Masterclass: Shareholder value

What is it? Who owns public (ie, listed) companies? The shareholders.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

So who are these companies really working for? Not the customers, the staff, the suppliers or the wider community. No: a board director's 'fiduciary duty' is to create wealth for the owners, the shareholders. You do that by raising the share price: being profitable, paying out large dividends and making the shares attractive. Thus the concept of 'shareholder value'. But it is not unproblematic. Critics say that focusing on short-term movements in the share price distorts management decisions and damages the company's long-term interests.

Where did it come from? The phrase was first used widely in the 1980s. A key inspiration was a speech given by the then new CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, in 1981. He signalled a commitment to run the business hard: to cut waste, sell off or close down businesses that weren't sector leaders, to ditch the worst-performing 10% of staff every year - all to achieve a higher share price. That would be the overriding goal. The phrase 'shareholder value', it must be said, did not appear in Welch's speech.

Where is it going? The believers in shareholder value received a shattering blow this March from ... Jack Welch. In an interview with the FT, he called it 'the dumbest idea in the world'. He denied ever advocating the theory. It gets worse. So-called 'agency theory', which argues that the pay of senior executives must be aligned with the share price to provide an incentive, has also come under critical scrutiny. It looks like bosses will have to start taking a lot more factors into account than the basic day-to-day rise and fall of the share price if they want to be seen to be running their firms properly.

Fad quotient (out of 10): Down down deeper and down (that'll be 3, Quo fans).

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