The pronouncement by one of the Google Guys that the company is not run for the long term value of the stockholders but rather for the long term value of the end users, is reminiscent of Henry Ford's decision in 1916 to stop paying dividends in order to improve the lot of workers and customers. Or is it? There are a couple of big differences.
First, Ford admitted that the company had a pile of cash that it did not need for any business purpose. The Michigan Supreme Court ordered him to distribute it as a dividend and the Dodge Brothers (who owned 10 percent of Ford) used the money to start their own car company. The court also said that Ford's decision to use an even bigger chunk of change to lower prices and to build housing for workers was OK too under the business judgment rule. Who were they to say that happy workers and lower prices were not the best way to maximize profits? So the case supports the proposition that the stockholders own the company and that management can manage virtually without interference. King Solomon would have been proud.
Second – and this is a big difference – most stock today is held by highly diversified investors through mutual funds, pension plans, and the like. Diversified investors prefer individual portfolio companies to maximize value (however that might be measured). But they do not want portfolio companies that try to coddle investors by reducing risk by managing earnings, diversifying through acquisitions, hedging, and other such gimmicks. Investor diversification deals with all that – and for free. So it is a waste of investor money for portfolio companies to do it too. The bottom line is that companies that stick to their knitting – focus on their core business – and do not try to second guess the market. See Stockholders, Stakeholders, and Bagholders (Or How Investor Diversification Affects Fiduciary Duty).
Google has shown itself to be more in tune with such thinking than most companies. A few months back one of the Google Guys announced that the company would make no effort to smooth out earnings. For an undiversified investor like the Dodge Boys, it could be a bumpy ride. But for a mutual fund investor it all evens out. Well diversified investors like those that invest through mutual funds should cheer.
By the way, managers who are willing to give the market what it really wants – a focused company that seeks to do what it does best – assume more risk than managers who seek to manage earnings. They should be compensated accordingly. Thus, it is really no surprise that CEO pay seems to have risen in recent years. I say seems because aggregate executive pay as a percent of earnings has been remarkably flat since 1980. But I do suspect that more of it goes to CEOs than before. See Executive Compensation, Corporate Governance, and the Partner-Manager.
The takeover wars of the 1980s were all about breaking up idiotic conglomerates and rationalizing capital structures. Stock prices went up. Folks figured out what the market wanted. CEOs began to insist on a piece of the (risky) action. Stock options became the norm.
I am sure that stock options can be and have been abused. And we should deal harshly with those who manipulate things in order to cash in at the expense of stockholders. But let's not lose sight of the fact that it is now quite routine for managers (and even major stockholders) to voluntarily break up their companies when it makes economic sense to do so, because the market likes focus. Is this a great country or what?
Thanks to Securities Litigation Watch for a heads up on this story.