Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon want public companies to give shareholders more of the cold shoulder than they already do. That would leave financial markets worse off for future generations, not better, as they contend.
On Thursday morning, Dimon and Buffett, along with the Business Roundtable, called on public companies to stop issuing quarterly corporate guidance. They said the move would help reverse the market’s focus on short-term results, which they say holds back companies from hiring and investing in the future. That sounds great, but the proposal misunderstands where all the short-term pressure is coming from. It all starts with titan CEOs like Dimon and Buffett.
The reason investors are so focused on quarterly forecasts and whether companies meet them is because they have lost all control elsewhere. More and more companies continue to list with dual-class shares that give public shareholders little or no voting rights. Boards have not been an effective check on corporate behavior or executive pay. Shareholder proxy votes are still only advisory and little respected anyway. Dimon recently called annual shareholder meetings a waste of time and proposed canceling them entirely. Dimon and Buffett are both the CEO and chairman of their respective companies, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. And neither Dimon nor Buffett have given a clear picture of who would succeed them when they leave.
If companies are not willing to adhere to the good corporate governance principles that make shareholders comfortable that they have a say in the long-term direction of their company and that boards and executives will be good long-term stewards of their investment, then investors become hyperfocused on whether companies are performing in the short term and punish companies when they don’t.
There are relatively easy ways to fix this. Splitting the CEO and chairman roles would be a good first step, and a relatively easy one, to making boards better watchdogs for shareholders. Pledge to rein in executive pay, or at least promise to make it better aligned with actual performance. Tie buybacks — which do reward shareholders but also the large options holdings of top executives while hiding the cost of those options grants — to performance goals as well. Other fixes, like shares that reward longtime holders with more voting rights, or even higher dividends, might be a little more difficult but worth it as well. Pair eliminating corporate guidance with one or all of these, and that would be a proposal that I think would receive a lot of support from both executives and shareholders.
If Buffett and Dimon want to take away corporate guidance and truly improve markets for the next generation, he and other CEOs are going to have to give something back in return.