There are plenty of stories of how U.S. corporations live for the short-term, obsessing over the next quarterly earnings statement to the neglect of their longer-run prospects:
Still, it’s not been established that American corporations are on average more short-term in their thinking than they ought to be.
Perhaps most importantly, it is often easier and better to plan for the shorter term. In information technology, the average life of a corporate asset is about six years, in health care it is about 11 years, and for consumer products it runs about 12 to 15. Very often it is hard for a company to plan its operations beyond those time periods, as the U.S. economy is no longer based on durable manufacturing machines. Production has shifted toward service sectors with relatively short asset lives, and that may call for a shorter-term orientation in response.
Companies often see their short-term problems staring them in the face — think of the need to fire an incompetent manager or lease more office space. It is harder to predict the market 20 years hence, especially when information technology is involved, and thus planning so far out can involve a lot of expense and risk.
Plenty of companies have made big mistakes from thinking too big and too long-term; for instance, a lot of mergers were based on notions of long-run synergies that never materialized. In reality, short-term improvements are often the best way to get to a good long-run plan.
Equity markets do not seem to neglect the longer run. Amazon has a high share price even though its earnings reports have usually failed to show a profit. Possibly the market judgment is wrong, but it’s hardly the case that investors are ignoring the long-run prospects of the company.
Many tech startups have high valuations even though revenue is zero or low. Again, those judgments may or may not be correct, but clearly investors are trying to estimate longer-run prospects. During the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, there was too much long-run, pie-in-the-sky thinking and not enough focus on the concrete present.
Economics Nobel Laureate Eugene Fama once said, “In hindsight, every price is wrong.” With electric and driverless cars, investors are thinking long and hard about what the future might look like and investing in equities accordingly, with share prices to be revised as events develop. If the long-run thinking of the market were systematically defective, it would be possible to profit simply through superior patience. But it is not an easy matter to see further than others.