May 12, 2016 Executive Compensation Executive & Director Pay Design Articles

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How Incentives for Long-Term Management Backfire

To hear long-term investors tell it, company executives have embraced short-term thinking like never before. Two obvious pieces of evidence: The use of earnings for share buybacks that cost more than they’re worth, and dividend increases that divert cash from long-term investment. Four hundred seventy-one companies in the S&P 500 bought back stock last year, and 372 companies expanded their dividends — actions undertaken in spite of the need to invest heavily to up with global market changes.

Why would executives, charged with sustainable value creation, put so much focus on short-term maneuvers like distributing earnings instead of reinvesting them? Why isn’t more of that cash going into developing businesses for long-term gains — the big, outsized gains that come from big bets on the future? Among many good explanations is one that deserves more airtime: compensation design changes stemming from recent reforms that, ironically, were meant to benefit long-term shareholders.

This is a classic story of unintended consequences — inadvertently short-circuiting long-term management — to the detriment of companies, investors, and the economy. The normal culprits for short-termism are short-term-minded hedge-fund managers and activist shareholders, as well as CEOs worried about big bet investments with uncertain paybacks. But one other big factor has been hiding in plain sight: The efforts of corporate-governance activists and proxy advisers, empowered by the “Say on Pay” votes mandated by Dodd-Frank reforms, to stress transparency and pay for performance.

View the full article as it was originally published.

Seymour Burchman

Blair Jones

This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review.

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