The Price of Wall Street’s Power

Posted on: May 31st, 2014 by bobmorris

The Price of Wall Street
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Gautam Mukunda for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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Boeing’s launch of the 787 was marred by massive cost overruns and battery fires. Any product can have technical problems, but the striking thing about the 787’s is that they stemmed from exactly the sort of decisions that Wall Street tells executives to make.
Before its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, Boeing had an engineering-driven culture and a history of betting the company on daring investments in new aircraft. McDonnell Douglas, on the other hand, was risk-averse and focused on cost cutting and financial performance, and its culture came to dominate the merged company. So, over the objections of career-long Boeing engineers, the 787 was developed with an unprecedented level of outsourcing, in part, the engineers believed, to maximize Boeing’s return on net assets (RONA). Outsourcing removed assets from Boeing’s balance sheet but also made the 787’s supply chain so complex that the company couldn’t maintain the high quality an airliner requires. Just as the engineers had predicted, the result was huge delays and runaway costs.
Boeing’s decision to minimize its assets was made with Wall Street in mind. RONA is used by financial analysts to judge managers and companies, and the fixation on this kind of metric has influenced the choices of many firms. In fact, research by the economists John Asker, Joan Farre-Mensa, and Alexander Ljungqvist shows that a desire to maximize short-term share price leads publicly held companies to invest only about half as much in assets as their privately held counterparts do. Pressure to reduce assets made Sara Lee, for example, shift from manufacturing clothing and food to brand management. Sara Lee’s CEO explained, “Wall Street can wipe you out. They are the rule-setters…and they have decided to give premiums to companies that harbor the most profits for the least assets.” In the pursuit of higher stock returns, many electronics companies have, like Boeing and Sara Lee, outsourced their manufacturing, even though tightly integrating R&D and manufacturing is crucial to innovation.
In another article in this month’s Spotlight package, Clayton Christensen argues that management’s adoption of Wall Street’s preferred metrics has hindered innovation. Scholars and executives alike have criticized Wall Street not only for promoting short-term thinking but for sacrificing the interests of employees and customers to benefit shareholders and for encouraging dishonesty from executives who feel they’re being asked to meet impossible demands. The financial sector’s influence on management has become so powerful that a recent survey of chief financial officers showed that 78% would “give up economic value” and 55% would cancel a project with a positive net present value—that is, willingly harm their companies—to meet Wall Street’s targets and fulfill its desire for “smooth” earnings.
Executives often explain their deference to Wall Street by saying they have a “fiduciary duty” to maximize shareholder returns. That’s been an article of faith since 1970, when Milton Friedman wrote in the New York Times that executives’ only responsibility was maximizing profits. The problem, however, is that it’s not true. Whatever your beliefs about the moral responsibilities of executives, a fiduciary duty is a specific legal obligation, and law professor Lynn Stout has shown that as a matter of law American executives simply do not face any such requirement.
So why do managers make choices they know are wrong? Why do so many believe (or act as if they believe) something that simply isn’t right? I’m a political scientist. That means that, just as an economist thinks about money or a soldier about armies, I think about power. There are lots of situations in which people—and countries—act against their own interests. One of the most important—and most dangerous—is when a single sector or group is so powerful that it dominates how an entire society thinks about itself. Once you view research from a variety of fields through that lens, it becomes clear that we must do something to curb the enormous and disproportionate power of Wall Street.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Gautam Mukunda is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). Here is a link to an interview of him during which he discusses Abraham Lincoln’s strengths as a leader. Twitter: @gmukunda.

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