The Wall Street Journal Touts Dubious Research (CEO Performance Edition)

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism submits:

Will someone, please, teach the reporters at the Wall Street Journal the basics about scientific research? I know it’s hard finding stuff to write about day in, day out. But the story “Scholars Link Success of Firms To Lives of CEOs” is a travesty.

The centerpiece of the article is a study by Morten Bennedsen, Francisco Perez-Gonzalez and Daniel Wolfenzon. Let’s note first that this paper has not yet been published in any recognized academic journal (it’s posted on the University of Texas website, where Francisco Perez-Gonzalez is a member of the faculty), so it is not yet clear whether it will be deemed to pass muster in respectable circles.

The study took the records of 75,000 Danish businesses from 1992 to 2003 and looked at whether events in the CEO’s life affected performance. The chart summarizes some of their findings. The death of child had the greatest negative impact on performance, followed by the death of a spouse. Conversely, the death of a mother in law was a plus.

Now this study has a certain intuitive appeal. Someone who is grieving might devote less time to his business, or make worse decisions than he would otherwise.

Nevertheless, correlation is not causation. A study of this sort at most highlights a possible connection.

Even at the gross level, the findings may not add up. Psychologists regard the death of a spouse as the most traumatic event one can suffer. One measure, the Holmes-Rahe scale (which has limitations of its own since the underlying research was done retrospectively, and was developed to see how stress levels translate into physical illness), rates death of a spouse as 100 while death of a close relative (which is where “death of a child: would fall) as 63. Yet this study found greatest drop in performance from the death of a child.

There are also differences between the demographics of the firms where the CEOs suffered losses compared to the ones that didn’t. This also makes it difficult to give too much credence to the findings:

Table I shows that event firms are larger, more profitable, older and grow faster than non CEO-shock firms, in all cases with differences that are statistically significant at the one-percent level. On average, event firms’ age is 15.5 years, while it is only 11.2 years for non-event firms. The differences in age between event and non-event firms are expected as CEO shocks are more likely to occur in relatively older firms as CEOs family size and age are larger for older firms.

Even if this research does have some validity for smallish companies in Denmark, it’s not clear it can be generalized to bigger corporations in the US. Large companies in fact may provide a refuge from painful events. As the Journal notes:

Gerald M. Levin was chief executive of Time Warner Inc. in 1997 when his grown son was murdered. “Of course I went into a tailspin,” he said. “I made…I won’t call it a mistake. I returned to what for me was a narcotic, I returned to work. I worked 25 hours a day.” He said he couldn’t judge whether his performance was affected but notes that he felt drained of emotion, as though “nothing that happened could affect me anymore.” Mr. Levin’s grief didn’t correlate with a drop in Time Warner’s stock price, which greatly outperformed the broader market during the three years after his son’s murder.

It’s only one datapoint, but someone betting against Time Warner after the death of Levin’s son based on the study above would have made a mistake.

The Journal article reports on other correlation studies that are at least amusing, like the one by David Yermack and Crocker Liu of Arizona State University that found that CEOs that built or bought a particularly large house had stocks that underperformed the S&P for the next three years.

But for others cited, it’s too easy to come up with alternate explanations:

Other academics have found underperformance, in both profits and stock prices, at companies led by executives who received awards such as best-manager kudos from the business press. The theory: Once they become stars, some CEOs may pay more attention to writing memoirs and sitting on outside boards and a little less to running their companies.

Ever heard of reversion to the mean?

It’s one thing to present this sort of fluffy research as a curiosity, quite another to treat it, as the Journal does, with unwarranted reverence.

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