How “Shareholder Value” is Killing Innovation

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William Lazonick over at INET:

Conventional wisdom holds that the primary function of the stock market is to raise cash that companies use to invest in productive capabilities. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Academic research on corporate finance shows that, compared with other sources of funds, stock markets in advanced countries have in fact been insignificant suppliers of capital to corporations. What, then, is their function? If we are to understand employment opportunity, income distribution, and productivity growth, we need an accurate analysis of the role of the stock market in the corporate economy.

The insignificance of the stock market as a source of real investment capital exposes as fallacious the fundamental assumptions of the prevailing ideology that, for the sake of economic efficiency, a business corporation should be run to “maximize shareholder value” (MSV). As a rule, public shareholders do not invest in a corporation’s productive capabilities; they simply buy shares outstanding on the market, hoping to extract value that they have played no role in helping to create. And in practice, MSV advocates modes of corporate resource allocation that undermine innovative enterprise and result in unstable employment, inequitable incomes, and sagging productivity.

The most obvious manifestations of the corporate misbehavior that MSV incentivizes are the lavish, stock-based incomes of top corporate executives and the massive distributions of corporate cash to shareholders in the form of stock buybacks, coming on top of already-ample dividends. Indeed, with stock-based pay incentivizing senior executives to do stock buybacks—i.e., having a company repurchase its own shares to give manipulative boosts to its stock price—over the past three decades the stock market has had a negative cash function. On the whole, U.S. business corporations fund the stock market, not vice versa.

More here.