Facebook is doing exactly what it should be doing.
It is doing what it should be doing to create the most possible long-term value for its four important constituencies: Customers (users), employees, shareholders, and society.
It is also doing what many more American companies should be doing:
Investing for the long term, without worrying about the short-term impact on the bottom line.
A company investing aggressively at the expense of short-term profit shouldn’t be news. It should be what all companies do.
Alas, it’s so rare in these days that it qualifies as downright startling.
Most American companies and management teams have become so hijacked by short-term Wall Street traders, and so obsessed with their annual bonuses and stock prices, that they think about little more than “beating analysts’ estimates” quarter after quarter.
In so doing, they often under-invest in opportunities that could create vastly more value over the long term.
Instead of making big, bold bets on projects that won’t pay off for 5-7 years, for example, the companies cut research and development to squeeze out a couple more pennies for this quarter’s bottom line.
Instead of investing in redeploying and retraining talented employees, they fire them.
Instead of paying good employees well enough that the employees don’t have to dedicate their working lives to enriching the company and yet still be poor, they “control labour costs.” (Hello, Walmart. Hello, Starbucks and McDonald’s. Hello, Apple Stores (although these, to Apple’s great credit, do pay more than they have to)).
And so on.
As the charts below show, the obsession of American corporations and managements with short-term profits has led to the country’s biggest companies earning the highest profits in history, both in absolute terms and as a per cent of the economy.
Meanwhile, the companies are paying the lowest wages in history.
And the companies are investing in capital equipment at one of the lowest rates in history.
If you talk to companies about this, they will say they are obsessing about short-term profits and under-investing in the future because they have a “duty to shareholders” to deliver the highest financial return and highest stock-price possible, at all times.
Importantly, however, the companies do not say this because it’s some immutable law of business.
The companies say it because it’s what they’ve been told by short-sighted but loud Wall Street fund managers, who are worried about how their funds are going to perform week, next month, and next quarter.
These fund managers do not worry about how their funds will do over the next 5-10 years or what kinds of value the money they are investing is being used to create. Because that’s not what they’re hired or paid to do.
The Wall Street investors are obsessed with short-term corporate performance because investors in Wall Street funds have become obsessed with short-term investment performance:
If a manager has a bad quarter, the fund’s owners begin to grumble and gripe. If the fund manager has a bad year, the fund’s owners start looking for new funds. If the fund manager has a few bad years, it’s time to start looking for another job or career.
Never mind that market cycles aren’t measured in “quarters”–they last anywhere from a few years to decades. And never mind that the absolute worst way to invest is to “chase” the latest hot trend of the past few years. (This leads to you buying at the top and selling at the bottom.)
There are lots of causes of the Wall Street Industrial Complex’s myopic obsession with short-term profits, so it’s not worth trying to pin the blame on any one participant.
The important point is this:
The short-term profit obsession is hurting companies, hurting average Americans, and hurting the economy.
Because the “cost-savings” that companies get when they don’t invest in attractive long-term projects represent lost wages for American consumers and lost sales for other American companies.
And those lost wages and lost sales constrain the economy’s growth rate.
In other words, because everyone is obsessed with “efficiency” and “maximized short-term profits,” the economy is suffering through very high unemployment and slow growth. And this high unemployment and slow growth, importantly, is a direct result of companies’ refusal to invest aggressively in the future.
That brings us back to Facebook.
Over the last few quarters, to Wall Street’s dismay, Facebook has announced that it was going to reduce its profits by investing aggressively for the long term.
As a result, Facebook’s earnings per share did not grow in the first quarter.
As a result, Facebook’s stock is probably trading at a modestly lower level than it might be if Facebook had radically “cut costs” or reduced investment to produce the “highest possible earnings per share.”
Critically, however, by making these aggressive investments, Facebook is setting itself up to have a great run over the next 5-10 years. And it is setting itself up to be worth more in 5-10 years than it would be if it fretted about this quarter’s earnings.
In other words, instead of worrying about getting yelled at by a few fund managers who couldn’t care less about Facebook’s long-term value creation, Facebook is building its business for the long term.
Thanks to this aggressive investment, over the long-term, Facebook (and Facebook stock) will likely be worth much more than it would be if Facebook had instead kowtowed to today’s myopic fund managers.
And, in the meantime, Facebook’s aggressive investment is pumping cash back into the economy in the form of wages and the purchase of equipment and services from other companies.
That last trend is not just good for Facebook. It’s good for the global economy.
So we should all tip our hats to Facebook.
The other company that has always invested for the long term no matter how loudly Wall Street screams, of course, is Amazon.
For the past 15 years, investors and the press have never stopped tut-tutting Amazon for its low profit margins. In the 1990s, the cool rap on Amazon was that it “would never make money.” Now the rap is that Amazon isn’t making enough money.
Meanwhile, over the past ~15 years, Amazon’s stock has risen more than 70X from its IPO price. And Amazon has become the dominant global force in eCommerce. And Amazon has built a spectacular service that hundreds of millions of customers in dozens of countries love.
Amazon has never worried about this quarter’s earnings per share.
Amazon has never been afraid to make big, bold bets on the future. (It’s making at least two very expensive ones today: Kindle and Amazon Web Services).
Amazon has never worried about the screams of myopic, impatient investors.
And now Facebook is following in Amazon’s footsteps.
In short, Facebook is focusing on creating value for the four constituencies that every great company should create value for:
- Shareholders, and
Facebook isn’t just dancing on Wall Street’s puppet strings.
That’s a great thing.
Not just for Facebook’s customers, employees, and shareholders. But for the global economy, too.
More companies need to think this way.
And we should all celebrate the ones that do.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
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