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2.9 A Final Word on Business Objectives

In the example used in this chapter, we assumed the students’ goal in how to operate the ice cream business was to maximize their profit—more specifically, to maximize their economic profit. Is this an appropriate overall objective for most businesses?

Generally speaking, the answer is yes. If a business is not able to generate enough revenue to at least cover their economic costs, the business is losing in the net. In addition to the business owners having to cover the loss out of their wealth (or out of society’s largesse for a bankruptcy), there is an inefficiency from a societal perspective in that the resources used by the business could be more productive elsewhere.

The ice cream business analyzed here was simple in many respects, including that it was intended to operate for only a short period of time. Most businesses are intended to operate for long periods of time. Some businesses, especially newly formed businesses, will intentionally operate businesses at a loss or operate at volumes higher than would generate the maximum profit in the next production period. This decision is rational if the business expects to realize larger profits in future periods in exchange for enduring a loss in the near future. There are quantitative techniques, such as discounting,Many accounting and economics texts discuss the concept of discounting of profits over time. One good discussion can be found in an appendix in Hirschey and Pappas (1996). that allow a business decision maker to make these trade-offs between profit now and profit later. These techniques will not be covered in this text.

Economists refer to a measure called the value of the firmThe collective worth of all economic profits into the future and the amount the owners would expect to receive if they sold the business; for a corporation, the equity on a company's balance sheet., which is the collective value of all economic profits into the future and approximately the amount the owners should expect to receive if they sold the business to a different set of owners. For a corporation, in theory this would roughly equate to the value of the equity on a company’s balance sheet, although due to several factors like sunk costs, is probably not really that value. Economists would say that a business should make decisions that maximize the value of the firm, meaning the best decisions will result in larger economic profits either now or later.

One response to the principle that the overall goal of a firm is to maximize its value is that, although that goal may be best for those who own the business, it is not the optimal objective for the overall society in which the business operates. One specific objection is that those who work for the business may not be the same as those who own the business and maximizing the value for the owners can mean exploiting the nonowner employees. The common response to this objection is that it will be in the owners’ best interest in the long run (several periods of operation) to treat their employees fairly. Businesses that exploit their employees will lose their good employees and fail to motivate those employees who remain. The collective result will be lower profits and a lower value of the firm.

A second objection to the appropriateness of operating a business to maximize the value for the owners is that this invites businesses to exploit their customers, suppliers, and the society in which they operate to make more money. Firms may be able to take advantage of outside parties for a while, but eventually the customers and suppliers will wise up and stop interacting with the business. With a high level of distrust, there will be a decline in profits in future periods that will more than offset any immediate gain. If a business tries to exploit the overall society by ruining the environment or causing an increase in costs to the public, the business can expect governmental authorities to take actions to punish the firm or limit its operations, again resulting in a net loss over time. So maximizing the value of the firm for the owners does not imply more profit for the owners at the expense of everyone else. Rather, a rational pursuit of maximal value will respect the other stakeholders of a business.

In the case of nonprofit organizations, maximizing the value of the organization will be different than with for-profit businesses like our ice cream example. A nonprofit organization may be given a budget that sets an upper limit on its costs and is expected to provide the most value to the people it serves. Since most nonprofit organizations do not charge their “customers” in the same way as for-profit businesses, the determination of value will be different than estimating sales revenue. Techniques such as cost-benefit analysisA classic text in cost-benefit analysis was written by E. J. Mishan (1976). have been developed for this purpose.