By Professor Simon Deakin, director, Corporate Governance Research Programme, Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge
John Kay’s interim report finds that equity markets are failing in their primary tasks, which he identifies as enhancing the long-term growth of listed companies and providing savers with an appropriately high, risk-adjusted return on their investments. The failure lies, he suggests, in the way that market actors are currently incentivised. If asset managers are assessed on a quarterly or biannual basis, it is not surprising that they apply benchmarks based on the short-run performance of the firms they invest in.
Corporate managers, on the other hand, believe that they have a legal duty to maximise short-term shareholder value, and act accordingly. Kay rightly suggests that this view is mistaken as a matter of law but, again, it is no surprise that directors and managers think in these terms, given the way that shareholders are routinely described as the ‘owners’ of the firms they invest in. Disclosure rules add to the problem, in particular those requiring quarterly reporting of corporate results. Lawyers will recognise that shareholders are the owners of their shares, not the company, and that they have no right to manage the firm, having delegated this power to the board, but these subtleties are clearly being lost in translation.