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Michael Porter plans to take aim at investment managers

(this article was first published in Cuffelinks on 31 May, 2013)

Professor Michael Porter is a committed capitalist, and about as hardline as you can get. So why has he seemingly dive-bombed out of the clouds to champion the role and obligations of business in society? Why does he get excited about Nestle’s support of rural development, Cisco’s partnering with public institutions to provide online curricula, teacher training and professional development for instructors and Wal-Mart’s supply chain re-invention, cutting energy costs, emissions and engaging with local suppliers?

Start thinking about ‘Shared Value’

The answer lies in business model innovation: it’s the way companies will get ahead and create real business value in the future and, at the same time, address society’s pressing needs. This type of innovation is called ‘Shared Value’ and it is increasingly being applied to improve competitive positioning and financial performance. This may come across as idle curiosity that hardly warrants keeping a fund trustee awake at night. However, it is likely to spawn new conversations about the effectiveness of trustee boards.

I’ve just returned from Boston and four days of intensive work discussing Shared Value implementation with companies and practitioners from all around the world, including Colombia, India, Philippines, Canada, Czech Republic, Brazil, Australia, Italy, Hong Kong, Singapore, US, UK, Costa Rica, Mexico, Korea, Japan and Chile. We rubbed shoulders with Professor Michael Porter, Mark Kramer of FSG and the Chairman of Nestle, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, at the Global Shared Value Summit. It marked a pivotal moment in the development of the Shared Value field (refer sharedvalue.org or an article of mine if the topic is completely new to you).

Where corporate social responsibility is mostly about licence-to-operate or meeting basic community standards, Shared Value is about creating value for both business (financial) and society (impact). It’s proactive, not reactive. For example, pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk embarked on physician training and patient education on diabetes in China many years ago. It estimates that it has improved patient life years of those who use its products and services by 80%, while increasing its market share from below 40% to 63% in the second largest insulin market in the world.

This highlights that it’s not ‘touchy-feely’ stuff: it can lead to market dominance. In fact, you might say this is just good business, where long-term plans are executed well. It is, but we all know that the investment chain is deeply flawed, and analysts struggle to understand and attribute value to these strategies before the earnings are proven, which means that capital is allocated inefficiently.

Too much attention on short-terms

Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe noted that he refuses to publish quarterly earnings because one quarter has little bearing on the likelihood of his company living up to its market Price/Earnings ratio. He went further, and cited investment analysts as the root of the short-termist problem. Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, who wrote their seminal paper entitled Creating Shared Value in 2011, agree that vast improvements in the capital supply chain are required. At the Global Summit, Porter revealed that he and Kramer intend to challenge investment managers in a paper due out in early 2014.

In Australia, APRA statistics show that 74% of superannuation fund members have more than 15 years to retirement, and the majority of this group has more than 30 years to go. In theory, this is the average investment horizon that fund trustees should be adopting. But we all know, even if we don’t say it in public, that trustees become quite preoccupied with this year’s earnings rate, and fund comparisons are typically done on 3, 5 or sometimes 7-year timeframes. Have you ever heard vigorous debate about 20-year earnings? And then, to make matters worse, by the time the money gets in the hands of investment managers, annual bonus potential is flashing so brightly that the investment horizon for liquid, traded investments is more like 1-3 years at best. I know, because I’ve worked in the system and was partly complicit with it.

I have sympathy for companies that get hauled into a short-term earnings mindset, because flaws in the structure of our investment chain push them in this direction. Mike Hirst, managing director of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, bravely took a stand against analysts in 2011, citing the same issue as Brabeck-Lemathe of Nestle. At the time, it was a mere blip in the investment conversation and then everyone merrily resumed business as usual.

Here’s the crux of the issue. For all of the back-patting that goes on in the world of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, have fund trustees really addressed the core problem of misaligned interests between their members’ investment requirements and the incentives of investment managers? There is a lot of puffery, but little substance. When is a manager going to be fired for having a short-term incentive system and replaced with one that has a longer-term system? A handful of investment managers have addressed this, with seven year bonus assessment periods as an example, but they are the exception. It should be priority number one.

In relation to Shared Value, we are seeing a groundswell of interest and application of the concept from innovative companies and this trend is set to continue. It will be a process of internal challenge and discovery for many of them. As yet, there is no prescriptive set of rules, but there are principles and methods that they can use to evaluate their core assets, needs and challenges. They will find where the key social intersection points exist and create strategies that drive financial results in concert with a positive societal impact.

Targetting investors and trustees

From a financial performance perspective, expect to see companies who get this right markedly outperform their peers. And because it takes time to get it right – Nestle is in its seventh year of implementation – the advantages created will be sustained for longer periods of time. It’s hard to copy overnight. My main prediction is that, in the next 10 years, we will see the dispersion of company returns increase significantly and there will be many fast and slow declines.

We will have to wait and see how deeply Porter and Kramer sink their teeth into the investment community. I suspect they will soon realise that the best way to influence investment managers is through their major clients, being superannuation and pension fund trustees. It is likely to start a new and exciting level of dialogue that will bring institutional shareholders closer to leaders in business innovation. However, it will also be confronting to those who are comfortable with the status quo.

Phil Preston is a speaker, facilitator and innovation practitioner, and is a former global credit research head at Colonial First State Global Asset Management.

 

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