01 MAY 2021
Is COVID-19 sharpening focus on stakeholder capitalism?
Authored by Michael Wilkins / Senior Research Fellow, Sustainable Finance, S&P Global Ratings
The traditional corporate imperative of maximizing shareholder value is increasingly under siege. Companies are fast adopting ‘stakeholder capitalism’, focusing on long-term value creation for customers, employees, society, and the environment rather than just short-term value for shareholders.
According to our recently published whitepaper "Stakeholder Capitalism: Aligning Value Creation with Protection of Values," we believe the pandemic has served to accelerate this shift, with substantial government support for businesses raising expectations of corporate social responsibility. Recent surges in sustainable investing and increasing market scrutiny of ESG factors are calling into question the purpose of corporations and asking where their responsibilities to society begin and end. Companies are now expected to invest more in employee health and wellbeing, safety protocols, and ensuring business continuity. But this means aligning these objectives with sometimes-contradictory shareholder interests.
Striking the balance
The core premise of stakeholder capitalism is to find a balance and compromise in meeting the needs and serving the interests of all stakeholders and shareholders. It implies a company's purpose is to create sustainable long-term and shared value for all.
Value creation is not just about profit maximization for shareholders but instead encapsulates a more holistic purpose, aligning the broader values of a corporation with those of society, while considering externalities. Yet, the "value" created by the pursuit of stakeholder capitalism is difficult to measure, which limits its current operational effectiveness. It requires the enhancement and standardization of nonfinancial disclosure around different metrics to ensure more transparency and accountability. Ignoring externalities such as global warming, increasing social fragmentation, and unrest may eventually backfire on a corporation's long-term operating environment and profitability. Ongoing shifts in stakeholder expectations vis-à-vis corporations may have tangible business and financial consequences. The balance between stakeholder and shareholder interests has become a delicate one.
Effective stakeholder management
Covid-19 may have acted as stimulus for sustainability-related growth but also, indirectly, as an opportunity for corporations to refocus their priorities in line with market expectations around sustainable growth.
While it remains to be seen the extent to which Covid-19 will lead to lasting fundamental changes, it is likely that effective stakeholder management will become increasingly important for companies to successfully operate in a world of weakened public finances, social scars, and environmental degradation. However, it remains difficult to measure the stakeholder value a company creates.
Improving that measurement will require enhanced disclosure.
A case for sustainable investing
The growth of sustainable investing could reflect stakeholder capitalism taking root. Companies that have focused on sustainability issues have empirically been shown to achieve lower costs, enhance employee productivity, mitigate risk, and generate new growth opportunities. Effective sustainability performance is also said to strengthen corporate resilience. Research from Bank of
America Merrill Lynch even suggests that the integration of ESG initiatives and greater stakeholder engagement could help prevent around 90% of bankruptcies.
The COVID-19 crisis has sharpened the focus on stakeholder value. The pandemic has reaffirmed the materiality of sustainability-related risks and the deep links between businesses and their stakeholders across the value chains. In response to the pandemic, governments have provided substantial support to corporations to prevent economic collapse. This in turn has raised expectations about corporate responsibility and the purpose of corporations. Companies are now expected to invest more in employee health and wellbeing, safety protocols, fortifying cyber security, and ensuring business continuity.
Redefining purpose and responsibilities
Following the stakeholder approach can raise issues around accountability because environmental, societal, and economic issues may end up being tackled by non-democratically elected leaders. Indeed, corporations may argue they are paying taxes to governments to cover these very matters. Inside of a company, employees want to see the CEO and they also want to see the company take a stand on issues that are important to them that advance social change or advance things in the communities around us. People realize that for true change to occur, they cannot just rely on the government. The change also must come from the private sector and its leaders.
In conclusion, the purpose of a corporation is being redefined. The aim is to increase economic and societal resilience by accelerating inclusive economics and societies while shaping a new concept for economic integration and digital revolution. A more inclusive and holistic approach is even more crucial during the current volatile times in which many people are without their jobs and companies are forced to shut. The values that a corporation embraces can be as important as the value that it creates. From a stakeholder perspective, the two are inextricably linked.