The guiding principle of business value creation is a refreshingly simple construct: companies that grow and earn a return on capital that exceeds their cost of capital create value. The financial crisis of 2007–08 and the Great Recession that followed are only the most recent reminders that when managers, boards of directors, and investors forget this guiding principle, the consequences are disastrous—so much so, in fact, that some economists now call into question the very foundations of shareholder-oriented capitalism. Confidence in business has tumbled. Politicians and commentators are pushing for more regulation and fundamental changes in corporate governance. Academics and even some business leaders have called for companies to change their focus from increasing shareholder value to a broader focus on all stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities.
No question, the complexity of managing the interests of myriad owners and stakeholders in a modern corporation demands that any reform discussion begin with a large dose of humility and tolerance for ambiguity in defining the purpose of business. But we believe the current debate has muddied a fundamental truth: creating shareholder value is not the same as maximizing short-term profits—and companies that confuse the two often put both shareholder value and stakeholder interests at risk. Indeed, a system focused on creating shareholder value from business isn’t the problem; short-termism is. Great managers don’t skimp on safety, don’t make value-destroying investments just because their peers are doing it, and don’t use accounting or financial gimmicks to boost short-term profits, because ultimately such moves undermine intrinsic value.
What’s needed at this time of reflection on the virtues and vices of capitalism is a clearer definition of shareholder value creation that can guide managers and board directors, rather than blurring their focus with a vague stakeholder agenda. We do believe that companies are better able to deliver long-term value to shareholders when they consider stakeholder concerns; the key is for managers to examine those concerns systematically for opportunities to do both.