Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Paging Dunning and Kruger...

There are few things more irritating than popular journalists who try to take on an academic orthodoxy by pretending to be soooo much smarter than those ivory tower pinheads, and try to mask their poor understanding of the subject with bluster and scorn. Many academic ideas are wrong, but it's odd that a whole profession is comprised of morons.

Over at Forbes, Steve Denning has an article entitled "The Dumbest Idea In The World: Maximizing Shareholder Value". Right off the bat, you can tell from the title that it's going to be a howler. (I know titles are sometimes chosen by sub editors, but it's not unrepresentative). Maximizing shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world? Dumber than witch burning, or the modern flat-earth movement, or communism, or astrology, or... okay, so nobody with half a brain can actually believe that, they're just being provocative.

The author is positing an underlying argument that's actually quite reasonable, namely that CEOs should focus on improving earnings, rather than focussing on exceeding market expectations. Personally, I tend to agree. But it's not enough to just make this point, Denning has to pretend that anyone who ever said anything to the contrary is a disingenuous fool.

Take this hilarious quote from the article:

Martin says that the trouble began in 1976 when finance professor Michael Jensen and Dean William Meckling of the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester published a seemingly innocuous paper in the Journal of Financial Economics entitled “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure.”

The article performed the old academic trick of creating a problem and then proposing a solution to the supposed problem that the article itself had created. The article identified the principal-agent problem as being that the shareholders are the principals of the firm—i.e., they own it and benefit from its prosperity, while the executives are agents who are hired by the principals to work on their behalf.

Yes, read that again. This imbecile is actually claiming that Jensen and Meckling (1976) created the principle/agent problem! Because until they pointed it out, no manager in history had ever thought to further their own interests instead of those of the shareholders. This article was like the poison apple in the Garden of Eden, and once managers were finally told 'hey, you know you can jack up your pay at the expense of shareholders?', then the age of the philosopher-king managers was over.

Honestly, I'm just baffled by this claim. The principal agent problem in J&M relies on the following assumptions:
1. Shareholders are the owners of the company, and they appoint the board, who hire managers on the shareholders behalf.
2. Shareholders will seek to maximise the value of their shares.
3. Managers, once appointed, will seek to act in their own self-interest.
4. The interests of shareholders and managers will sometimes be in conflict.

Seriously, which of these four assumptions wasn't true before 1976? It's just bizzarre. Denning wants to claim that managers never tried to maximise shareholder value before 1976. Well call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure that managers who weren't at least trying to do that got fired pretty quickly, and this had nothing to do with Michael Jensen. The author may not like the J&M solution of paying managers in equity, but that's completely different from smugly saying that J&M "created" the principal agent problem.

Let's just say that not only is maximizing shareholder value not the dumbest idea in the world, it's not even the dumbest idea in the article. And if Jack Welch and Roger Martin (Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto) feel differently, then so much the worse for them.

Steve Denning, you are an arrogant, pontificating fool.

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