In his recent annual letter to CEOs, Larry Fink once again put corporate leadership on notice that ownership is watching and will act, particularly in these turbulent times.
Mr. Fink, the head of BlackRock,the world’s largest asset manager, reminded CEOs that just because investors are thinking long term does not mean that they have infinite patience. Investors are looking for corporate leadership in the boardroom and the C-suite to deploy assets for sustainable value creation, including investments in people, not just to goose short-term stock prices:
“Companies have begun to devote greater attention to these issues of long-term sustainability, but despite increased rhetorical commitment, they have continued to engage in buybacks at a furious pace. In fact, for the 12 months ending in the third quarter of 2016, the value of dividends and buybacks by S&P 500 companies exceeded those companies’ operating profit. While we certainly support returning excess capital to shareholders, we believe companies must balance those practices with investment in future growth. Companies should engage in buybacks only when they are confident that the return on those buybacks will ultimately exceed the cost of capital and the long-term returns of investing in future growth.”
In addition to investing in worker training, Mr. Fink called on companies to step forward to provide new solutions to our troubled and inadequate retirement system;
“[A]s major participants in retirement programs in the U.S. and around the world, companies must lend their voice to developing a more secure retirement system for all workers, including the millions of workers at smaller companies who are not covered by employer-provided plans. The retirement crisis is not an intractable problem. We have a wealth of tools at our disposal: auto-enrollment and auto-escalation, pooled plans for small businesses, and potentially even a mandatory contribution model like Canada’s or Australia’s.
“Another essential ingredient will be improving employees’ understanding of how to prepare for retirement. As stewards of their employees’ retirement plans, companies must embrace the responsibility to build financial literacy in their workforce, especially because employees have assumed greater responsibility through the shift from traditional pensions to defined-contribution plans. Asset managers also have an important role in building financial literacy, but as an industry we have done a poor job to date. Now is the time to empower savers with new technologies and the education they need to make smart financial decisions. If we are going to solve the retirement crisis – and help workers adjust to a globalized world – businesses need to hold themselves to a high standard and act with the conviction that retirement security is a matter of shared economic security.”