By Michael Olenick, a research fellow at INSEAD. Originally published at his website
On September 13, 1970, Milton Friedman published one of the most arguably economically destructive articles in history, “The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” in the New York Times. The article is available, in PDF form, for subscribers from the New York Times website.
Friedman advanced the idea that managers are agents of shareholders and that the only purpose of for-profit businesses is to increase stock price.
Managers have been debating Friedman’s “Shareholder Value Theory” for ages but nobody seems to have found the most obvious flaw from the seminal article. Milton’s sermon was directed at GM management who listened, decimating their brand, market share, and share price.
Specifically, Friedman raved against the notion that corporations have “social responsibilities” that, in this specific case, meant they should build safer, more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly cars. One can surmise this notion eventually extended, during a time when planned obsolesce was part of a business model, to quality.
In 1970, Friedman insisted businesspeople not concern themselves with issues beyond increasing shareholder value. “Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades,” wrote the Nobel laureate. Implicit is the message to GM: keep doing what you’ve been doing: build clunky, crappy cars because that strategy was profitable in the past. The Times, They Weren’t A Changin’ at GM.
In hindsight Milton Friedman was, by any measure, wrong.
No serious student of business, economics, law, history, or engineering could argue that Friedman’s business analysis was correct. GM, along with other US automakers, listened to Friedman, ignored the “reformers” (Friedman’s word), and went on to build a series of truly terrible cars. Automobiles that broke, blew up, hurt people, handled terribly, and guzzled gas. These cars were uglier than a Blobfish and polluted “like a 19th century coal-fired factory,” as Wired Magazineeloquently summarized the era.
Besides building awful automobiles those “social responsibilities” that Friedman raved against were important to many baby boomers who, in 1970, were trending to be the largest consumer group. That is, to appease faceless shareholders, Milton Friedman advised that GM and other businesses ignore demands from future customers.
The result was predictable. As my mentor Prof. Robert Ayres recalls, he bought a Honda. I’m younger but remember when my father replaced the family jalopy with a new Corolla. Subaru’s became cool. Japanese cars were fuel efficient, environmentally friendly, relatively safe, and incredibly reliable. They were built by companies that took exceptional care of their workers who, in turn, cared exceptionally about their businesses and the products they build. Japanese executives must have been aware of Friedman’s theory and actively rejected the advice; they took, and continue to take, those “social responsibilities” seriously.
Did Toyota and Honda ignore shareholder value? With booming sales and sterling reputations I imagine their shareholders were pleased. How about those GM shareholders that Friedman praised for voting against exploring social responsibilities? People who purchased GM stock in 1965 — the one’s Friedman praised for voting down social policy considerations — did see their stock increase in value … in 1993. I’m not sure how that constitutes shareholder value.
Milton Friedman’s Exhibit A on shareholder value — the notion that GE must reject a call for “social responsibility” and ignore buyer demands — resulted in one of the worst business disasters in history, the gutting of General Motors.
Others have pointed out that the rest of Friedman’s theory is bunk.
First are the business executives: those who run actual businesses, something Milton Friedman never did. As detailed in this article from Forbes, Jack Welch called it “the dumbest idea in the world.” Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, referred to followers as a “cult.” Alibaba CEO Jack Ma reminds that “customers are number one; employees are number two and shareholders are number three.” Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, added it is “wrong .. the business of business isn’t just about creating profits for shareholders.”
Great business executives care about social issues. Apple CEO Tim Cook famously told an analyst, when questioned about Apple’s use of renewable energy, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI,” adding that Apple does “a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive. We want to leave the world a better place than we found it.” Google’s founding motto was “Don’t be evil.” They eventually dropped that because it set the bar too low. Facebook actively works on connectivity for poor countries. Well managed businesses are menschkeit, taking care of their customers, employees, and communities while earning a lot of money for shareholders. Lesser businesses, or those driven by short-term activist shareholders, are parasitic, milking their customers, employees, and the organization itself dry until there is little left for shareholders or anybody else.
Legal experts explain that Friedman’s theory, that managers are agents with a responsibility to increase stock returns, is outright wrong. Lynn Stout, distinguished professor of corporate and business law at Cornell Law School, argues Friedman bungled the law; managers are legally not agents of shareholders. She wrote a book on the subject, The Shareholder Value Myth. Prof. Stout writes “the idea of a single shareholder value is intellectually incoherent. No wonder the shift to shareholder value thinking doesn’t seem to be turning out well — especially for shareholders.”
Shareholder Value Theory remains alive and well. Michael Jensen and William Meckling published a 1976 article, “Theory of the Firm,” that repeated the myth managers are agents of shareholders. Despite that by 1976 GM’s struggles were apparent, and that one would think the question of agency is for lawyers rather than economists, their paper became and remains one of the most widely cited in academic literature.