Investors in the stocks of corporations are often categorized as being either patient for long-term returns (the ants) or impatient for short-term profits (the grasshoppers). On Friday, President Trump joined a rising chorus of critics by asking federal regulators to move toward rules that would further favor the patient investor – which can include funds in which about a third of Americans put aside money for retirement.
Mr. Trump tweeted that he had asked the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to consider ending the practice of corporations issuing quarterly reports on their earnings and shift toward releasing such financial information every six months. Perhaps out of concern over competition from China, he explained that the United States is “not thinking far enough out.”
His request came after years of calls by many top business leaders to reduce the focus of stock analysts on a company’s quarterly returns. In June, long-haul investor Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan Chase chief executive, issued a joint call on behalf of some 200 chief executives to reduce “short-termism” in corporations by abandoning the quarterly earnings estimates. “Public companies should be managed for long-term prosperity, not to meet the latest forecast,” their statement said.
A recent study of about 600 firms by the McKinsey Global Institute found that 73 percent of public companies are short-termist. Firms that are long-termist saw profits that were 36 percent higher between 2001 and 2014.
The main issue with quarterly reports is that they can easily push executives to shortchange investments in research, employees, and customers in order to meet the expectations of investors who seek a quick buck. Yet investors do deserve timely information on how well a company is doing and whether executives are hiding bad news. Finding a balance is difficult. In 2007, Europe moved from six-month reporting to quarterly reporting. After seven years, it returned to the longer perspective.
In corporations listed on stock exchanges, the hassles of answering to investors have proved an incentive for private companies not to go public. In the past two decades, the average number of annual public offerings of stock has dropped by about two-thirds. This reduces the number of places where people can buy and sell stock, giving wealthy investors greater opportunity to make investments in privately held companies.
Every investor has a different time frame, of course, but all investors have one question in common: What is the fundamental value of the service or product that a company is selling? Measuring that value can include looking at the long-term trust that a company has built, and not only with its customers. The worth of a company depends on its integrity with employees, with the communities it operates in, and even with the environment.
Such values are not easy to measure and can take years to cement in a company’s culture. If the SEC were to tilt toward the patient investor, it could nudge executives to explain the long-term narrative of a company’s sustainability with metrics far beyond quarterly earnings. Are a company’s founders more eager to build market share than their own wealth? Are they creating quality patents, satisfied customers, employees who innovate, and products that pollute less?
In business as elsewhere, patience is a virtue that requires careful thought beyond one’s self-interest. The issue of whether public companies should report quarterly or every six months should be only the start of a debate by the SEC on how companies can broaden their role in society beyond short-term profits.