When it comes to bad ideas, finance certainly offers up an embarrassment of riches – CAPM, Efficient Market Hypothesis, Beta, VaR, portfolio insurance, tail risk hedging, smart beta, leverage, structured finance products, benchmarks, hedge funds, risk premia, and risk parity to name but a few. Whilst I have expressed my ire at these concepts and poured scorn upon many of these ideas over the years, they aren’t the topic of this paper.
Rather in this essay I want to explore the problems that surround the concept of shareholder value and its maximization. I’m aware that expressing skepticism over this topic is a little like criticizing motherhood and apple pie. I grew up in the U.K. watching a wonderful comedian named Kenny Everett. Amongst his many comic creations was a U.S. Army general whose solution to those who “didn’t like Apple Pie on Sundays, and didn’t love their mothers” was “to round them up, put them in a field, and bomb the bastards,” so it is with no small amount of trepidation that I embark on this critique.
Before you dismiss me as a raving “red under the bed,” you might be surprised to know that I am not alone in questioning the mantra of shareholder value maximization. Indeed the title of this essay is taken from a direct quotation from none other than that stalwart of the capitalist system, Jack Welch. In an interview in the Financial Times from March 2009, Welch said “Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world.”
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