TIME is one of the most disputed and confusing subjects in business. Schumpeter is writing this column after attending a conference which began with experts describing a new era of exponential technological change. It ended with a guru who had studied 70,000 years of history and who confidently discussed humanity’s fate over the 21st century (it does not look good). In the sessions in between, specialists discussed Asia’s outlook in 2030—though they struggled to cope with Asia in 2018, starting 68 minutes behind schedule, a daily lag which, if maintained across the intervening period, would mean the fourth decade of the century would begin seven months late.
TIME是商业中最具争议和最令人困惑的主题之一。熊彼特在参加一个会议后撰写本专栏，该会议开始时专家描述了指数技术变革的新时代。它以一位研究了7万年历史的大师结束，他自信地讨论了21世纪人类的命运（看起来不太好）。在两届会议期间，专家们讨论了亚洲在2030年的前景 - 尽管他们在2018年努力应对亚洲，比计划落后68分钟，每日滞后，如果在整个干预期间维持，将意味着本世纪的第四个十年开始七个月晚了。
In business well-established frameworks exist for everything from corporate finance to supply chains and human resources. Time is more slippery. Should firms act now or later? Quickly or slowly? There are no clear rules. In a state-led economy the government controls the future to some extent, setting laws and allocating resources in order to fulfil a vision, as China hopes to with its “Made in 2025” plan for advanced-technology industries. But in a market economy there is no grand plan, just the individual decisions of thousands of firms competing in a spontaneous process, which Joseph Schumpeter likened to a gale.
A handful of cutting-edge firms are expressly designed to be bold bets on how societies will function at a distant future point; think of Tesla in electric vehicles or NVIDIA in advanced semiconductors. But few businesses are as focused or as novel as these. Faced with the fog of time, the majority resort to one of two popular approaches—they either lionise the “long term” or follow big, futuristic “mega-trends”. Neither are very satisfactory.
Consider the idea that firms should aim for the long term. In June Jamie Dimon, the boss of JPMorgan Chase, a bank, and Warren Buffett, a venerated investor, criticised what they view as the stockmarket’s obsession with quarterly earnings guidance. But it is far from clear whether most firms are really run to hit quarterly targets. Only 28% of companies in the S&P 500 issue guidance. And when bosses are liberated to act for the long term they often stumble about in the dark. Rather than displaying prescience, the impulse of many executives is to follow the herd, with debt levels and acquisition activity typically rising at the peak of the economic and stockmarket cycles.
Even if firms can see into the long term, they must also juggle several time cycles. Rather as banks raise overnight deposits and make long-term loans, companies mediate claims and commitments of wildly different durations. The information cycle is instant. The average firm in the S&P 500 carries 47 days of inventory. Budgets and tax filings are annual. Workers stay in their jobs for years. The expected life of the assets of a typical S&P 500 company is 14 years, and about 50% of its market value derives from its expected profits after 2027. Product cycles can last for decades: PCs boomed in the 1990s, for example, and did not face a big threat until 2007, when the iPhone was launched.
The most common alternative to long-termism is to try to identify “mega-trends” and build a strategy around them. Some are fairly safe bets. India will consume more energy in the future. Digital payments will become ubiquitous. The usual problem is that everyone else has already spotted the same trends. Capital pours into the opportunity, pushing down returns. One example is the frenzy over commodities and emerging markets in 2004-10. Many multinationals lost their shirts on expensive acquisitions and greenfield projects in saturated markets. Today’s red-hot mega-trends are big data and artificial intelligence. While these phenomena are real, their returns will probably be in inverse proportion to their fashionability.
Lionising the long term and chasing mega-trends can thus both be traps. A more pragmatic, nuanced approach makes better sense. The first step is to maintain a balance between different time horizons. It is no good brilliantly predicting consumer behaviour in 2027 if you misjudge counterparty risk today. And it is a hollow victory to beat expectations for one quarter’s results if your main patents expire the following month.
Second, it is essential to have “optionality”, or plenty of irons in the fire. In hindsight it is tempting to assume that a successful firm’s triumph was guaranteed. But this is not the case. Amazon has had flops (its Fire phone and expansion in China) even as it got the future right with its big bets on cloud computing and the Kindle. Options are expensive to maintain since they often burn cash. So the best firms mitigate this by providing consistent performance in their “core” businesses in the here and now.
Last, because events in the outside world are so hard to predict, it pays to look inward. Culture is a squidgy concept, but successful firms need people who are adaptable but self-confident enough not to be swung too much by fashion, as well as balance-sheets that are strong enough to absorb mistakes. Goldman Sachs has made a poor strategic choice over the past half-decade, by refusing to shrink its misfiring bond-trading division. But it still attracts and retains brainy, ambitious people and is well capitalised, which should give it a decent shot at revival under its new chief executive, David Solomon (see article).
最后，因为外部世界的事件是如此难以预测，所以向内看是值得的。文化是一个模糊的概念，但是成功的公司需要适应能力强但足够自信的人而不会被时尚所左右，也需要足够强大的资产负债表来吸收错误。高盛(Goldman Sachs)在过去5年里做出了一个糟糕的战略选择，拒绝缩减其失败的债券交易部门。但它仍然吸引并留住了聪明、有抱负的人才，而且资本充足，这应该会让它在新任首席执行官大卫•所罗门(David Solomon)的领导下有一个体面的复兴机会。
The history of business is often told through inspirational stories about destiny being fulfilled. Occasionally these paint an accurate picture. Andrew Carnegie foresaw that America would need an integrated national market for steel by the late 19th century. Steve Jobs had a vision of how smart devices would change the world and set about inventing them. But for most companies, especially ones in mature economies, facing the future is far more prosaic. Balance, optionality and poise matter more than an overwhelming conviction about the world in two decades hence. Too much emphasis on the distant future is a waste of time.