S. David Young
Professor of Accounting and Control
In Finance 101, future corporate managers are taught that the social mission of public companies is to maximize their own longrun (or “intrinsic”) value by investing in all positive net present value (NPV) projects—that is, projects that are expected to earn at least their opportunity cost of capital. In markets that are reasonably efficient, provided management does an effective job of communicating its business plan and its progress in meeting its strategic goals, companies that follow this “NPV rule” can expect to be rewarded with increases in their share prices, at least in the longer run. But in the real world, of course, the pursuit of earnings and other “key performance indicators” (KPIs) often leads to managerial shortsightedness and destruction of value. To explain why—and to help companies avoid this outcome—this article presents an approach that envisions the intrinsic value of the company as an invisible “blue line” that moves through time on a graph, while showing observable key performance indicators, including revenue and earnings (and even the current stock price), as “red lines” on the same graph. The root of the problem is the failure of many companies to distinguish between their KPIs and the underlying drivers of value. KPIs, to be sure, are reflections of important aspects of the business; but however important and useful for strategic planning, they should not be used in performance evaluation or compensation plans for top management as surrogates for the underlying value of the business. Genuine value creation requires systems and a corporate culture that compel managers to pursue all projects that promise to earn the opportunity cost of capital—while treating earnings and other KPIs as means to creating value rather than ends in themselves.