Add another influential voice to the chorus of those concerned about corporate “short-termism.”
In recent months an increasing number of investor advocates, academics, securities lawyers and politicians have expressed concerns that companies worry more about short-term quarterly earnings and estimates, not enough about long-term, sustainable growth. Among the more radical suggestions: doing away with quarterly earnings altogether, replacing them with semi-annual disclosures.
In a Feb. 1 letter to nearly 500 companies, Laurence Fink, co-founder and CEO of BlackRock offered his take, urging “resistance to the powerful forces of short-termism affecting corporate behavior” and calling “today’s culture of quarterly earnings hysteria contrary to a much-needed long-term approach.”
BlackRock, currently the world’s largest investment firm, has more than $4.6 trillion in assets under management. The letter was obtained, and first reported on, in the New York Times.
“We are asking that every CEO lay out for shareholders each year a strategic framework for long-term value creation,” Fink wrote. “Additionally, because boards have a critical role to play in strategic planning, we believe CEOs should explicitly affirm that their boards have reviewed those plans. BlackRock’s corporate governance team, in their engagement with companies, will be looking for this framework and board review.”
Annual shareholder letters and other communications to shareholders are “too often backwards-looking and don’t do enough to articulate management’s vision and plans for the future,” Fink added. “This perspective on the future, however, is what investors and all stakeholders truly need, including, for example, how the company is navigating the competitive landscape, how it is innovating, how it is adapting to technological disruption or geopolitical events, where it is investing, and how it is developing talent. As part of this effort, companies should work to develop financial metrics, suitable for each company and industry, that support a framework for long-term growth. Components of long-term compensation should be linked to these metrics.”
Over time, as companies do a better job laying out their long-term growth frameworks, the need will diminish for quarterly earnings per share guidance, and Fink would then urge companies to move away from providing it. “To be clear, we do believe companies should still report quarterly results—long-termism should not be a substitute for transparency,” he wrote. “But CEOs should be more focused in these reports on demonstrating progress against their strategic plans than a one-penny deviation from their EPS targets or analyst consensus estimates.”
With clearly communicated and understood long-term plans in place, quarterly earnings reports “would be transformed from an instrument of incessant short-termism into a building block of long-term behavior.” Fink envisions them as “a useful ‘electrocardiogram’ for companies, providing information on how companies are performing against the ‘baseline EKG’ of their long-term plan for value creation.”
BlackRock also proposes that companies explicitly affirm to shareholders that their boards have reviewed their strategic plans. “The review should be a rigorous process that provides the board necessary context and allows for a robust debate,” Fink wrote. “Boards have an obligation to review, understand, discuss, and challenge a company’s strategy.”