What’s Wrong with TSR, and How to Fix It

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Total shareholder return (TSR) has become an incredibly important metric for boards to use to determine executive compensation, with over half the firms in the S&P 500 implementing the metric—a number up from fewer than one in five a decade ago. TSR as a metric is deeply flawed, though. It overrates weak companies that merely recovered from depressed valuations, and unfairly demotes elite firms that have slipped, even slightly, or that failed to live up to unrealistic expectations. It’s also distorted by leverage. Say two firms perform exactly the same. The one with more debt and less equity produces a higher TSR on the upside and a lower one on the downturn. TSR also is silent about how managers can actually make better decisions. It is a way to keep score, not a formula to win the game.

Enter the Corporate Performance Index (CPI). The CPI is a four-pronged test that accurately sums up the totality of corporate performance from a shareholder point of view in a composite percentile score. CPI is correlated to TSR rankings at a rate of 60 percent, so it adds weight and credibility to the TSR verdict for most companies while revealing what’s behind it. The other 40 percent of the time, CPI provides a different—and usually far more accurate—assessment of how well a company is performing.

The four ratios used in CPI are interesting in their own right. They are:

  1. Wealth creation: the firm’s total market value premium to its book capital, stated per unit of sales (we call the valuation premium MVA, for market value added);
  2. Profitability: the firm’s economic profit, expressed as a profit margin ratio to sales (the term we use for economic profit is EVA, standing for economic value added; it is the profit remaining after deducting a full cost-of-capital interest charge on the firm’s debt and equity capital and repairing accounting distortions that run counter to business logic);
  3. Profitable growth: the trend growth rate in the firm’s EVA profit over the most recent three years; and
  4. Strategic position: the long-run growth in EVA that investors have factored into the firm’s share price, effectively a “buy-side” consensus outlook.

There’s an important, consequential link among these metrics. MVA measures the wealth of the owner, and is the difference between the money put into a business and the value coming out of it. Boards should monitor MVA because shareholder returns come directly from this metric. TSR, in fact, is simply the rate of wealth creation, per unit of value. It comes from increasing the MVA premium over time. Market value added, in turn, comes from EVA. It is mathematically equal to the present value of the EVA profits the market forecasts a firm will earn. This means that increasing EVA is ultimately the real key to driving TSR, making it an ideal tool to manage a business and make better decisions.

CPI, then, is a distillation of EVA and MVA into an overall index of financial excellence. It assigns the highest scores to firms that have achieved the best records of profitable growth, that preside over the most valuable and profitable business franchises, and that are strategically best positioned to continue robust growth above the cost of capital for years to come, compared to peers. Firms like those are truly excellent, no matter what their recent TSR may be, and firms with low or declining CPI scores are really in trouble, even if TSR looks good.

Boards should turn to CPI and the underlying ratio metrics as a complement to TSR. Firms with high CPI scores can use it to repel undeserved say-on-pay criticism and activist overtures, while low scorers can stay on high alert. There’s also a case that TSR’s role in long term incentive plans should be diminished, and that managers should be rewarded instead for increasing the firm’s EVA profits over time. Turning instead to CPI could lead to better decisions, better incentives, better return to shareholders, and an even greater alignment between pay and performance.

Bennett Stewart is an expert in shareholder value and corporate performance management, and CEO of EVA Dimensions, a financial technology firm, and creator of the EVA and CPI frameworks used by the Dow Chemical Company and others.

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