The virtue of short term thinking

By Barry Randall

In early June, Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal wrote a thoughtful piece on, as he termed it, the "obsession with short-term performance." Specifically, he blames investment fund managers for judging the success of their underlying holdings by using periods of time (e.g., quarters or even months) that are simply too short to determine excellence. According to Mr. Zweig, this in turn encourages these firms to take undue risks in order to please institutional investors.

This is not a new accusation. It has been the conventional wisdom for some time that public company executives feel pressure from investors to focus on meeting short-term goals. This effort, in turn, is supposed to prevent or distract these same executives from pursuing long-term goals that are supposedly better for the health of the company

Mr. Zweig's piece uses the experience of a successful Scottish fund manager to highlight the virtue of investing for the long term. The fund manager, James Anderson of Baillie Gifford, even thoughtfully lists a handful of well-known companies, including Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL) and Amazon (AMZN), that aren't "beholden to the habits of quarterly capitalism."

I disagree sharply with Mr. Zweig and Mr. Anderson on this issue - first because neither man bothers to provide any statistical analysis or other proof that focusing on the long-term at the expense of the short-term provides superior returns to fund investors.

I also disagree because while Google, Apple and Amazon have in fact proven to be good investments over the long term; they are the exception, not the rule. There are vastly more companies both large and small that successfully adhere to the Wall Street 'Guidance Game' of providing a financial outlook and then trying to meet or exceed it.

And there are many other public companies using the excuse of "long-term planning" to glide over their failures in strategy and execution. Some may have viable businesses. But because they are unwilling to commit to a plan and execute on that plan, they squander credibility with investors and other stakeholders.

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