Monday, 21 December 2009

Leverage, ownership etc

The Michael Jensen book I'm reading at the moment is really interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the essays in it form a coherent and clearly-argued perspective on governance. It's not a perspective I share, but it's definitely one of those books that I'm glad I read because it challenges some of my assumptions/prejudices. He's not an advocate of co-determination...!

Secondly, it's interesting to read older stuff from someone who thought they had discovered a significant trend when you know how things turned out subsequently. Famously, Jensen was very positive about the first big wave of leveraged buyouts because he though they were bringing a much more efficient management approach to US corporations.

This wasn't just the idea that buyouts address the diffusion of ownership, and hence go a long way to address the agency problem (which Jensen has obviously written a great deal about), but also the leverage bit of it. To simplify quite a bit, he argues that by taking on more leverage effectively management thinking becomes more focused because of the threat of bankruptcy. I'm sure there is truth in that, but it seems a pretty extreme approach to incentivisation.

Similarly some of the discussion around compensation feels very optimistic (strange word to use maybe) about the potential to get people to do the right things and think the right way. He obviously was a big influence in terms of the growth of options in compensation - a development many would now query in terms of its positive impact.

There's obviously a lot of sensible stuff in the book, but some of it feels very dated now we know how some of the trends turned out.

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