Investors as Stewards of the Commons?
In our first article from the (JACF Spring/Summer issue) George Serafeim makes the case that business generally, not just government, should assume responsibility for social and environmental problems. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formally recognize the role of the private sector in addressing some of the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. What started as a corporate social responsibility movement now a focuses on integrating positive social impact into the core mission of the organization.
Encouragingly, studies document that improving firm performance on business-relevant ESG issues has a positive association with future financial performance. Investors can enable better societal outcomes by exercising ‘voice’ and voting rights in corporate governance.
He acknowledges that competitive businesses face a “commons” or “free-rider” problem where a defector avoids the full cost of his actions. Overcoming this problem requires legally sanctioned collaboration between business enterprises and large institutional shareholders, particularly pension funds. He also acknowledges that the corporate level free-rider problem has a counterpart that at the investor level. Investor engagement with companies involves resources, money and time. It is no simple matter to justify increased costs in the context of asset managers that compete on the basis of low management fees, such as index funds.
Collaboration between companies can mitigate some of these free riding problems. Large institutional investors with long time horizons and significant common ownership across different companies may have the best opportunities for collaboration. But, smaller activist funds and retail investors also have an important role in pushing large institutional investors to engage. While it is unlikely that investors will be able to solve all of the pressing societal problems, progress can be made.
Authored by George Serafeim, Harvard Business School
The Case of the Electric Utility Industry
In our last article from the (JACF Winter issue) we discuss how although the electric utility industry is in transition, it still needs to move faster for the country to meet its emissions goals. The industry has historically moved cautiously, but policies and regulatory approaches must avoid unintentionally reinforcing the status quo. Incentive-oriented policies and redesigned regulations must balance environmental sustainability with economic sustainability. The authors draw on well-established corporate finance principles to guide more effective policies. Shareholder-focused utility executives must make investments conditioned by three elements: (1) the return on equity the utility can expect to make on each project; (2) the investors’ required return on equity capital for each project; and (3) the size of the investment.
The well-established economic value added (EVA) model can assist policy analysis: V=(r-k)I; where V is the shareholder value created, r is the return on equity, k is the return investors require if they are to invest in the stock, and I is the scale of the project. Any new incremental V translates into higher stock prices.
All three elements of their model (i.e., risk, return, and scale) require attention by regulators and policymakers to create value for shareholders. The authors show how the right state policies could create powerful incentives for shareholder focused utility executives to support such transitions.
Authored by Steven Kihm, Seventhwave; Peter Cappers, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Andrew Satchwell, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and Elisabeth Graffy, Arizona State University
Financial Flexibility and Opportunity Capture: Bridging the Gap Between Finance and Strategy
In our third article of the Winter 30.1 issue we look at whether logically, the practice of corporate finance and corporate strategy should be closely coordinated, but in reality there remains a massive gap between the two. This can lead strategically oriented firms to de-emphasize or even discard NPV. Neither financial theory nor competitive strategy has been very open to the economic value of investment opportunity capture. Strategy must recognize that financial flexibility provides powerful advantages and financial theory must evaluate entire strategic programs rather than discrete, stand-alone projects.
Necessarily, the financial discussion of cost of capital and capital structure has to change. The authors offer two specific concepts to bridge the Gap between Finance and Strategy:
1) Reserve Financial Capacity is the annual sum of Free Cash Flow, Financing Flexibility and Cash Reserves over the period envisioned for strategy execution. Individual projects must belong to strategic programs in the sense that they either: 1) keep the base business running; 2) preserve an existing competitive position; or 3) form part of a program to enhance advantage or fashion a strategic breakout.
2) Strategically Sustainable Cost of Capital is the true, blended cost of capital required to complete an entire capital program.
These concepts provide financial rigor to firms with well-defined strategies and allow managements to wield Financial Flexibility as a strategic weapon, creating options on unique buying opportunities, such as at the bottom of industry cycles. The paper includes flowcharts illustrating how the standards of judicial review apply to various categories of business decisions that directors may have to make. It concludes with practical suggestions for directors and General Counsels to establish business judgment rule protection for board decisions or, where applicable, withstand more stringent standards of review.
Authored by Stephen V. Arbogast, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dr. Praveen Kumar, C.T. Bauer College of Business, University of Houston.
The second article of our Winter 30.1 issue of the Journal of Applied Finance deals with whether directors may wonder if their fiduciary duties have changed. The authors synthesize the latest decisions of the Delaware courts on the standards of conduct for directors and the standards by which their conduct is reviewed. While directors should expect uncertainty in corporate life, neither the fiduciary duties of directors nor the protections afforded them have changed. Disinterested and independent directors, acting in good faith to make decisions they deem in the best interests of the corporation, continue to have broad protections under the business judgment rule. This legal framework enables and encourages active directors to make hard choices when they need to do so.
The paper includes flowcharts illustrating how the standards of judicial review apply to various categories of business decisions that directors may have to make. It concludes with practical suggestions for directors and General Counsels to establish business judgment rule protection for board decisions or, where applicable, withstand more stringent standards of review.
Written by Ira M. Millstein, Ellen J. Odoner, and Aabha Sharma, of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
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