Shareholder value

Sydney cityscapeAre you a shareholder? It is hard not to be. If you have superannuation or a term deposit then at least some of your money is invested into business ventures on your behalf. In fact about the only way you can be totally share free is to keep all your money under the bed.

So now that you know you are a shareholder, do you know if you are getting shareholder value?

You can expect it because in most jurisdictions company directors have a legal obligation to maximise shareholder value. Indeed they can be prosecuted for failure to provide duty of care and diligence in this regard. Standard excuses such as denial, honest ignorance, paralysis from uncertainty, business as usual, and ‘we did what they did’ no longer pass muster in the courts [so I am told].

This is reassuring. The decision makers who get hold of our money are supposed to try everything they can to increase its value.

Only the truly trusting would leave it at that. Care and attention does not a dividend make.

Luckily you also have access to evidence to make your own assessment of investment value. When shares are purchased on a stock market, the buyer has information about the company she is buying into.

There is the share price, both the current and historical, that can be compared with other similar businesses.

There is the company website, press releases and, most importantly, there are the company reports. These are annual statements of how the company is governed and how it performed financially during the reporting period.

Sometimes companies will also release other reports on sustainability that say something about performance beyond the bottom line. These help claim values other than fiscal, the social and environmental performance of the firm.

Smart perusal of this information will tell you if the price you paid for the share, its current price plus any dividend, represents value now or if you might need to hold on a bit linger for the value to accrue. All good so long as the information the company releases is reliable and relevant.

Naturally there are rules that bind company directors to declare what they know and penalties applied if they don’t. This should make the evidence appraisal approach a sound way to assess value.

Many a wannabe Warren Buffet has made a mint on this evidence. Warren himself has made billions from an uncanny knack of investing in under valued stock. So with a bit of effort on your part, your shareholding can be valued and used to make a personal decision on value. Make the right buying and selling decisions and you appreciate shareholder value to yourself.

Now let’s complicate the puzzle a little.

Your superannuation is a long play. You don’t want to speculate with your retirement income so those annualised returns and the puts and short tactics of traders are not what you want. You need long-term value.

How can you determine this?

Well under the current disclosure rules this is very hard. The system is designed for short-term gain with returns to shareholders as immediate as possible. Hence value is what you get now, not what might come later.

This immediacy creates many problems. What if you want to know future value should you choose to hang on to your shares?

Historically share value goes up. At least that is what happens to the indices because, in general, as economies generate wealth over time indices of stock tend to rise. This is reassuring especially if you put your nest egg investments into many baskets.

But an index is an approximation from aggregating many stocks. Indices are poor predictors of what a given stock value especially over time.

Run out far enough and most things come and go. Remember when everyone had a Nokia? You would not have picked the trend toward smartphones from Nokia’s annual reports.

Shareholder value in the long run is guesswork, educated at best. You will never really know what that value will be.

And in the end what you value is the money you made.

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