Big business has become disconnected from the broader society within which it operates. A narrow focus on short-term returns has prevented businesses from investing in innovation to foster long-term sustainable growth.

The common understanding of the purpose of publicly listed companies, particularly in Anglo-American markets, is that they exist to maximize shareholder value. Publicly listed companies are under tremendous pressure from activist shareholders, takeover threats, and general market dynamics to generate short-term value by spinning off parts of the company, buying back shares, and laying off staff. External pressure is compounded by executive compensation schemes that are heavily weighted towards stock options. In theory, incentive compensation systems should reduce agency costs so that managers will act in the interests of shareholders. In practice, they create perverse incentives to extract value from the company at the expense of customers, employees, organizational health, the community in which the business operates, and ultimately society as a whole.

A number of unintended consequences result, including:

  • The failure of companies to adequately consider and respond to societal challenges, such as environmental damage and climate change, due to the perceived cost;
  • Erosion of trust between society and the corporate sector, including the role of corporations in shaping public policy, which in turn leads to a loss of trust in democratic processes; and
  • Firm mismanagement through stock manipulation, insider trading and tax evasion, with a number of associated firm-level and macroeconomic risks including treating employees as disposable; undermining investment, research and development; hollowing out whole organisations; turning executives into caricatures of self-interest and greed powered by narrowly focused remuneration schemes; focusing talent in the corporate world on systematically extracting value rather than creating it; stock price manipulation; and fueling market failure and economic crash.

Inequality has greatly increased in the last twenty years, in part due to the failure to translate corporate profits into increased salaries across the firm. Even as worker productivity has continued to rise, real worker wages have essentially flat-lined. At the same time, executive compensation has markedly increased due to the afore-mentioned stock option schemes. Rising inequality within companies has in turn contributed to macro-level inequality that threatens to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of a privileged few.

The biggest questions we face go to the very core of business: what is the purpose of the corporation, and specifically of the large listed company with dispersed shareholders? Will the current model of large publicly listed companies survive the next decade, and if not, what will it be replaced by?

Another question is about the alternatives to public companies, such as B-corporations, co-operatives, companies controlled by foundations, privately held companies, partnerships and family-owned businesses. Many of these alternatives have shown themselves to be capable substitutes for corporate bodies, but will they pick up momentum and drive the way forward? Will they eventually eclipse publicly listed companies? Research by the CFA Institute shows that global equity listings have declined by 17% between 1998 and the end of 2012, from 56,119 to 46,674. US stock exchanges were hardest hit, losing nearly 50% of their listings from their high of 9,253 in 1997. Europe has also seen a significant decline of 23% of its listed companies, while Asian exchanges have seen the least change with less than 5% lost. Given the sharp decline in number and longevity of public companies, it is unsurprising that many ask if a model of public limited company will survive the next decade.

Perhaps the most pressing issue today for financial regulators is the question of how to address short-termism in the markets and its significant influence on the strategies of public companies. It is widely acknowledged that an excessive focus on quarterly returns fed into the 2008 crisis but opinions vary widely on the causes of and solutions to short-termism. What is the role of financial markets and investors in promoting responsible capitalism? Can we turn institutional investors into patient capital, willing to invest in innovative research that will yield returns in the long-term? And conversely, is it possible to limit short-term trading, or at least to reduce its impact on the governance of companies?

Stewardship has become a central focus of regulators seeking to push markets to a long-term orientation. What do good stewardship and responsible investment look like in practice? Is it reasonable to expect institutional investors and corporate managers to serve as good stewards and act sustainability?