“The World’s Dumbest Idea” by James Montier of GMO.

Anyone interested in the question of shareholder value will I think find this paper by James Montier interesting.

The focus of the paper is to explore problems with elevating Shareholder Value to be the primary objective of a firm. Many companies are trying to achieve a more balanced approach but the paper is still useful background given that some investors appear to believe that shareholder value maximisation is the only valid objective a company should pursue. The paper also touches on the question of how increasing inequality is impacting the environment in which we operate.

While conceding that the right incentives can prompt better performance, JM argues that there is a point where increasing the size of the reward actually leads to worse performance;

“From the collected evidence on the psychology of incentives, it appears that when incentives get too high people tend to obsess about them directly, rather than on the task in hand that leads to the payout. Effectively, high incentives divert attention away from where it should be”

The following extracts will give you a sense of the key points and whether you want to read the paper itself.

  • “Let’s now turn to the broader implications and damage done by the single-minded focus on SVM. In many ways the essence of the economic backdrop we find ourselves facing today can be characterized by three stylized facts: 1) declining and low rates of business investment; 2) rising inequality; and 3) a low labour share of GDP (evidenced by Exhibits 7 through 9).” — Page 7 —
  • “This preference for low investment tragically “makes sense” given the “alignment” of executives and shareholders. We should expect SVM to lead to increased payouts as both the shareholders have increased power (inherent within SVM) and the managers will acquiesce as they are paid in a similar fashion. As Lazonick and Sullivan note, this led to a switch in modus operandi from “retain and reinvest” during the era of managerialism to “downsize and distribute” under SVM.” — Page 9 —
  • “This diversion of cash flows to shareholders has played a role in reducing investment. A little known fact is that almost all investment carried out by firms is financed by internal sources (i.e., retained earnings). Exhibit 13 shows the breakdown of the financing of gross investment by source in five-year blocks since the 1960s. The dominance of internal financing is clear to see (a fact first noted by Corbett and Jenkinson in 1997”— Page 10 —
  • “The obsession with returning cash to shareholders under the rubric of SVM has led to a squeeze on investment (and hence lower growth), and a potentially dangerous leveraging of the corporate sector” — Page 11 —
  • “The problem with this (apart from being an affront to any sense of fairness) is that the 90% have a much higher propensity to consume than the top 10%. Thus as income (and wealth) is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer, growth is likely to slow significantly. A new study by Saez and Zucman (2014) … shows that 90% have a savings rate of effectively 0%, whilst the top 1% have a savings rate of 40%…. ultimately creating a fallacy of composition where they are undermining demand for their own products by destroying income).” —Page 13 —
  • “Only by focusing on being a good business are you likely to end up delivering decent returns to shareholders. Focusing on the latter as an objective can easily undermine the former. Concentrate on the former, and the latter will take care of itself.” — Page 14 —
  • “… management guru Peter Drucker was right back in 1973 when he suggested “The only valid purpose of a firm is to create a customer.”” — Page 14 —

Why this blog?

making sense of what I have learned about banks with a focus on bank capital management.

Late in 2017 I decided to take some time out from work (the paid kind to be precise). My banking career has spanned a variety of roles working in a large Australian bank but the unifying theme for much of that time was a focus on bank capital management. This is a surprisingly rich topic (yes honestly) and one that I am not done with yet. Accordingly, I want to devote some of my time out to an attempt to make sense of what I have learned and apply that knowledge to topical banking issues. It was suggested that I write a book but I have opted for a blog format in part because it will hopefully allow for a two way dialogue with like minded bank capital tragics.

An alternative title for this blog was “The education of a banker; a work in progress” which sought to convey the idea that I believe I have learned quite a lot about banking over the past four decades but the plan is to keep learning. Some of the perspectives I offer are to, the best of my knowledge, based on very firm foundations while others are ones which reasonable people can disagree upon or outright speculative. To the best of my ability, all of the views expressed will be “lightly held” in the sense that I am just as interested in identifying reasons why they might be wrong as I am in affirmation.

I settled on “From the Outside” based on an informal survey of a group of like minded people with who I have already devoted many emails and coffee catchups debating the issues I intend to explore.  The title highlights that I bring a perspective forged working inside a bank over many years but now looking at the questions from the outside. Each reader will need decide for themselves whether I achieve a balanced view or have become irredeemably institutionalised. I will seek to correct what I believe to be unfounded criticisms of banks (for the record, I don’t think the current ROE major Australian banks are targeting is excessive) while at the same time there are other areas where I believe Australian banks need to do better (engaging with long time customers in a way that recognises their loyalty would be a great place to start).

The focus of the blog will no doubt evolve over time (and hopefully in response to feedback) but the initial plan is to explore a sequence of big picture themes in parallel with topical issues that arise from time to time. I also plan to share my thoughts on books and papers I have read that I think readers might find worth following up.

The big picture themes will likely encompass questions like the ways in which banks are different from other companies and the implications this has for thinking about questions like their cost of equity, optimal capital structure, risk appetite, risk culture, prudential regulation etc. Topical issues would encompass discussion papers, academic research, opinion pieces, prudential regulation and anything else that intersected with banking, finance and economics.

I am currently working my way through APRA’s Feb 2018 discussion paper on Revisions to the capital framework for ADI’s.  I think there is a lot to like in the proposals APRA has set out but also some gaps and possible unintended consequences that are worth exploring.

… and so it begins

Tony

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