While on a Sunday stroll, I encountered Jerry Muller, author of The Mind and the Market, among other works. He asked me what I thought about “short-termism.” Mostly, I think that it is a difficult concept to pin down.
I guess my working definition would be that short-termism is a bias among executives to forego long-term opportunities in order to achieve short-term profit objectives.
But how would you measure it? What observations would confirm it?
For example, I might argue that, at today’s low long-term interest rates, a nuclear power plant looks like a high net-present-value investment for a utility company. Does their failure to invest in nuclear power plants reflect short-termism? Obviously, it is more complicated than that. There are regulatory barriers, site licensing barriers, and there is economic risk–suppose that ten years from now solar power becomes so inexpensive that the price of electricity no longer provides a decent return on the up-front investment? Not to mention the risk that the plant will have something wrong, or that the nuclear waste will be a problem, or some other risk.
The point is, it is very hard to separate pure time preference from risk when it comes to real-world investments.
Some other thoughts:
1. For the economy as a whole, most pundits think that the big long-term investment opportunities are in energy, computers/communications/robotics, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. My impression is that biotech is perhaps being held back by regulatory issues. But otherwise, I get the sense that investment is pretty active. Google certainly is making some long-term investments.
2. Sometimes, the financial crisis is blamed on short-termism. But there is very little evidence that the banks knew that they were making short-term profits that were going to turn sour in the long term. Instead, it seems that they believed that things were fine, both short term and long term.
3. If you were going to advise a firm to sacrifice some short-term profits in order to undertake long-term investments, which firm would that be? What investment should it make? Can you be confident that it is short-termism rather than concern about risk that is inhibiting the investment?