Donald Trump’s tweet this morning (Aug. 17) with his latest idea for goosing the economy was immediately met with scorn and derision. And why not? Most of his business-policy proposals are half-baked or giveaways to big business and the rich.
But his latest idea—changing the reporting requirements of public companies from every quarter to semi-annually— isn’t at all outlandish. The proposal is one of several that have been floated by sober, serious people to tackle what some see as a growing threat to business and the economy: the pressure of short-term investing.
The demands of short-term investors, the theory goes, forces companies to prioritize immediate returns over planning for the future. To satisfy quarterly demands for increasing profit, for example, companies may cut investments in research and development that may only pay off in years to come.
Hillary Clinton criticized what she called “quarterly capitalism” in a 2015 speech. “It’s easy to try to cut costs by holding down or decreasing pay and other investments to inflate quarterly stock prices, but I would argue that’s bad for business in the long run,” she said.
The worry is driven in part by the rise in the influence of activist investors, who often demand dramatic actions from companies to increase profitability. The specter of short-term investing, and its potential destabilizing affect on business, helped lead to the creation of Focusing Capital on the Long Term, a think tank founded by unhinged radicals and bomb throwers like Larry Fink of BlackRock and Dominic Barton of McKinsey & Co.
It’s not obvious that moving from quarterly to semi-annual reporting would make a huge difference, or lead to job creation. Other proposals to tame short-term thinking, such as one from Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon calling for companies to end the practice of providing quarterly guidance, which might be more impactful
One academic paper argues that companies’ internal investments decline with the frequency of reporting requirements. Another (pdf) that looked at the experience of the UK, which transitioned form quarterly to semi-annual in 2014, found companies didn’t suffer from lack of investment.
Other academics, like Steven Kaplan, University of Chicago economist, thinks the tut-tutting about short-termism is unwarranted (pdf). The US economy is in great shape, and the pressure on companies is just part of the ebb-and-flow of capital markets, he says.
All of which is to say that Trump is not wrong to raise the question, and asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to study it is a totally reasonable idea. Unfortunately, it follows so many poor policy ideas that it may forever be tainted by its association with Trump.