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Tyler Cowen

Maybe Companies Aren't Too Focused on the Short Term

One man's wait-and-see attitude toward that gloomy conventional wisdom.
Going long.

Going long.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Hillary Clinton thinks U.S. corporations live for the short-term, obsessing over the next quarterly earnings statement to the neglect of their longer-run prospects. That’s a common criticism and the evidence to support it includes testimonials by corporate chief executives, a variety of corporate scandals and high and rising corporate discount rates on future cash flows. 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.