Confusion clouds the shareholder value debate
By Stefan Stern
Would all those chief executives who do not want to create value for their shareholders please raise their hands. Nobody? I’m glad we could agree on something.
But from here on, the consensus breaks down. As the letters section of this newspaper has revealed during the past couple of weeks, the apparently simple label of “shareholder value” is understood and interpreted in a surprisingly varied number of ways. No wonder this debate gets heated, and confused.
There is no shame in being unclear. Some of our most distinguished business leaders are equally confused. Jack Welch, the former General Electric boss, may have launched this debate when he called shareholder value “the dumbest idea in the world” last April. But less than a year earlier he had chastised Jeff Immelt, his successor, for failing to respect the discipline this dumb idea demands. He said he would “get a gun out and shoot him” if GE did not hit profit forecasts. “Just deliver the earnings,” he said. “Tell them you’re going to grow 12 per cent and deliver 12 per cent.” Like the guy said: dumb.
In search of enlightenment, I travelled to Lake Maggiore in Italy last week to attend a symposium called “The future of economics and management in a post-crisis world”, organised by the European Academy of Business in Society.
Intellectually, this is an exciting time. Academics and business thinkers are being forced to return to first principles, question base assumptions and consider whether trusted models have led them astray. How robust is the prevailing “theory of the firm”? What is business for?
Unsurprisingly, Adam Smith was invoked. For those who still defend shareholder value with enthusiasm, The Wealth of Nations provides good ammunition. Robert Grant, professor of strategic management at Bocconi University in Milan, questioned whether the alternative “stakeholder” approach could really be helpful when it came to the business of making money.
Citing Smith’s line “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”, Prof Grant said: “If the butcher signs up to the animal rights movement or the baker starts campaigning for healthy eating, the prospects for their businesses are not good.”
He said businesses that tried to serve multiple stakeholders got confused. For good measure, he chucked in the provocative suggestion that, for the all the
hand-wringing over Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury, hadn’t the investors’ response shown that the shareholder value idea still held attractions for the majority of market participants? Most of the tools of modern management – at least in publicly held companies – are based on the principles of creating shareholder value. Would we have to reinvent management altogether if that were no longer the unequivocal goal?
Dig a bit deeper, however, and the stand-off between the different advocates in this debate is not as substantial as it first appears.
Prof Grant said that he could see the attractions in business strategist Arie de Geus’s “entity view” of business, which holds that most successful companies treat their enterprises as “living work communities” rather than purely economic machines. And he agreed that customer satisfaction, employee welfare and even social legitimacy could be seen as relevant and useful indicators of how well value was being created by the business.
This is really not very far from what Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, told me three weeks ago, even though the way he said it caused outrage to the noisiest supporters of the shareholder value nostrum. Mr Polman is confident that Unilever’s share price will rise and the company will be increasingly profitable. He just thinks the best way to achieve this is to sell more valued products to appreciative customers in a responsible way. I am sure he is right. Second-guessing shareholders or, worse, being bullied into taking damaging short-term measures to hit arbitrary earnings targets is the last thing he is going to do. You do not create lasting shareholder value that way.
My journey home has been delayed by an Icelandic volcano. But Lake Maggiore is calm and still. It must be the beautiful setting that has inspired me to attempt this haiku-as-management-mission-statement, now that the sound of debate has temporarily ceased: “Shareholder value/Approach it like happiness/With obliquity”.
不明白这个概念的意思，没什么可丢人的。我们一些最杰出的商业领袖同样弄不清楚。前通用电气(General Electric)掌门人杰克•韦尔奇(Jack Welch)或许正是这场论战的发起者：去年4月，他称股东价值是“世界上最愚蠢的想法”。但就在不到一年前，他曾严厉斥责他的继任杰夫•伊梅尔特(Jeff Immelt)，原因是后者未能遵守这种愚蠢想法所要求的行为准则。他当时表示，如果通用电气没有实现预期利润，他将“掏枪干掉他”。他表示：“你只需拿出业绩，告诉他们，你要增长12%，然后实现12%的增长。”这真让人无语。
为了寻求启迪，我上周去到了意大利马乔雷湖(Lake Maggiore)，参加一个名为“后危机时代经济学与管理学的未来”的讨论会，会议的组织者是欧洲社会商业学会(European Academy of Business in Society)。
与会者援引了亚当•斯密(Adam Smith)的话，这毫不奇怪。对于那些仍坚定捍卫股东价值论的人而言，《国富论》(The Wealth of Nations)提供了有力的论据。米兰博科尼大学(Bocconi University)战略管理学教授罗伯特•格兰特(Robert Grant)质疑，当涉及到以盈利为目的企业时，“利益相关者(stakeholder)”这一替代理论是否真能有所帮助？
格兰特表示，他可以看到商业战略家阿里•德赫斯(Arie de Geus)企业是“实体”观点的吸引人之处。这种观点认为，大多数成功的公司都将其企业视为“有生命的工作社区”，而不是单纯的经济机器。他也同意，顾客满意度、雇员福利、乃至社会的认可，可以被视为衡量企业价值创造方面中肯而有用的标准。