How Business Schools Have Failed Business
Why not more education on the responsibility of boards?Wall Street Journal: April 24, 2009
By Michael Jacobs
As we try to understand why our economy is so troubled, fingers are increasingly being pointed at the academic institutions that educated those who got us into this mess. What have business schools failed to teach our business leaders and policy makers? There are three profound failures of sound business practices at the root of the economic crisis, and none of them have been adequately addressed by our business schools.
Just about everyone agrees that misaligned incentive programs are at the core of what brought our financial system to its knees. Countless individuals became multimillionaires by gambling away shareholders' money. Incentive systems that rewarded short-term gain took precedence over those designed for long-term value creation.
We could chalk this all up to greed, as many pundits have. But first we should ask how many of the business schools attended by America's CEOs and directors educate their students about the best way to design management compensation systems. Amazingly, this subject is not systematically addressed at most business schools, and not even discussed at others.
Secondly, as Washington scrambles to restructure the financial regulatory system, those who still believe in the private sector are asking why corporate boards were AWOL as institution after institution crumbled. Why did it take rumors of nationalization and a drop in Citicorp stock to below $2 a share to inspire Citigroup to nominate directors with experience in financial markets?
American icon General Electric was stripped of its coveted AAA-rating because of problems emanating from its financial services unit. Yet its board has only one director with experience in a financial institution. If it is the board's job to oversee a corporation, it seems logical that there would be a segment in the core curriculum of every business school devoted to board structure, composition and processes. But most programs don't cover the topic.
The third breakdown came in the investment community. Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a book titled "Short-Term America" that warned about the growing chasm between those who provide capital and the companies who use it. The concept is simple: When money provided to homeowners or businesses comes from an anonymous source, possibly half way around the world, there are serious challenges to operating a functioning system of accountability.
Nationally, finance departments at business schools offer hundreds of courses in asset securitization and portfolio diversification. They have taught a generation of financial leaders that risk can be diversified away. But in their B-school days, few investment bankers examined the notion of "agency costs." That concept explains that as the gulf between the provider and the user of capital widens, the risks involved with selecting and monitoring the participants in the portfolio increase. It should come as no surprise that financial institutions amassed securities that consist of a diversified portfolio of deadbeats.
About 70% of the shares of American corporations are held by institutional investors such as pension and mutual funds. These organizations are brimming with MBAs. But how many of these MBAs took a class devoted to how shareholders should exercise their rights and obligations as the owners of America's corporations? Few, if any. When shareholders are uneducated about their obligations, how can a corporate accountability system function properly?
Recently, when I delivered a guest lecture at another school, a distraught-looking student pulled me aside after class. She explained that my talk was very disturbing to her. After investing two years and $100,000, she was only weeks away from receiving her MBA. But prior to our class, she had never heard a discussion about board responsibilities or the rights of shareholders. She said she felt cheated.
By failing to teach the principles of corporate governance, our business schools have failed our students. And by not internalizing sound principles of governance and accountability, B-school graduates have matured into executives and investment bankers who have failed American workers and retirees who have witnessed their jobs and savings vanish.
Most B-schools paper over the topic by requiring first-year students to take a compulsory ethics class, which is necessary, but not sufficient. Would Bernie Madoff have acted differently if he had aced his ethics final?
Could we have avoided most of the economic problems we now face if we had a generation of business leaders who were trained in designing compensation systems that promote long-term value? And who were educated in the proper make-up and responsibilities of boards? And who were enlightened as to how shareholders can use their proxies to affect accountability? I think we could have.
America's business schools need to rethink what we are teaching -- and not teaching -- the next generation of leaders.
Mr. Jacobs, a professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, was director of corporate finance policy at the U.S. Treasury from 1989 to 1991.