable to displacement.
To some extent these structural changes could be justified initially as necessary responses to changes in technology and competition. In the early 1980s permanent plant closings were triggered by the inroads superior Japanese manufacturers had made in consumer-durable and capital-goods industries. In the early 1990s one-company careers fell by the wayside in the IT sector because the open-systems architecture of the microelectronics revolution devalued the skills of older employees versed in proprietary technologies. And in the early 2000s the offshoring of more-routine tasks, such as writing unsophisticated software and manning customer call centers, sped up as a capable labor force emerged in low-wage developing economies and communications costs plunged, allowing U.S. companies to focus their domestic employees on higher-value-added work.
These practices chipped away at the loyalty and dampened the spending power of American workers, and often gave away key competitive capabilities of U.S. companies. Attracted by the quick financial gains they produced, many executives ignored the long-term effects and kept pursuing them well past the time they could be justified.
A turning point was the wave of hostile takeovers that swept the country in the 1980s. Corporate raiders often claimed that the complacent leaders of the targeted companies were failing to maximize returns to shareholders. That criticism prompted boards of directors to try to align the interests of management and shareholders by making stock-based pay a much bigger component of executive compensation.
Given incentives to maximize shareholder value and meet Wall Street’s expectations for ever higher quarterly EPS, top executives turned to massive stock repurchases, which helped them “manage” stock prices. The result: Trillions of dollars that could have been spent on innovation and job creation in the U.S. economy over the past three decades have instead been used to buy back shares for what is effectively stock-price manipulation.
Good Buybacks and Bad
Not all buybacks undermine shared prosperity. There are two major types: tender offers and open-market repurchases. With the former, a company contacts shareholders and offers to buy back their shares at a stipulated price by a certain near-term date, and then shareholders who find the price agreeable tender their shares to the company. Tender offers can be a way for executives who have substantial ownership stakes and care about a company’s long-term competitiveness to take advantage of a low stock price and concentrate ownership in their own hands. This can, among other things, free them from Wall Street’s pressure to maximize short-term profits and allow them to invest in the business. Henry Singleton was known for using tender offers in this way at Teledyne in the 1970s, and Warren Buffett for using them at GEICO in the 1980s. (GEICO became wholly owned by Buffett’s holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, in 1996.) As Buffett has noted, this kind of tender offer should be made when the share price is below the intrinsic value of the productive capabilities of the company and the company is profitable enough to repurchase the shares without impeding its real investment plans.
But tender offers constitute only a small portion of modern buybacks. Most are now done on the open market, and my research shows that they often come at the expense of investment in productive capabilities and, consequently, aren’t great for long-term shareholders.
Companies have been allowed to repurchase their shares on the open market with virtually no regulatory limits since 1982, when the SEC instituted Rule 10b-18 of the Securities Exchange Act. Under the rule, a corporation’s board of directors can authorize senior executives to repurchase up to a certain dollar amount of stock over a specified or open-ended period of time, and the company must publicly announce the buyback program. After that, management can buy a large number of the company’s shares on any given business day without fear that the SEC will charge it with stock-price manipulation—provided, among other things, that the amount does not exceed a “safe harbor” of 25% of the previous four weeks’ average daily trading volume. The SEC requires companies to report total quarterly repurchases but not daily ones, meaning that it cannot determine whether a company has breached the 25% limit without a special investigation.
Despite the escalation in buybacks over the past three decades, the SEC has only rarely launched proceedings against a company for using them to manipulate its stock price. And even within the 25% limit, companies can still make huge purchases: Exxon Mobil, by far the biggest stock repurchaser from 2003 to 2012, can buy back about $300 million worth of shares a day, and Apple up to $1.5 billion a day. In essence, Rule 10b-18 legalized stock market manipulation through open-market repurchases.
The rule was a major departure from the agency’s original mandate, laid out in the Securities Exchange Act in 1934. The act was a reaction to a host of unscrupulous activities that had fueled speculation in the Roaring ’20s, leading to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. To prevent such shenanigans, the act gave the SEC broad powers to issue rules and regulations.
During the Reagan years, the SEC began to roll back those rules. The commission’s chairman from 1981 to 1987 was John Shad, a former vice chairman of E.F. Hutton and the first Wall Street insider to lead the commission in 50 years. He believed that the deregulation of securities markets would channel savings into economic investments more efficiently and that the isolated cases of fraud and manipulation that might go undetected did not justify onerous disclosure requirements for companies. The SEC’s adoption of Rule 10b-18 reflected that point of view.
Debunking the Justifications for Buybacks
Executives give three main justifications for open-market repurchases. Let’s examine them one by one:
1. Buybacks are investments in our undervalued shares that signal our confidence in the company’s future.
This makes some sense. But the reality is that over the past two decades major U.S. companies have tended to do buybacks in bull markets and cut back on them, often sharply, in bear markets. (See the exhibit “Where Did the Money from Productivity Increases Go?”) They buy high and, if they sell at all, sell low. Research by the Academic-Industry Research Network, a nonprofit I cofounded and lead, shows that companies that do buybacks never resell the shares at higher prices.
Where Did the Money from Productivity Increases Go?
Buybacks—as well as dividends—have skyrocketed in the past 20 years. (Note that these data are for the 251 companies that were in the S&P 500 in January 2013 and were public from 1981 through 2012. Inclusion of firms that went public after 1981, such as Microsoft, Cisco, Amgen, Oracle, and Dell, would make the increase in buybacks even more marked.) Though executives say they repurchase only undervalued stocks, buybacks increased when the stock market boomed, casting doubt on that claim.
Source: Standard & Poor’s Compustat database; the Academic-Industry Research Network.
Note: Mean repurchase and dividend amounts are in 2012 dollars.
Once in a while a company that bought high in a boom has been forced to sell low in a bust to alleviate financial distress. GE, for example, spent $3.2 billion on buybacks in the first three quarters of 2008, paying an average price of $31.84 per share. Then, in the last quarter, as the financial crisis brought about losses at GE Capital, the company did a $12 billion stock issue at an average share price of $22.25, in a failed attempt to protect its triple-A credit rating.
In general, when a company buys back shares at what turn out to be high prices, it eventually reduces the value of the stock held by continuing shareholders. “The continuing shareholder is penalized by repurchases above intrinsic value,” Warren Buffett wrote in his 1999 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. “Buying dollar bills for $1.10 is not good business for those who stick around.”
2. Buybacks are necessary to offset the dilution of earnings per share when employees exercise stock options.
Calculations that I have done for high-tech companies with broad-based stock option programs reveal that the volume of open-market repurchases is generally a multiple of the volume of options that employees exercise. In any case, there’s no logical economic rationale for doing repurchases to offset dilution from the exercise of employee stock options. Options are meant to motivate employees to work harder now to produce higher future returns for the company. Therefore, rather than using corporate cash to boost EPS immediately, executives should be willing to wait for the incentive to work. If the company generates higher earnings, employees can exercise their options at higher stock prices, and the company can allocate the increased earnings to investment in the next round of innovation.
3. Our company is mature and has run out of profitable investment opportunities; therefore, we should return its unneeded cash to shareholders.
Some people used to argue that buybacks were a more tax-efficient means of distributing money to shareholders than dividends. But that has not been the case since 2003, when the tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends were made the same. Much more important issues remain, however: What is the CEO’s main role and his or her responsibility to shareholders?
Companies that have built up productive capabilities over long periods typically have huge organizational and financial advantages when they enter related markets. One of the chief functions of top executives is to discover new opportunities for those capabilities. When they opt to do large open-market repurchases instead, it raises the question of whether these executives are doing their jobs.
A related issue is the notion that the CEO’s main obligation is to shareholders. It’s based on a misconception of the shareholders’ role in the modern corporation. The philosophical justification for giving them all excess corporate profits is that they are best positioned to allocate resources because they have the most interest in ensuring that capital generates the highest returns. This proposition is central to the “maximizing shareholder value” (MSV) arguments espoused over the years, most notably by Michael C. Jensen. The MSV school also posits that companies’ so-called free cash flow should be distributed to shareholders because only they make investments without a guaranteed return—and hence bear risk.
Why Money for Reinvestment Has Dried Up
Since the early 1980s, when restrictions on open-market buybacks were greatly eased, distributions to shareholders have absorbed a huge portion of net income, leaving much less for reinvestment in companies.
Note: Data are for the 251 companies that were in the S&P 500 Index in January 2013 and were publicly listed from 1981 through 2012. If the companies that went public after 1981, such as Microsoft, Cisco, Amgen, Oracle, and Dell, were included, repurchases as a percentage of net income would be even higher.
But the MSV school ignores other participants in the economy who bear risk by investing without a guaranteed return. Taxpayers take on such risk through government agencies that invest in infrastructure and knowledge creation. And workers take it on by investing in the development of their capabilities at the firms that employ them. As risk bearers, taxpayers, whose dollars support business enterprises, and workers, whose efforts generate productivity improvements, have claims on profits that are at least as strong as the shareholders’.
The irony of MSV is that public-company shareholders typically never invest in the value-creating capabilities of the company at all. Rather, they invest in outstanding shares in the hope that the stock price will rise. And a prime way in which corporate executives fuel that hope is by doing buybacks to manipulate the market. The only money that Apple ever raised from public shareholders was $97 million at its IPO in 1980. Yet in recent years, hedge fund activists such as David Einhorn and Carl Icahn—who played absolutely no role in the company’s success over the decades—have purchased large amounts of Apple stock and then pressured the company to announce some of the largest buyback programs in history.
The past decade’s huge increase in repurchases, in addition to high levels of dividends, have come at a time when U.S. industrial companies face new competitive challenges. This raises questions about how much of corporate cash flow is really “free” to be distributed to shareholders. Many academics—for example, Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih of Harvard Business School, in their 2009 HBR article “Restoring American Competitiveness” and their book Producing Prosperity—have warned that if U.S. companies don’t start investing much more in research and manufacturing capabilities, they cannot expect to remain competitive in a range of advanced technology industries.
Retained earnings have always been the foundation for investments in innovation. Executives who subscribe to MSV are thus copping out of their responsibility to invest broadly and deeply in the productive capabilities their organizations need to continually innovate. MSV as commonly understood is a theory of value extraction, not value creation.
Executives Are Serving Their Own Interests
As I noted earlier, there is a simple, much more plausible explanation for the increase in open-market repurchases: the rise of stock-based pay. Combined with pressure from Wall Street, stock-based incentives make senior executives extremely motivated to do buybacks on a colossal and systemic scale.
Consider the 10 largest repurchasers, which spent a combined $859 billion on buybacks, an amount equal to 68% of their combined net income, from 2003 through 2012. (See the exhibit “The Top 10 Stock Repurchasers.”) During the same decade, their CEOs received, on average, a total of $168 million each in compensation. On average, 34% of their compensation was in the form of stock options and 24% in stock awards. At these companies the next four highest-paid senior executives each received, on average, $77 million in compensation during the 10 years—27% of it in stock options and 29% in stock awards. Yet since 2003 only three of the 10 largest repurchasers—Exxon Mobil, IBM, and Procter & Gamble—have outperformed the S&P 500 Index.
The Top 10 Stock Repurchasers 2003–2012
At most of the leading U.S. companies below, distributions to shareholders were well in excess of net income. These distributions came at great cost to innovation, employment, and—in cases such as oil refining and pharmaceuticals—customers who had to pay higher prices for products.
Sources: Standard & Poor’s Compustat database; Standard & Poor’s Execucomp database; the Academic-Industry Research Network.
Note: The percentages of stock-based pay include gains realized from exercising stock options for all years plus, for 2003–2005, the fair value of restricted stock grants or, for 2006–2012, gains realized on vesting of stock awards. Rounding to the nearest billion may affect total distributions and percentages of net income. *Steven Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO from January 2000 to February 2014, did not receive any stock-based pay. He does, however, own about 4% of Microsoft’s shares, valued at more than $13 billion.
Reforming the System
Buybacks have become an unhealthy corporate obsession. Shifting corporations back to a retain-and-reinvest regime that promotes stable and equitable growth will take bold action. Here are three proposals:
Put an end to open-market buybacks.
In a 2003 update to Rule 10b-18, the SEC explained: “It is not appropriate for the safe harbor to be available when the issuer has a heightened incentive to manipulate its share price.” In practice, though, the stock-based pay of the executives who decide to do repurchases provides just this “heightened incentive.” To correct this glaring problem, the SEC should rescind the safe harbor.
A good first step toward that goal would be an extensive SEC study of the possible damage that open-market repurchases have done to capital formation, industrial corporations, and the U.S. economy over the past three decades. For example, during that period the amount of stock taken out of the market has exceeded the amount issued in almost every year; from 2004 through 2013 this net withdrawal averaged $316 billion a year. In aggregate, the stock market is not functioning as a source of funds for corporate investment. As I’ve already noted, retained earnings have always provided the base for such investment. I believe that the practice of tying executive compensation to stock price is undermining the formation of physical and human capital.
Rein in stock-based pay.
Many studies have shown that large companies tend to use the same set of consultants to benchmark executive compensation, and that each consultant recommends that the client pay its CEO well above average. As a result, compensation inevitably ratchets up over time. The studies also show that even declines in stock price increase executive pay: When a company’s stock price falls, the board stuffs even more options and stock awards into top executives’ packages, claiming that it must ensure that they won’t jump ship and will do whatever is necessary to get the stock price back up.
In 1991 the SEC began allowing top executives to keep the gains from immediately selling stock acquired from options. Previously, they had to hold the stock for six months or give up any “short-swing” gains. That decision has only served to reinforce top executives’ overriding personal interest in boosting stock prices. And because corporations aren’t required to disclose daily buyback activity, it gives executives the opportunity to trade, undetected, on inside information about when buybacks are being done. At the very least, the SEC should stop allowing executives to sell stock immediately after options are exercised. Such a rule could help launch a much-needed discussion of meaningful reform that goes beyond the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act’s “Say on Pay”—an ineffectual law that gives shareholders the right to make nonbinding recommendations to the board on compensation issues.
But overall the use of stock-based pay should be severely limited. Incentive compensation should be subject to performance criteria that reflect investment in innovative capabilities, not stock performance.
Transform the boards that determine executive compensation.
Boards are currently dominated by other CEOs, who have a strong bias toward ratifying higher pay packages for their peers. When approving enormous distributions to shareholders and stock-based pay for top executives, these directors believe they’re acting in the interests of shareholders.
That’s a big part of the problem. The vast majority of shareholders are simply investors in outstanding shares who can easily sell their stock when they want to lock in gains or minimize losses. As I argued earlier, the people who truly invest in the productive capabilities of corporations are taxpayers and workers. Taxpayers have an interest in whether a corporation that uses government investments can generate profits that allow it to pay taxes, which constitute the taxpayers’ returns on those investments. Workers have an interest in whether the company will be able to generate profits with which it can provide pay increases and stable career opportunities.
It’s time for the U.S. corporate governance system to enter the 21st century: Taxpayers and workers should have seats on boards. Their representatives would have the insights and incentives to ensure that executives allocate resources to investments in capabilities most likely to generate innovations and value.
Courage in Washington
After the Harvard Law School dean Erwin Griswold published “Are Stock Options Getting out of Hand?” in this magazine in 1960, Senator Albert Gore launched a campaign that persuaded Congress to whittle away special tax advantages for executive stock options. After the Tax Reform Act of 1976, the compensation expert Graef Crystal declared that stock options that qualified for the capital-gains tax rate, “once the most popular of all executive compensation devices…have been given the last rites by Congress.” It also happens that during the 1970s the share of all U.S. income that the top 0.1% of households got was at its lowest point in the past century.
The members of the U.S. Congress should show the courage and independence of their predecessors and go beyond “Say on Pay” to do something about excessive executive compensation. In addition, Congress should fix a broken tax regime that frequently rewards value extractors as if they were value creators and ignores the critical role of government investment in the infrastructure and knowledge that are so crucial to the competitiveness of U.S. business.
Instead, what we have now are corporations that lobby—often successfully—for federal subsidies for research, development, and exploration, while devoting far greater resources to stock buybacks. Here are three examples of such hypocrisy:
Exxon Mobil, while receiving about $600 million a year in U.S. government subsidies for oil exploration (according to the Center for American Progress), spends about $21 billion a year on buybacks. It spends virtually no money on alternative energy research.
Meanwhile, through the American Energy Innovation Council, top executives of Microsoft, GE, and other companies have lobbied the U.S. government to triple its investment in alternative energy research and subsidies, to $16 billion a year. Yet these companies had plenty of funds they could have invested in alternative energy on their own. Over the past decade Microsoft and GE, combined, have spent about that amount annually on buybacks.
Intel executives have long lobbied the U.S. government to increase spending on nanotechnology research. In 2005, Intel’s then-CEO, Craig R. Barrett, argued that “it will take a massive, coordinated U.S. research effort involving academia, industry, and state and federal governments to ensure that America continues to be the world leader in information technology.” Yet from 2001, when the U.S. government launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), through 2013 Intel’s expenditures on buybacks were almost four times the total NNI budget.
In response to complaints that U.S. drug prices are at least twice those in any other country, Pfizer and other U.S. pharmaceutical companies have argued that the profits from these high prices—enabled by a generous intellectual-property regime and lax price regulation—permit more R&D to be done in the United States than elsewhere. Yet from 2003 through 2012, Pfizer funneled an amount equal to 71% of its profits into buybacks, and an amount equal to 75% of its profits into dividends. In other words, it spent more on buybacks and dividends than it earned and tapped its capital reserves to help fund them. The reality is, Americans pay high drug prices so that major pharmaceutical companies can boost their stock prices and pad executive pay.Given the importance of the stock market and corporations to the economy and society, U.S. regulators must step in to check the behavior of those who are unable or unwilling to control themselves. “The mission of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission,” the SEC’s website explains, “is to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.” Yet, as we have seen, in its rulings on and monitoring of stock buybacks and executive pay over three decades, the SEC has taken a course of action contrary to those objectives. It has enabled the wealthiest 0.1% of society, including top executives, to capture the lion’s share of the gains of U.S. productivity growth while the vast majority of Americans have been left behind. Rule 10b-18, in particular, has facilitated a rigged stock market that, by permitting the massive distribution of corporate cash to shareholders, has undermined capital formation, including human capital formation.
The corporate resource allocation process is America’s source of economic security or insecurity, as the case may be. If Americans want an economy in which corporate profits result in shared prosperity, the buyback and executive compensation binges will have to end. As with any addiction, there will be withdrawal pains. But the best executives may actually get satisfaction out of being paid a reasonable salary for allocating resources in ways that sustain the enterprise, provide higher standards of living to the workers who make it succeed, and generate tax revenues for the governments that provide it with crucial inputs.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review.
Key Sources of Research:
Buybacks Around the World
Market Timing, Governance and Regulation
Alberto Manconi Urs Peyer Theo Vermaelen
Boundary Spanning in Multinational and Transnational Corporations
How do Boundaries evolve?
How do we coordinate and manage across Boundaries?
From BOUNDARY SPANNING IN GLOBAL ORGANIZATIONS
BACKGROUND TO SPECIAL ISSUE
Global organizations are inherently complex. Rapidly developing emerging markets and increasing spatial dispersion of innovative activities coupled with digital convergence create the need for continuously developing new ways of coordinating, organizing, and re-configuring of organizational structures and routines across inter and intra-organizational boundaries.
Early studies discussed the roles of gatekeepers in the context of technology transfer between different departments or functional areas within organizations. In more recent research, one stream has explored the role of boundary objects as contextual aids for cross-boundary knowledge sharing. A complementary stream has begun to investigate individuals as boundary spanners and their roles in effectively operating across complex inter- and intra-organizational, socio-cultural and geographic boundaries. Individuals are the nested antecedent to organizational level actions and therefore deserve careful theoretical and empirical deliberation.
Existing research on boundary spanning is mainly conceptual or based on a limited number of case studies. The research suggests that a small number of managers with unique skill sets or personality traits have emerged as critical facilitators for cross-boundary coordination. Boundaries can be both explicit as between parents and subsidiaries of multinational enterprises, and also implicit as between line managers and top management. For example, middle managers have been argued to perform the role of boundary spanners between line managers and top management in a general organizational context. A delineation of explicit and implicit boundaries across organizational subunits as well as within organizational subunits is important to understand the boundary spanning function.
From a managerial perspective, little is known about the characteristics of boundary spanners and whether their capabilities are inherent or can be developed. Although the literature has provided some useful insights, most existing research treats the individual actors and the organizational environment as two discrete dimensions. Further, the boundary-spanning role is essentially associated with structural holes and bridging ties, so key questions arise as to how they affect organizations and organizational capabilities, and how organizational structures foster or hinder boundary spanning.
From an organizational architecture perspective little is known about the specificities of boundaries and how they manifest themselves other than those that are explicit in the form of hierarchies, functional domains, or geographic territories. In global organizations, organizational subunits often become embedded in geographical contexts that differ in terms of culture, institutions, language, etc. These organizational realities create implicit boundaries in many dimensions, e.g., cultural and psychic distance, institutional incompatibilities as well as linguistic issues that may be labeled “lost in translation”. The boundary spanning function in such organizations includes a wide range of coordination mechanisms, which need to be explored in greater detail.
The boundary spanning phenomenon provides an opportunity for moving beyond emblematic borrowing of individual level theories and applying them to organizational level research. This will move the research agenda toward addressing both micro-macro linkage and macro-micro linkages systematically, thus substantially advancing theory.
With this special issue we seek to connect different, though loosely related research domains. The buoying microfoundations of strategy discussion, research on strategy as practice, and behavioral strategy could be particularly fertile areas for such an approach. In addition, this special issue seeks to foster cross- fertilization from and between different epistemological orientations. This includes research in the areas of industrial and organizational psychology and behavioral economics, among others.
TYPES OF SUBMISSION SOLICITED
Building on extant research, we seek contributions that either add empirical insights or/and advance theory building regarding the boundary spanning functions in global organizations as well as the characteristics, development and roles of boundary spanners, a special type of manager that allows organizations to manage more effectively across intra- and inter-organizational boundaries.
We are interested in theoretical, empirical and analytical submissions. We welcome submissions that address both, organizational and managerial based approaches to boundary spanning.
The submission to this special issue must go beyond anecdotal descriptions of the phenomenon and represent a substantial contribution to theory development. The topics that the special issue intends to cover include (but are not limited to):
Definition: What are explicit and implicit boundaries, how do they manifest themselves materially, contextually, intellectually, perceptually and from a structural and/or managerial coordination perspective?
Evolution of boundaries: How do boundaries arise, become entrenched in some circumstances and dissolve in others? To what extent do boundaries evolve dynamically over time and how do boundary- spanning roles emerge? How can analyses of boundaries improve our understanding of conflicts and conflict resolution in general?
Organizational versus managerial level of analysis: Is boundary spanning an organizational capability or a managerial skill or both? What is the role of management in either fostering or hindering boundary spanning? What are managerial or individual boundary spanning skills and how are they developed? How can our understanding of well-known organizational functions (middle managers, staff vs. line managers, etc.) be improved using an analysis of boundaries?
Boundary spanning, a cause or effect: Is the boundary spanning function a cause or an effect? In some contexts, the boundary spanning function could be an outcome of particular forms of organizational values or structures, while in others it could be a means of creating and reinforcing them.
Boundary spanning versus boundary setting: Is boundary spanning always a good thing? Are there situations in which boundary setting (and the associated specialization) is more important than boundary spanning?
Boundary spanners versus gatekeepers: What are the individual, functional and conceptual similarities that boundary spanners and gatekeepers share with each other? What are the differences that distinguish them from each other?
Organizational adaption: How do global organizations adapt over time to new boundary challenges and what are the organizational structures that make boundary spanners more or less effective?
Intra versus inter organizational perspective: Are there fundamental differences between “inter” and “intra” organizational boundary spanning activities? How does boundary spanning relate to the dialectical process of change implementation (theses) and resistance to change (antitheses) in complex/global organizations?
Role of external context in boundary spanning: In global organizations, organizational subunits often become embedded in geographical contexts that differ in terms of culture, institutions, language, etc. How do these differences affect the boundary spanning function as well as the effectiveness of boundary spanners?
From BOUNDARY SPANNING IN GLOBAL ORGANIZATIONS
What are Boundaries?
Early research defined boundaries as distinctive lines that separate what is within an organization and what is in the external environment with which it interacts (Aldrich and Herker 1977; Friedman and Podolny, 1992). Thus a boundary defines an entity. But boundaries also exist within organizations, either in the form of clearly defined subunits, like MNE HQs and their dispersed subsidiaries, or less clearly defined boundaries, based on, for example, different cultures, demographics, and professions. In organization theory, seminal works from both the economics (Coase, 1937) as well as the sociology (Weick, 1995) paradigms view boundary definition as a core function as well as an essential property. In classical transaction cost economics, the firm’s fundamental decision is to decide what activities are undertaken within its boundaries and what activities are implemented through market transactions (Williamson, 1979; Gibbons, 1999). In the theory of sense-making, an organization is identified in terms of those who share a common identity, often operationalized through their understanding of the external environment (Weick, 1988; 1995).
These two pillars of organization theory provide us with complementary perspectives on the nature of boundaries. The economics perspective is based on an external, explicitly defined notion of legal ownership; the boundary distinguishes between what the organization owns and what it does not (Demsetz, 1983). The sociology perspective is based on an internal, tacit notion of belonging (Durkheim, 1938) whereby the boundary appears between those who identify with the organization and those who do not.
The complementarity of these two perspectives is evident from that fact that they generate co-evolutionary, dynamic boundary drivers. Common ownership often underpins the creation of routines and operating procedures that build common syntax and semantics which eventually result in a common basis of sense-making. A strong organizationally derived identity – as seen in “corporate culture” (Guiso et al, 2015) or “political culture” (Mudambi and Navarra, 2003) – often drives acquisition and location decisions that result in common ownership.
Both economics-based and sociology-based boundaries are intangible, but they often give rise to tangible structures like national borders, factory gates and other physical boundary markers (Hernes, 2004). However, these are merely representations of the underlying reality that is based on the complementary notions of boundaries. It is possible that over time, physical edifices may strengthen boundaries, but they rarely create them.
Key sources of Research:
Exploring the Role of Boundary Spanning in Distributed Networks of Knowledge
Eli Hustad and Aurilla Aurelie Bechina
The Importance of Boundary-Spanners in Global Supply Chains and Logistics Management in the 21st Century
Since my earlier posts on this subject there has been several new studies published highlighting weakness in business investments as one of the cause of slower economic growth and lower interest rates.
Other significant factors impacting interest rates are demographic changes, and slower economic growth.
I argue that there is mutual (circular) causality in weak business investment, slower economic growth, and lower interest rates which reinforce each other.
Decreased competition, increased concentration, corporate savings glut, share buybacks, paying dividends are also identified as factors.
Number of public companies have decreased significantly in USA since 1996 due to M&A activity. See the data below.
Increased Mergers/Acquisitions, Increased Concentration, Decreased Competition, Decreased Number of Public Companies, Share buybacks, and Dividend Payouts are multiple perspectives of same problem.
From The Incredible Shrinking Universe of Stocks
The Causes and Consequences of Fewer U.S. Equities
Key sources of Research:
The Low Level of Global Real Interest Rates
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
Conference to Celebrate Arminio Fraga’s 60 Years
Casa das Garcas, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Short term Thinking in Investment Decisions of Businesses and Financial Markets
When companies buyback shares and pay dividends rather than investing in new capacity, it leads to low economic growth and low aggregate demand.
Central Banks respond by cutting interest rates. Yet Businesses do not invest in new capacity.
Many studies attribute this to short term thinking dominant in corporate investment decisions. Pressures from shareholders push corporate managers to be short term oriented.
Many economists and thinkers have criticized this recently as advanced economies are suffering from anemic growth.
Larry Summers has invoked Secular Stagnation. He says one of the reason for Secular Stagnation is short term thinking.
Andy Haldane of Bank of England has criticized short term thinking as it prevents investments and causes low economic growth.
Short Term Thinking
Low Economic Growth
Real Interest Rates
Income and Wealth Inequality
Long Term Investments
Corporate Cash Pools
Capitalism for the Long Term
From the March 2011 Issue of HBR
The near meltdown of the financial system and the ensuing Great Recession have been, and will remain, the defining issue for the current generation of executives. Now that the worst seems to be behind us, it’s tempting to feel deep relief—and a strong desire to return to the comfort of business as usual. But that is simply not an option. In the past three years we’ve already seen a dramatic acceleration in the shifting balance of power between the developed West and the emerging East, a rise in populist politics and social stresses in a number of countries, and significant strains on global governance systems. As the fallout from the crisis continues, we’re likely to see increased geopolitical rivalries, new international security challenges, and rising tensions from trade, migration, and resource competition. For business leaders, however, the most consequential outcome of the crisis is the challenge to capitalism itself.
That challenge did not just arise in the wake of the Great Recession. Recall that trust in business hit historically low levels more than a decade ago. But the crisis and the surge in public antagonism it unleashed have exacerbated the friction between business and society. On top of anxiety about persistent problems such as rising income inequality, we now confront understandable anger over high unemployment, spiraling budget deficits, and a host of other issues. Governments feel pressure to reach ever deeper inside businesses to exert control and prevent another system-shattering event.
My goal here is not to offer yet another assessment of the actions policymakers have taken or will take as they try to help restart global growth. The audience I want to engage is my fellow business leaders. After all, much of what went awry before and after the crisis stemmed from failures of governance, decision making, and leadership within companies. These are failures we can and should address ourselves.
In an ongoing effort that started 18 months ago, I’ve met with more than 400 business and government leaders across the globe. Those conversations have reinforced my strong sense that, despite a certain amount of frustration on each side, the two groups share the belief that capitalism has been and can continue to be the greatest engine of prosperity ever devised—and that we will need it to be at the top of its job-creating, wealth-generating game in the years to come. At the same time, there is growing concern that if the fundamental issues revealed in the crisis remain unaddressed and the system fails again, the social contract between the capitalist system and the citizenry may truly rupture, with unpredictable but severely damaging results.
Most important, the dialogue has clarified for me the nature of the deep reform that I believe business must lead—nothing less than a shift from what I call quarterly capitalism to what might be referred to as long-term capitalism. (For a rough definition of “long term,” think of the time required to invest in and build a profitable new business, which McKinsey research suggests is at least five to seven years.) This shift is not just about persistently thinking and acting with a next-generation view—although that’s a key part of it. It’s about rewiring the fundamental ways we govern, manage, and lead corporations. It’s also about changing how we view business’s value and its role in society.
There are three essential elements of the shift. First, business and finance must jettison their short-term orientation and revamp incentives and structures in order to focus their organizations on the long term. Second, executives must infuse their organizations with the perspective that serving the interests of all major stakeholders—employees, suppliers, customers, creditors, communities, the environment—is not at odds with the goal of maximizing corporate value; on the contrary, it’s essential to achieving that goal. Third, public companies must cure the ills stemming from dispersed and disengaged ownership by bolstering boards’ ability to govern like owners.
When making major decisions, Asians typically think in terms of at least 10 to 15 years. In the U.S. and Europe, nearsightedness is the norm.
None of these ideas, or the specific proposals that follow, are new. What is new is the urgency of the challenge. Business leaders today face a choice: We can reform capitalism, or we can let capitalism be reformed for us, through political measures and the pressures of an angry public. The good news is that the reforms will not only increase trust in the system; they will also strengthen the system itself. They will unleash the innovation needed to tackle the world’s grand challenges, pave the way for a new era of shared prosperity, and restore public faith in business.
1. Fight the Tyranny of Short-Termism
As a Canadian who for 25 years has counseled business, public sector, and nonprofit leaders across the globe (I’ve lived in Toronto, Sydney, Seoul, Shanghai, and now London), I’ve had a privileged glimpse into different societies’ values and how leaders in various cultures think. In my view, the most striking difference between East and West is the time frame leaders consider when making major decisions. Asians typically think in terms of at least 10 to 15 years. For example, in my discussions with the South Korean president Lee Myung-bak shortly after his election in 2008, he asked us to help come up with a 60-year view of his country’s future (though we settled for producing a study called National Vision 2020.) In the U.S. and Europe, nearsightedness is the norm. I believe that having a long-term perspective is the competitive advantage of many Asian economies and businesses today.
Myopia plagues Western institutions in every sector. In business, the mania over quarterly earnings consumes extraordinary amounts of senior time and attention. Average CEO tenure has dropped from 10 to six years since 1995, even as the complexity and scale of firms have grown. In politics, democracies lurch from election to election, with candidates proffering dubious short-term panaceas while letting long-term woes in areas such as economic competitiveness, health, and education fester. Even philanthropy often exhibits a fetish for the short term and the new, with grantees expected to become self-sustaining in just a few years.
Lost in the frenzy is the notion that long-term thinking is essential for long-term success. Consider Toyota, whose journey to world-class manufacturing excellence was years in the making. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s it endured low to nonexistent sales in the U.S.—and it even stopped exporting altogether for one bleak four-year period—before finally emerging in the following decades as a global leader. Think of Hyundai, which experienced quality problems in the late 1990s but made a comeback by reengineering its cars for long-term value—a strategy exemplified by its unprecedented introduction, in 1999, of a 10-year car warranty. That radical move, viewed by some observers as a formula for disaster, helped Hyundai quadruple U.S. sales in three years and paved the way for its surprising entry into the luxury market.
To be sure, long-term perspectives can be found in the West as well. For example, in 1985, in the face of fierce Japanese competition, Intel famously decided to abandon its core business, memory chips, and focus on the then-emerging business of microprocessors. This “wrenching” decision was “nearly inconceivable” at the time, says Andy Grove, who was then the company’s president. Yet by making it, Intel emerged in a few years on top of a new multi-billion-dollar industry. Apple represents another case in point. The iPod, released in 2001, sold just 400,000 units in its first year, during which Apple’s share price fell by roughly 25%. But the board took the long view. By late 2009 the company had sold 220 million iPods—and revolutionized the music business.
It’s fair to say, however, that such stories are countercultural. In the 1970s the average holding period for U.S. equities was about seven years; now it’s more like seven months. According to a recent paper by Andrew Haldane, of the Bank of England, such churning has made markets far more volatile and produced yawning gaps between corporations’ market price and their actual value. Then there are the “hyperspeed” traders (some of whom hold stocks for only a few seconds), who now account for 70% of all U.S. equities trading, by one estimate. In response to these trends, executives must do a better job of filtering input, and should give more weight to the views of investors with a longer-term, buy-and-hold orientation.
If they don’t, short-term capital will beget short-term management through a natural chain of incentives and influence. If CEOs miss their quarterly earnings targets, some big investors agitate for their removal. As a result, CEOs and their top teams work overtime to meet those targets. The unintended upshot is that they manage for only a small portion of their firm’s value. When McKinsey’s finance experts deconstruct the value expectations embedded in share prices, we typically find that 70% to 90% of a company’s value is related to cash flows expected three or more years out. If the vast majority of most firms’ value depends on results more than three years from now, but management is preoccupied with what’s reportable three months from now, then capitalism has a problem.
Roughly 70% of all U.S. equities trading is now done by “hyperspeed” traders—some of whom hold stocks for only a few seconds.
Some rightly resist playing this game. Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Ford, to name just a few, have stopped issuing earnings guidance altogether. Google never did. IBM has created five-year road maps to encourage investors to focus more on whether it will reach its long-term earnings targets than on whether it exceeds or misses this quarter’s target by a few pennies. “I can easily make my numbers by cutting SG&A or R&D, but then we wouldn’t get the innovations we need,” IBM’s CEO, Sam Palmisano, told us recently. Mark Wiseman, executive vice president at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, advocates investing “for the next quarter century,” not the next quarter. And Warren Buffett has quipped that his ideal holding period is “forever.” Still, these remain admirable exceptions.
To break free of the tyranny of short-termism, we must start with those who provide capital. Taken together, pension funds, insurance companies, mutual funds, and sovereign wealth funds hold $65 trillion, or roughly 35% of the world’s financial assets. If these players focus too much attention on the short term, capitalism as a whole will, too.
In theory they shouldn’t, because the beneficiaries of these funds have an obvious interest in long-term value creation. But although today’s standard practices arose from the desire to have a defensible, measurable approach to portfolio management, they have ended up encouraging shortsightedness. Fund trustees, often advised by investment consultants, assess their money managers’ performance relative to benchmark indices and offer only short-term contracts. Those managers’ compensation is linked to the amount of assets they manage, which typically rises when short-term performance is strong. Not surprisingly, then, money managers focus on such performance—and pass this emphasis along to the companies in which they invest. And so it goes, on down the line.
Only 45% of those surveyed in the U.S. and the UK expressed trust in business. This stands in stark contrast to developing countries: For example, the figure is 61% in China, 70% in India, and 81% in Brazil.
As the stewardship advocate Simon Wong points out, under the current system pension funds deem an asset manager who returns 10% to have underperformed if the relevant benchmark index rises by 12%. Would it be unthinkable for institutional investors instead to live with absolute gains on the (perfectly healthy) order of 10%—especially if they like the approach that delivered those gains—and review performance every three or five years, instead of dropping the 10-percenter? Might these big funds set targets for the number of holdings and rates of turnover, at least within the “fundamental investing” portion of their portfolios, and more aggressively monitor those targets? More radically, might they end the practice of holding thousands of stocks and achieve the benefits of diversification with fewer than a hundred—thereby increasing their capacity to effectively engage with the businesses they own and improve long-term performance? Finally, could institutional investors beef up their internal skills and staff to better execute such an agenda? These are the kinds of questions we need to address if we want to align capital’s interests more closely with capitalism’s.
2. Serve Stakeholders, Enrich Shareholders
The second imperative for renewing capitalism is disseminating the idea that serving stakeholders is essential to maximizing corporate value. Too often these aims are presented as being in tension: You’re either a champion of shareholder value or you’re a fan of the stakeholders. This is a false choice.
The inspiration for shareholder-value maximization, an idea that took hold in the 1970s and 1980s, was reasonable: Without some overarching financial goal with which to guide and gauge a firm’s performance, critics feared, managers could divert corporate resources to serve their own interests rather than the owners’. In fact, in the absence of concrete targets, management might become an exercise in politics and stakeholder engagement an excuse for inefficiency. Although this thinking was quickly caricatured in popular culture as the doctrine of “greed is good,” and was further tarnished by some companies’ destructive practices in its name, in truth there was never any inherent tension between creating value and serving the interests of employees, suppliers, customers, creditors, communities, and the environment. Indeed, thoughtful advocates of value maximization have always insisted that it is long-term value that has to be maximized.
Capitalism’s founding philosopher voiced an even bolder aspiration. “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries,” Adam Smith wrote in his 1759 work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. “The wise and virtuous man,” he added, “is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest,” should circumstances so demand.
Smith’s insight into the profound interdependence between business and society, and how that interdependence relates to long-term value creation, still reverberates. In 2008 and again in 2010, McKinsey surveyed nearly 2,000 executives and investors; more than 75% said that environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives create corporate value in the long term. Companies that bring a real stakeholder perspective into corporate strategy can generate tangible value even sooner. (See the sidebar “Who’s Getting It Right?”)
Creating direct business value, however, is not the only or even the strongest argument for taking a societal perspective. Capitalism depends on public trust for its legitimacy and its very survival. According to the Edelman public relations agency’s just-released 2011 Trust Barometer, trust in business in the U.S. and the UK (although up from mid-crisis record lows) is only in the vicinity of 45%. This stands in stark contrast to developing countries: For example, the figure is 61% in China, 70% in India, and 81% in Brazil. The picture is equally bleak for individual corporations in the Anglo-American world, “which saw their trust rankings drop again last year to near-crisis lows,” says Richard Edelman.
How can business leaders restore the public’s trust? Many Western executives find that nothing in their careers has prepared them for this new challenge. Lee Scott, Walmart’s former CEO, has been refreshingly candid about arriving in the top job with a serious blind spot. He was plenty busy minding the store, he says, and had little feel for the need to engage as a statesman with groups that expected something more from the world’s largest company. Fortunately, Scott was a fast learner, and Walmart has become a leader in environmental and health care issues.
Tomorrow’s CEOs will have to be, in Joseph Nye’s apt phrase, “tri-sector athletes”: able and experienced in business, government, and the social sector. But the pervading mind-set gets in the way of building those leadership and management muscles. “Analysts and investors are focused on the short term,” one executive told me recently. “They believe social initiatives don’t create value in the near term.” In other words, although a large majority of executives believe that social initiatives create value in the long term, they don’t act on this belief, out of fear that financial markets might frown. Getting capital more aligned with capitalism should help businesses enrich shareholders by better serving stakeholders.
3. Act Like You Own the Place
As the financial sector’s troubles vividly exposed, when ownership is broadly fragmented, no one acts like he’s in charge. Boards, as they currently operate, don’t begin to serve as a sufficient proxy. All the Devils Are Here, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, describes how little awareness Merrill Lynch’s board had of the firm’s soaring exposure to subprime mortgage instruments until it was too late. “I actually don’t think risk management failed,” Larry Fink, the CEO of the investment firm BlackRock, said during a 2009 debate about the future of capitalism, sponsored by the Financial Times. “I think corporate governance failed, because…the boards didn’t ask the right questions.”
What McKinsey has learned from studying successful family-owned companies suggests a way forward: The most effective ownership structure tends to combine some exposure in the public markets (for the discipline and capital access that exposure helps provide) with a significant, committed, long-term owner. Most large public companies, however, have extremely dispersed ownership, and boards rarely perform the single-owner-proxy role. As a result, CEOs too often listen to the investors (and members of the media) who make the most noise. Unfortunately, those parties tend to be the most nearsighted ones. And so the tyranny of the short term is reinforced.
The answer is to renew corporate governance by rooting it in committed owners and by giving those owners effective mechanisms with which to influence management. We call this ownership-based governance, and it requires three things:
Just 43% of the nonexecutive directors of public companies believe they significantly influence strategy. For this to change, board members must devote much more time to their roles.
In the absence of a dominant shareholder (and many times when there is one), the board must represent a firm’s owners and serve as the agent of long-term value creation. Even among family firms, the executives of the top-performing companies wield their influence through the board. But only 43% of the nonexecutive directors of public companies believe they significantly influence strategy. For this to change, board members must devote much more time to their roles. A government-commissioned review of the governance of British banks last year recommended an enormous increase in the time required of nonexecutive directors of banks—from the current average, between 12 and 20 days annually, to between 30 and 36 days annually. What’s especially needed is an increase in the informal time board members spend with investors and executives. The nonexecutive board directors of companies owned by private equity firms spend 54 days a year, on average, attending to the company’s business, and 70% of that time consists of informal meetings and conversations. Four to five days a month obviously give a board member much greater understanding and impact than the three days a quarter (of which two may be spent in transit) devoted by the typical board member of a public company.
Boards also need much more relevant experience. Industry knowledge—which four of five nonexecutive directors of big companies lack—helps boards identify immediate opportunities and reduce risk. Contextual knowledge about the development path of an industry—for example, whether the industry is facing consolidation, disruption from new technologies, or increased regulation—is highly valuable, too. Such insight is often obtained from experience with other industries that have undergone a similar evolution.
In addition, boards need more-effective committee structures—obtainable through, for example, the establishment of a strategy committee or of dedicated committees for large business units. Directors also need the resources to allow them to form independent views on strategy, risk, and performance (perhaps by having a small analytical staff that reports only to them). This agenda implies a certain professionalization of nonexecutive directorships and a more meaningful strategic partnership between boards and top management. It may not please some executive teams accustomed to boards they can easily “manage.” But given the failures of governance to date, it is a necessary change.
More-sensible CEO pay.
An important task of governance is setting executive compensation. Although 70% of board directors say that pay should be tied more closely to performance, CEO pay is too often structured to reward a leader simply for having made it to the top, not for what he or she does once there. Meanwhile, polls show that the disconnect between pay and performance is contributing to the decline in public esteem for business.
Companies should create real risk for executives.Some experts privately suggest mandating that new executives invest a year’s salary in the company.
CEOs and other executives should be paid to act like owners. Once upon a time we thought that stock options would achieve this result, but stock-option- based compensation schemes have largely incentivized the wrong behavior. When short-dated, options lead to a focus on meeting quarterly earnings estimates; even when long-dated (those that vest after three years or more), they can reward managers for simply surfing industry- or economy-wide trends (although reviewing performance against an appropriate peer index can help minimize free rides). Moreover, few compensation schemes carry consequences for failure—something that became clear during the financial crisis, when many of the leaders of failed institutions retired as wealthy people.
There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to this complex issue, but companies should push for change in three key areas:
• They should link compensation to the fundamental drivers of long-term value, such as innovation and efficiency, not just to share price.
• They should extend the time frame for executive evaluations—for example, using rolling three-year performance evaluations, or requiring five-year plans and tracking performance relative to plan. This would, of course, require an effective board that is engaged in strategy formation.
• They should create real downside risk for executives, perhaps by requiring them to put some skin in the game. Some experts we’ve surveyed have privately suggested mandating that new executives invest a year’s salary in the company.
Redefined shareholder “democracy.”
The huge increase in equity churn in recent decades has spawned an anomaly of governance: At any annual meeting, a large number of those voting may soon no longer be shareholders. The advent of high-frequency trading will only worsen this trend. High churn rates, short holding periods, and vote-buying practices may mean the demise of the “one share, one vote” principle of governance, at least in some circumstances. Indeed, many large, top-performing companies, such as Google, have never adhered to it. Maybe it’s time for new rules that would give greater weight to long-term owners, like the rule in some French companies that gives two votes to shares held longer than a year. Or maybe it would make sense to assign voting rights based on the average turnover of an investor’s portfolio. If we want capitalism to focus on the long term, updating our notions of shareholder democracy in such ways will soon seem less like heresy and more like common sense.
While I remain convinced that capitalism is the economic system best suited to advancing the human condition, I’m equally persuaded that it must be renewed, both to deal with the stresses and volatility ahead and to restore business’s standing as a force for good, worthy of the public’s trust. The deficiencies of the quarterly capitalism of the past few decades were not deficiencies in capitalism itself—just in that particular variant. By rebuilding capitalism for the long term, we can make it stronger, more resilient, more equitable, and better able to deliver the sustainable growth the world needs. The three imperatives outlined above can be a start along this path and, I hope, a way to launch the conversation; others will have their own ideas to add.
The kind of deep-seated, systemic changes I’m calling for can be achieved only if boards, business executives, and investors around the world take responsibility for bettering the system they lead. Such changes will not be easy; they are bound to encounter resistance, and business leaders today have more than enough to do just to keep their companies running well. We must make the effort regardless. If capitalism emerges from the crisis vibrant and renewed, future generations will thank us. But if we merely paper over the cracks and return to our precrisis views, we will not want to read what the historians of the future will write. The time to reflect—and to act—is now.
How does human body forms from Molecules? Is it all evolutionary? or is there a role for Vitalism?
How to integrate decision making in organizations at multi levels? From Corporate level to Plant Level.
How does an Individual fits in Groups, Communities, Society, and Ecosystem?
What is the role of fractals thinking in Evolutionary Biology?
A SUMMARY OF THE PRINCIPLES OF HIERARCHY THEORY
The Hierarchy theory is a dialect of general systems theory. It has emerged as part of a movement toward a general science of complexity. Rooted in the work of economist, Herbert Simon, chemist, Ilya Prigogine, and psychologist, Jean Piaget, hierarchy theory focuses upon levels of organization and issues of scale. There is significant emphasis upon the observer in the system.
Hierarchies occur in social systems, biological structures, and in the biological taxonomies. Since scholars and laypersons use hierarchy and hierarchical concepts commonly, it would seem reasonable to have a theory of hierarchies. Hierarchy theory uses a relatively small set of principles to keep track of the complex structure and a behavior of systems with multiple levels. A set of definitions and principles follows immediately:
Hierarchy: in mathematical terms, it is a partially ordered set. In less austere terms, a hierarchy is a collection of parts with ordered asymmetric relationships inside a whole. That is to say, upper levels are above lower levels, and the relationship upwards is asymmetric with the relationships downwards.
Hierarchical levels: levels are populated by entities whose properties characterize the level in question. A given entity may belong to any number of levels, depending on the criteria used to link levels above and below. For example, an individual human being may be a member of the level i) human, ii) primate, iii) organism or iv) host of a parasite, depending on the relationship of the level in question to those above and below.
Level of organization: this type of level fits into its hierarchy by virtue of set of definitions that lock the level in question to those above and below. For example, a biological population level is an aggregate of entities from the organism level of organization, but it is only so by definition. There is no particular scale involved in the population level of organization, in that some organisms are larger than some populations, as in the case of skin parasites.
Level of observation: this type of level fits into its hierarchy by virtue of relative scaling considerations. For example, the host of a skin parasite represents the context for the population of parasites; it is a landscape, even though the host may be seen as belonging to a level of organization, organism, that is lower than the collection of parasites, a population.
The criterion for observation: when a system is observed, there are two separate considerations. One is the spatiotemporal scale at which the observations are made. The other is the criterion for observation, which defines the system in the foreground away from all the rest in the background. The criterion for observation uses the types of parts and their relationships to each other to characterize the system in the foreground. If criteria for observation are linked together in an asymmetric fashion, then the criteria lead to levels of organization. Otherwise, criteria for observation merely generate isolated classes.
The ordering of levels: there are several criteria whereby other levels reside above lower levels. These criteria often run in parallel, but sometimes only one or a few of them apply. Upper levels are above lower levels by virtue of: 1) being the context of, 2) offering constraint to, 3) behaving more slowly at a lower frequency than, 4) being populated by entities with greater integrity and higher bond strength than, and 5), containing and being made of – lower levels.
Nested and non-nested hierarchies: nested hierarchies involve levels which consist of, and contain, lower levels. Non-nested hierarchies are more general in that the requirement of containment of lower levels is relaxed. For example, an army consists of a collection of soldiers and is made up of them. Thus an army is a nested hierarchy. On the other hand, the general at the top of a military command does not consist of his soldiers and so the military command is a non-nested hierarchy with regard to the soldiers in the army. Pecking orders and a food chains are also non-nested hierarchies.
Duality in hierarchies: the dualism in hierarchies appears to come from a set of complementarities that line up with: observer-observed, process-structure, rate-dependent versus rate-independent, and part-whole. Arthur Koestler in his “Ghost in The Machine” referred to the notion of holon, which means an entity in a hierarchy that is at once a whole and at the same time a part. Thus a holon at once operates as a quasi-autonomous whole that integrates its parts, while working to integrate itself into an upper level purpose or role. The lower level answers the question “How?” and the upper level answers the question, “So what?”
Constraint versus possibilities: when one looks at a system there are two separate reasons behind what one sees. First, it is not possible to see something if the parts of the system cannot do what is required of them to achieve the arrangement in the whole. These are the limits of physical possibility. The limits of possibility come from lower levels in the hierarchy. The second entirely separate reason for what one sees is to do with what is allowed by the upper level constraints. An example here would be that mammals have five digits. There is no physical reason for mammals having five digits on their hands and feet, because it comes not from physical limits, but from the constraints of having a mammal heritage. Any number of the digits is possible within the physical limits, but in mammals only five digits are allowed by the biological constraints. Constraints come from above, while the limits as to what is possible come from below. The concept of hierarchy becomes confused unless one makes the distinction between limits from below and limits from above. The distinction between mechanisms below and purposes above turn on the issue of constraint versus possibility. Forget the distinction, and biology becomes pointlessly confused, impossibly complicated chemistry, while chemistry becomes unwieldy physics.
Complexity and self-simplification: Howard Pattee has identified that as a system becomes more elaborately hierarchical its behavior becomes simple. The reason is that, with the emergence of intermediate levels, the lowest level entities become constrained to be far from equilibrium. As a result, the lowest level entities lose degrees of freedom and are held against the upper level constraint to give constant behavior. Deep hierarchical structure indicates elaborate organization, and deep hierarchies are often considered as complex systems by virtue of hierarchical depth.
Complexity versus complicatedness: a hierarchical structure with a large number of lowest level entities, but with simple organization, offers a low flat hierarchy that is complicated rather than complex. The behavior of structurally complicated systems is behaviorally elaborate and so complicated, whereas the behavior of deep hierarchically complex systems is simple.
Hierarchy theory is as much as anything a theory of observation. It has been significantly operationalized in ecology, but has been applied relatively infrequently outside that science. There is a negative reaction to hierarchy theory in the social sciences, by virtue of implications of rigid autocratic systems or authority. When applied in a more general fashion, even liberal and non-authoritarian systems can be described effectively in hierarchical terms. There is a politically correct set of labels that avoid the word hierarchy, but they unnecessarily introduce jargon into a field that has enough special vocabulary as it is.
A SHORT ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY OF HIERARCHY THEORY.
This bibliography is in chronological order, so that the reader can identify the early classics as opposed to the later refinements. If you must choose just one book to read, turn to the last reference in this bibliography, Ahl and Allen, 1996. Simon, H.. A. 1962. The architecture of complexity. Proceedings of the American philosophical society 106: 467-82. This is the foundation paper of hierarchy theory originating from an economist. It was a re-published in “Sciences of the Artificial” by Simon. It introduces the idea of near-decomposability. If systems were completely decomposable, then there would be no emergent whole, because the parts would exist only separately. The “near” in near-decomposable allows the upper level to emerge from the fact that the parts anre not completely separate.
Koestler, Arthur. 1967. The ghost in the machine. Macmillan, New York. This is a long hard look at human social structure in hierarchical terms. The notion of holon first occurs in this work. This is a classic work, but is easily accessible to the lay public.
Whyte, L.. L.., A. G. Wilson and D. Wilson (eds.). 1969. Hierarchical structures. American Elsevier, New York. This is a classic collection of early scholarly works by some of the founders of hierarchical thinking.
Pattee, H.. H. (ed.) 1973. Hierarchy theory: the challenge or complex systems. Braziller, New York. This edited volume has some classic articles by Pattee, Simon and others.
Allen, T. F. H. and T. B. Starr. 1982. Hierarchy: perspectives for ecological complexity. University Chicago Press. This book has a significant ecological component but is much more generally about hierarchical structure. It is abstract and a somewhat technical treatment but has been the foundation work for the application of hierarchy theory in ecology and complex systems theory at large.
Salthe, S. 1985. Evolving Hierarchical Systems: their structure and representation. Columbia University Press, New York. This book has a strong structural bias, in contrast to the process oriented approach of Allen and the other ecologists in this bibliography. Salthe introduces the notion of the Triadic, where there is a focus on 1) the system as both a whole above the levels below and 2) a part belonging to another level above, 3) not forgetting the level of the structure itself in between. While much biological hierarchy theory takes an anti-realist point view, or is at least reality-agnostic, wherein the ultimate reality of hierarchical arrangement is left moot, Salthe’s version of hierarchy theory is concerned with the ultimate reality of structure. The anti-realist view of structure is that it is imposed by the observer, and may or may not correspond to any ultimate reality. If structure does correspond to ultimate, external reality, we could never know that to be so. Salthe’s logic is consistent but always takes a structural and ontological position.
O’Neill, R. V., D. DeAngelis, J. Waide and T. F. H. Allen. 1986. A hierarchical concept of ecosystems. Princeton University Press. This is a distinctly ecological application of hierarchy theory, making the critical distinction between process functional ecosystem approaches as opposed to population and community relationships. It is an application of hierarchy theory to ecosystem analysis.
Allen T. F. H. and T. Hoekstra. 1992. Toward a unified ecology. Columbia University Press. This book turns on hierarchy theory, but is principally a book about ecology. It goes beyond the O’Neill et al book, in that it makes the distinction between many types of ecology (landscape, ecosystem, community, organism, population, and biomes) on the one hand, and scale of ecology on the other hand. It ends with practical applications of hierarchy theory and ecological management.
Ahl, V. and T. F. H. Allen. 1996. Hierarchy theory, a vision, vocabulary and epistemology. Columbia University Press. This slim a volume is an interdisciplinary account of a hierarchy theory, and represents the shallow end of the pool. It is the primer version of Allen and Starr 1982. It is full of graphical images to ease the reader into a hierarchical perspective. It makes the distinction between levels of organization and levels of observation. It takes a moderate anti-realist point of view, wherein there may be an external reality, but it is not relevant to the discourse. We only have access to experience, which must of necessity involve observer values and subjectivity. There are examples from a wide discussion of many disciplines. Included are examples from psychology, ecology, the law, political systems and philosophy. It makes reference to the global and technological problems facing humanity, and offers hierarchy theory as one tool in the struggle. The summary of hierarchy theory in the opening paragraphs above comes from this book.
This summary was compiled by
Timothy F. Allen, Professor of Botany,
University of Wisconsin Madison,
Madison Wisconsin 53706 — 1381.
Email – email@example.com