Discussions of corporate short-termism are often a microcosm of the issue itself. On the short view—say, 2009 to the present—things are looking up. CEO tenures, the average holding period for S&P 500 shares, and the average duration of corporate bonds are all up. If one takes a longer view, however, the picture begins to darken. By some measures, U.S. business investment in fixed assets is at an all-time low, while the share of net income S&P 500 companies spend on buybacks is at an all-time high of 58%, nearly 30 times its share in 1981.
Advocacy against short-termism is not new—a slew of articles over the past 5 years in publications from the Financial Times to the Harvard Business Review have established the contours and scale of this problem. In 2013, BlackRock, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) and McKinsey & Company came together to create the Focusing Capital on the Long Term initiative with the aim of conducting research on long-termism and developing practical tools and solutions. This work was shared through roundtables with asset owners, asset managers, companies and other stakeholders in Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Netherlands, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States and beyond. The initiative has now grown into a not-for-profit organisation, FCLT Global, co-founded by BlackRock, CPPIB, the Dow Chemical Company, McKinsey and Tata Sons. We believe that there is still much to be done to secure the right balance between short- and long-term performance.
Unfortunately, according to corporate executives themselves, the pressure on companies to generate short-term financial performance shows no sign of letting up. In fact, the latest results from a McKinsey Quarterly survey panel of over a thousand C-level executives and board directors show that a majority of respondents perceive that short-term pressure is growing. Compared with survey results from 2013, even more of them report feeling most pressured to produce results in two years or less. The balance between short-term accountability and long-term value creation has fallen out of balance; it is time to reconsider what can be done to restore the long-term to its proper place in corporate planning and strategy.