Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Growth Fetish

[This is a big topic so I'm just going to lay out the bare bones for now and flesh things out later, hopefully with a little help.]

It's obvious that our economy is suffering from a lack of growth but for a while now I've come to suspect that in a more limited but still dangerous sense we also overvalue growth and that this bias has distorted the market and sometimes encouraged executives to pursue suboptimal strategies (such as Border's attempt to expand into the British market).

Think of it this way, if we ignore all those questions about stakeholders and the larger impact of a company, you can boil the value of a business down to a single scalar: just take the profits over the lifetime of a company and apply an appropriate discount function (not trivial but certainly doable). The goal of a company's management is to maximize this number and the goal of the market is to assign a price to the company that accurately reflects that number.

The first part of the hypothesis is that there are different possible growth curves associated with a business and, ignoring the unlikely possibility of a tie, there is a particular curve that optimizes profits for a particular business. In other words, some companies are better off growing rapidly; some are better off with slow or deferred growth; some are better off simply staying at the same level; and some are better off being allowed to slowly contract.

It's not difficult to come up with examples of ill-conceived expansions. Growth almost always entails numerous risks for an established company. Costs increase and generally debt does as well. Scalability is usually a concern. And perhaps most importantly, growth usually entails moving into an area where you probably don't know what the hell you're doing. I recall Peter Lynch (certainly a fan of growth stocks) warning investors to put off buying into chains until the businesses had demonstrated the ability to set up successful operations in other cities.

But the idea of getting in on a fast-growing company is still tremendously attractive, appealing enough to unduly influence people's judgement (and no, I don't see any reason to mangle a sentence just to keep an infinitive in one piece). For reasons that merit a post of their own (GE will be mentioned), that natural bias toward growth companies has metastasised into a pervasive fetish.

This bias does more than inflate the prices of certain stocks; it pressures people running companies to make all sorts of bad decisions from moving into markets where you don't belong (Borders) to pumping up market share with unprofitable customers (Groupon) to overpaying for acquisitions (too many examples to mention).

As mentioned before we need to speed up the growth of our economy, but those pro-growth policies have to start with a realistic vision of how business works and a reasonable expectation of what we can expect growth to do (not, for example, to alleviate the need for more saving and a good social safety net). Fantasies of easy and unlimited wealth are part of what got us into this mess. They certainly aren't going to help us get out of it.


  1. Somehow the idea of garnering more market share by offering a better product or service has taken a back seat to the idea that getting bigger is simply a matter of "making more stores".

    Of course one is hard work and one looks good on paper. So, from a business standpoint the only rational decision is to go with style over substance. Right?

    1. If rational means maintaining a high share price over the next few quarters, then yes. If, on the other hand, you're interested in long term returns, a strategy that ignores substance will come back and bite you in the ass.