The Shareholder Value Myth

Learn how shareholder primacy harms investors, corporations and the public.

| July 2012

Executives, investors and the business press routinely chant the mantra that corporations are required to “maximize shareholder value.” In The Shareholder Value Myth (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012), renowned corporate expert Lynn Stout debunks the myth that corporate law mandates shareholder primacy. Stout shows how shareholder value thinking endangers not only investors but the rest of us as well. The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction, “The Dumbest Idea in the World.” 

The Deepwater Horizon was an oil drilling rig, a massive floating structure that cost more than a third of a billion dollars to build and measured the length of a football field from bottom to top. On the night of April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon was working in the Gulf of Mexico, finishing an exploratory well named Macondo for the corporation BP. Suddenly the rig was rocked by a loud explosion. Within minutes the Deepwater Horizon was transformed into a column of fire that burned for nearly two days before collapsing into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, the Macondo well began vomiting tens of thousands of barrels of oil daily from beneath the sea floor into the Gulf waters. By the time the well was capped in September 2010, the Macondo well blowout was estimated to have caused the largest offshore oil spill in history.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was tragedy on an epic scale, not only for the rig and the eleven people who died on it, but also for the corporation BP. By June of 2010, BP had suspended paying its regular dividends, and BP common stock (trading around $60 before the spill) had plunged to less than $30 per share. The result was a decline in BP’s total stock market value amounting to nearly $100 billion. BP’s shareholders were not the only ones to suffer. The value of BP bonds tanked as BP’s credit rating was cut from a prestigious AA to the near-junk status BBB. Other oil companies working in the Gulf were idled, along with BP, due to a government imposed moratorium on further deepwater drilling in the Gulf. Business owners and workers in the Gulf fishing and tourism industries struggled to make a living. Finally, the Gulf ecosystem itself suffered enormous damage, the full extent of which remains unknown today.

After months of investigation, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling concluded the Macondo blowout could be traced to multiple decisions by BP employees and contractors to ignore standard safety procedures in the attempt to cut costs. (At the time of the blowout, the Macondo project was more than a month behind schedule and almost $60 million over budget, with each day of delay costing an estimated $1 million.) Nor was this the first time BP had sacrificed safety to save time and money. The Commission concluded, “BP’s safety lapses have been chronic.”

The Ideology of Shareholder Value

Why would a sophisticated international corporation make such an enormous and costly mistake? In trying to save $1 million a day by skimping on safety procedures at the Macondo well, BP cost its shareholders alone a hundred thousand times more, nearly $100 billion. Even if following proper safety procedures had delayed the development of the Macondo well for a full year, BP would have done much better. The gamble was foolish, even from BP’s perspective.

This book argues that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is only one example of a larger problem that afflicts many public corporations today. That problem might be called shareholder value thinking. According to the doctrine of shareholder value, public corporations “belong” to their shareholders, and they exist for one purpose only, to maximize shareholders’ wealth. Shareholder wealth, in turn, is typically measured by share price—meaning share price today, not share price next year or next decade.