Between the controversies at Disney, Bud Light, and Target, I think we need a return to shareholder primacy.
In 2019, many of the biggest American CEOs signed a manifesto declaring the end of shareholder primacy and embracing a new stakeholder model. With shareholder primacy, the main objective of a corporation is to maximize profits, both long- and short-term profits, because that is what boosts share prices and dividends, and shareholders like that. With the stakeholder model, a corporation has many other objectives: worker well-being, the environment, and the good of society. That may sound nice, but often, these stakeholders have competing objectives, and choosing who gets priority is a question of values.
When Milton Friedman argued for shareholder primacy, he said that a CEO should not forgo profits to exercise his personal values. It is not his money to spend, and not everyone shares his values, nor should they. And worse, I blame the multi-stakeholder model for making everything feel more political.
Now, I realize even before 2019, companies were getting more political, but it got ramped up several notches in 2020. And now, everything you buy feels like a political statement. And even innocuous well-intentioned marketing campaigns that aim to give visibility to marginalized groups are taken as an explicit endorsement of a more divisive political agenda. I think shooting Bud Light cans in protest is stupid. But I get that people feel frustrated that everything is political and often not their politics.
And even if corporations mostly did pursue profits after 2019, and the stakeholder manifesto was a cynical ploy to appease young workers, get ESG capital, or avoid regulation, rhetoric matters. Before 2019, people could shrug at corporate pandering because it all seemed like a marketing ploy, and who can argue with selling lawn chairs and beer to the trans community? It is a growing demographic.
But in the context of announcing that you are doing it to make the world a better place, it strikes a different tone. And since stakeholder capitalism is about choosing between competing values, it is political. And now everything is worse for profits and society, since it adds to division and rancor.
Milton Friedman was right; shareholder primacy is better for corporations and society.
If CEOs really want to save the world, they should do the brave thing: announce an end to stakeholder capitalism and go back to just worrying about profits.
Author(s): Allison Schrager
Publication Date: 5 Jun 2023
Publication Site: Known Unknowns at substack