“Intellectuals have always disdained commerce” says Whole Foods Market co-founder John Mackey. They “have always sided…with the aristocrats to maintain a society where the businesspeople were kind of kept down.”
More than any other outlet, Whole Foods has reconfigured what and how America eats and the chain’s commitment to high-quality meats, produce, cheeses, and wines is legendary. Since opening his first store in Austin, Texas in 1980, Mackey now oversees operations around the globe and continues to set the pace for what’s expected in organic and sustainably raised and harvested food
Shareholders own the present value of their pro-rata share of net earnings, not just present earnings. They do not want to hurt themselves by sacrificing good investments today which raise that expected present value. Owners often tarred as too selfish do not ignore those consequences. Critics also confuse short-term corporate results as the goal, when they are actually valuable indicators of the likely future course of net earnings. Just because good short-term results raise stock prices does not imply excessive short-termism.
Since share prices are both a primary metric for managerial success and basis for their rewards, and they reflect the present value of expected future net earnings, managers’ time horizons reflect shareholders’ time horizons, stretching far beyond immediate measures.
Bondholders, who want to be paid back, incorporate the future, where repayment risks lie, in their choices. Workers and suppliers are also sensitive to firms’ future prospects, and the prospect of those relationships being terminated if things start turning south forces consideration of the future in present choices.
Beyond misinterpreting share price responses to good short-term results as short-term bias, Clinton’s main proof of short-termism was that firms have increased stock buybacks, supposedly sacrificing worthwhile investments by returning funds to shareholders. She ignores that those funds will largely be invested elsewhere with better prospects. But she also ignores that the buyback binge reflects the Fed’s long-term artificial cheapening of borrowed money. When debt financing gets cheaper relative to equity financing, firms substitute toward debt. But a firm substituting debt financing for an equal amount of equity controls no fewer funds for future-oriented investments.
The Role of the Fed and Government Intervention
Confusing business responses to artificial Fed interventions as business-caused only begins the list of government created biases toward short-termism. Constant proposals to raise corporate tax rates and worsen capital gains treatment in the future reduce the after-tax profitability of good investments. Regulatory mandates and impositions pile up, with far more put in the pipeline for the future, doing the same. Energy policy threatens huge increases in costs, reducing likely investment returns. And the list goes on.