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Thursday: We’re not seeing things after all

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism wrote a post about a study that confirms what we’ve been thinking for years: Short term thinking is destroying whole industries and will have severe repercussions down the road.

Andrew Haldane and Richard Davies of the Bank of England have released a very useful new paper on short-termism in the investment arena. They contend that this problem real and getting worse. This may at first blush seem to be mere official confirmation of most people’s gut instinct. However, the authors take the critical step of developing some estimates of the severity of the phenomenon, since past efforts to do so are surprisingly scarce.

“A short-term perspective is tantamount to applying an overly high discount rate to an investment project or similarly, requiring an excessively rapid payback. In corporate capital budgeting settings, the distortions are pronounced:

Most recently, in 2011 PriceWaterhouseCoopers conducted a survey of FTSE-100 and 250 executives, the majority of which chose a low return option sooner (£250,000 tomorrow) rather than a high return later (£450,000 in 3 years). This suggested annual discount rates of over 20%. Recently, Matthew Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (America’s second biggest rail company), expressed frustration at the focus on quarterly earnings when locomotives lasted for 20 years and tracks for 30 to 40 years. Echoes, here, of “quarterly capitalism”.”

Haldane and Davies argue the effect is significant:

“First, there is statistically significant evidence of short-termism in the pricing of companies’ equities. This is true across all industrial sectors. Moreover, there is evidence of short-termism having increased over the recent past. Myopia is mounting.

Second, estimates of short-termism are economically as well as statistically significant.
Empirical evidence points to excess discounting of between 5% and 10% per year.

The result is that projects with long-term payback, beyond the 30 to 35 year timeframe, are treated as having no value. No wonder we don’t fund basic science, infrastructure, or climate change related projects”.

The writers point out the first order bad effects: good projects don’t get funded, and those projects are often the ones with the highest potential for broad social impact (would we ever build the US highway system now?). But the knock-on effects are if anything more pernicious. The fact that most investors employ overly high discount rates produces is the same result you’d see with oligopoly pricing: overly high returns with restricted output. And this is consistent with the picture we see in most of the world. Perversely, the corporate sector has been a net saver for nearly a decade in the US, longer than that in some other economies. As we wrote with Rob Parenteau last year:

Over the past decade and a half, corporations have been saving more and investing less in their own businesses. A 2005 report from JPMorgan Research noted with concern that, since 2002, American corporations on average ran a net financial surplus of 1.7 percent of the gross domestic product — a drastic change from the previous 40 years, when they had maintained an average deficit of 1.2 percent of G.D.P. More recent studies have indicated that companies in Europe, Japan and China are also running unprecedented surpluses.

This fits nicely with what we R&D professionals have been seeing.  Its effects are especially profound with respect to the pharmaceutical industry because almost by definition, pharmaceutical research is a long term affair.  *Maybe* you can design a better silicon chip in a faster timeframe if everyone gave up sleep but with life sciences related research, Harvard’s Law applies:

Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other variables, the organism will do as it damn well pleases.

You can’t make money in the short term in research.  Therefore, research must be cut.

It’s logic only a financier could love.

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