This article originally appeared on CFO.com.
If you look at corporate spending and investment data today, you might conclude that CFOs are highly skeptical about investing in their businesses. Despite a steady decline in the weighted average cost of capital, which we estimate is now between 5% and 6% for most large companies, the average hurdle rate—that is, the minimum rate of return on a project or investment required by a manager or investor—has remained stuck at around 12.5%.
Capital expenditures and research and development budgets have declined on a relative basis, while share buybacks and dividends have increased. According to Reuters, among the 1,900 companies that repurchased shares between 2010 and 2015, buybacks and dividends amounted to 113% of capital spending, compared with 60% in 2000. Meanwhile, spending on R&D has averaged less than 50% of net income, compared with more than 60% in the 1990s.
In reality, many CFOs abhor this dynamic. They, their CEOs, and their board members have voiced increasing dissatisfaction, and many institutional investors such as Vanguard, BlackRock, and Warren Buffett have urged greater long-term focus and reinvestment.
At the same time, however, activist investors have been successful in applying shorter-term pressure to the CEO agenda at publicly traded companies. As a result, some companies have been experimenting with alternative investment models.
For example, private equity firms, which are not subject to such short-term pressure, have lengthened their investment horizons to create value with their portfolio companies, from an average 4.5 years in 2006 to 6 years in 2016. Blackstone, Carlyle Group and others have recently launched funds with even longer target holding periods. Scale start-ups—the leading engine of job creation—are staying private longer, and in some cases they’re even going straight from venture to private equity ownership to provide liquidity to early investors and employees.
James Allen co-leads Bain & Company’s Strategy practice, James Root leads the firm’s Organization practice for Asia-Pacific, and Andrew Schwedel leads its Macro Trends Group.