Capital allocation is one of top management’s primary responsibilities. Although always important, it is critical today because corporate operating returns on invested capital are at an all-time high, while recent growth and investment have been modest, and corporate balance sheets in the U.S. have substantial cash.
Yet few senior executives are sufficiently well-versed in finance theory and methods to allocate capital as effectively as possible. Further, incentive programs that focus on meeting earnings per share often encourage behavior that is not in the best interests of long-term shareholders.
In this report, the authors begin with the premise that the goal of corporate capital allocation is to build long-term value per share; and with that view in mind, they examine the main sources and uses of capital by the largest 1,500 U.S. companies during the last 30 years.
More specifically, the authors identify the amounts of capital allocated to each of seven important alternatives, including major uses of capital such as M&A, capital expenditures, R&D, and distributions of capital to investors such as dividends and stock repurchases. And after reviewing the past allocations of capital to each of these alternatives, the authors summarize the academic research on the effects on corporate values of each of these uses of capital.
The authors report that U.S. corporations fund most of their investments internally, and that M&A and capital expenditures have long been, and continue to be, the largest operating uses of capital, though both capital expenditures and growth in assets have fallen in recent years. At the same time, both corporate cash holdings and distributions to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks are at record levels. But even with such high payouts, R&D spending as a percentage of revenue by U.S. companies has remained high, and actually increased during the past decade.
Finally, the authors provide a frame-work that can be used either internally or by outsiders to evaluate the capital allocation practices and effectiveness of a management team. This framework asks management to assess its past performance, provide realistic projections of future returns on invested capital, and evaluate their own incentive programs—all while renewing their commitment to the five principles of thoughtful capital allocation: (1) zero-based capital allocation; (2) funding of strategies, not projects; (3) no capital rationing; (4) zero tolerance for bad growth; and (5) continuous monitoring of the value of all assets and business, and willingness to take action if and when such values are larger outside than inside the firm.
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