Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon want you to think a little bit further down the road than just the next few months. Actually, the respective leaders of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) want business executives to have more of a long-term mindset, but the sentiment applies equally to individual investors.
Buffett and Dimon just co-authored an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) advocating companies end the practice of giving quarterly earnings guidance, because it creates myopia in executives who end up making decisions to meet those numbers, which, in the long run, are not always best for the business.
"The nation's greatest achievements have always derived from long-term investments. In both national policy and business, effective long-term strategy drives economic growth and job creation," they write.
Among the ills they cite as a result of this need to look just three months ahead is not only a decline in spending on technology, hiring, and research and development, but also a drop in the actual number of publicly traded companies. The need to please analysts deters many companies from ever going public.
The solution, Buffett and Dimon say, is for companies to stop providing guidance on how they think they'll perform over the next 90 days. They write: "In our experience, quarterly earnings guidance often leads to an unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term strategy, growth and sustainability."
You'll be a better investor
Investors would do well to listen to that advice, too. It's essentially the difference between buying a stock for the long haul and day-trading. With the one method you are treating it as if you're becoming a co-owner of a business, which, in fact, you are; with the other, you simply look at stocks as slips of paper to gamble with.
The evidence shows that buying a stock with a long-term mindset pays off much better than flitting between stocks on a daily or even quarterly basis. The longer you hold onto a stock, the bigger your portfolio returns tend to be.
JPMorgan Asset Management found that between 1950 and 2013, stock market returns averaged 11.1% annually. During that time, the best year for stocks had a return of 51%, while the worst was a 37% loss.
Examining returns for investors holding for one-year, five-year, 10-year, and 20-year intervals, the analysts found that those holding for just a minimum of five years would have suffered, at worst, an annualized 2% loss while generating average annual returns of as much as 28% at the top end. And the longer you held, the better your results were: The worst annual returns for a 20-year holding period was a 6% gain while the best topped out at 18%.
In short, you essentially couldn't lose money just by sitting tight.
Change is coming slowly
Company executives have the same problem, which is why Buffett and Dimon are trying to get managers to change their thinking. And slowly, at least among the largest corporations, executives are beginning to look at guidance differently.
FCLTGlobal found that where 36% of companies in the S&P 500 issued quarterly guidance in 2010, only 27.8% did so in 2016. Corporations such as Coca-Cola, Costco, Ford, and UPS have all stopped giving quarterly guidance and now only provide annual numbers.
Shareholders should also ask themselves if they want to give their investing dollars to a CEO who is primarily concerned about massaging this quarter's earnings to meet some specified number -- which they typically miss anyway -- only to have to do it all over again next quarter.
Certainly there is a level of transparency that comes with giving guidance, and it can be argued that if a company can't figure out where it is heading three months from now, how can we trust management to predict what will happen five or 10 years down the road? And absent a company's guidance, markets will likely try to use some other yardstick to measure short-term progress.
So we may not so much need companies to stop issuing guidance as we need to educate investors not to react -- and overreact -- to short-term events that may not even matter in three months' time. It requires thinking about stocks in a new way, such as following Buffett's suggestion that the best time to sell a stock is never.
That doesn't mean to buy a stock and never look at it again, but rather aim to hold it for a very long time. Even Buffett sells stock on occasion. If we lose faith in the company's promise, if the reasons we bought the business are no longer valid, or if we simply find more compelling investments, those are good reasons to sell. Simply missing guidance is probably not.
Getting companies to give up the quarterly ritual, as Buffett and Dimon are trying to do, may be the first step in getting investors to think differently.