A Nobel Prize-winning economist explains what Milton Friedman got wrong

Oliver Hart is a professor of economics at Harvard University. Hart won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2016 for his work in contract theory and is the author of “Firms, Contracts, and Financial Structure.” Hart sat down with Business Insider’s Sara Silverstein at UBS’s Nobel Perspectives Live event in Brooklyn.

In this interview, Hart discusses his most recent paper “Companies Should Maximise Shareholder Welfare Not Market Value.” He says that profit maximization is important to shareholders, but it’s not the only thing they care about. Following is a transcript of the video.

Sara Silverstein:Can you tell me about your paper and the premise of it?

Oliver Hart:The basic idea – it starts from something that Milton Friedman said in an article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Surprisingly enough. Back in 1970 I think it was – he argued that companies should just devote themselves to the bottom line because he was particularly concerned with the issue – the question whether they should give money to charity. So I think it was a time when CEOs were talking a lot about the broader social purpose of companies and trying to justify charitable contributions. And Friedman said, “This is completely wrong, the only business of business was to make money.” And what they should – a company rather than giving money to charity, should simply give that money to shareholders as a dividend, and then they could decide individually if they wanted to give to charity. So he wasn’t saying that charity wasn’t important, he just said companies don’t have a comparative advantage in giving to charity.

I think it’s quite a compelling argument when it comes to charities. But I think people have taken this argument too far. So what we do in this paper is we say, let’s consider other cases. For example we use … take the case of a company like Walmart – or actually this has been very much in the news, Dick’s Sporting Goods I think, changed their policy on selling guns. So suppose the question is, you know, you can make money by selling assault rifles. The Friedman argument would be, I mean – maybe some of the shareholders care about gun control. His argument would have to be if it’s a profitable strategy to sell high-powered guns, then the company should do it, pay shareholders an extra dividend, and then shareholders individually if they want to give that money to gun control organisations can do so. But when you think about that, it just – the argument sort of falls away. It obviously doesn’t make sense. Because it could be much more efficient if the shareholders want gun control it would be maybe much more efficient for Dick’s simply not to – or Walmart, to sell the weapons in the first place.

Or to take another example, think of a company polluting a lake. Maybe they can make some extra money by doing so. And maybe it’s not illegal because we don’t have very strong regulations. Whatever – so, the Friedman argument would be, make the money by polluting the lake, give the money to the shareholders, and then let them, if they want, clean up the lake. But it could be much more costly to clean up the lake after you’ve polluted it than not to pollute it in the first place. So we argue, given that situations like that are going to arise. Shareholders are companies who have pro-social concerns and we think shareholders do because they are just ordinary individuals and individuals in their own private lives seem to be not just interested in the bottom line. So if that’s the case, then they are going to want the companies they invest in also not to be just interested in the bottom line. So the conclusion is that this idea, which seems to have taken hold that companies should be all about making money and that indeed managers, the CEO, they have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to be concerned only with the bottom line. We think this is wrong – a serious mistake. Actually if they want to act – be loyal to their shareholders – which is what fiduciary duty means. They should actually ask them what they want. That’s the loyal thing to do. Rather than just assume that it’s making money at the expense of all else.

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