Financial accounting to assess stewardship: the case requires students to evaluate Thompson’s stewardship of McDonald’s, in part based on the company’s financial accounting information. Financial reporting performs an important societal role by helping control agency problems that arise from the separation of ownership and management. Since external stakeholders cannot “observe directly the extent and quality of managerial effort on their behalf […] the manager may be tempted to shirk […] blaming any deterioration of firm performance on factors beyond his/her control” (Scott, 2014, p. 23). However, although financial reporting helps hold managers accountable to shareholders, accounting information is not fully informative about managerial effort. For example, while net income provides useful information regarding the CEO’s stewardship, it is also “noisy,” due to recognition lags and other factors (Scott, 2014, p. 364). Efforts undertaken by Thompson in a particular period, such as marketing expenditures, might reduce current earnings, yet boost future profitability. Additionally, Thompson’s predecessor’s past efforts might have positive or negative effects on current earnings. Evaluating stewardship effectively involves considerable judgment, in addition to knowledge of financial accounting. The implication of poor firm performance is that the CEO is ineffective at formulating and implementing strategies and policies to enhance firm value (Dikolli et al., 2014). Specifically, it appears that missing earnings benchmarks matter more for relatively inexperienced CEOs. Don Thompson’s tenure of 33 months at McDonalds is 42 percent lower than median CEO tenure documented in academic research, where the median tenure of chief executives documented in large sample empirical studies is about 57 months (Dikolli et al., 2014). The evidence suggests that the longer a CEO serves, the less likely he is to be dismissed for performance-related reasons. This appears to be the result of the resolution of uncertainty about CEO’s ability and leads to subsequent declines in the level of monitoring by the Board of Directors. Performance evaluation and bias: a significant body of research explores the extent to which female managers are assessed differently than their male counterparts (Powell and Butterfield, 2002). For example, female CEOs face more threats from activist investors than male CEOs. Therefore, even after women achieve the highest managerial rank, they experience more professional challenges than their male counterparts (Gupta et al., 2018). However, the question of whether black CEOs are assessed differently is more challenging to answer empirically as a result of a smaller sample size (only one percent of S&P 500 companies are run by black CEOs). Our case attempts to develop the inference that if female CEOs are subject to bias, analogous forces are likely at work when black CEOs are assessed. Recent evidence further suggests that business students sometimes demonstrate bias in making assessments (Mengel et al., 2018). The authors discuss these findings – as well as strategies for including them in the case discussion – in the “Teaching Strategy” section herein below.
The case was written from the public record surrounding the appointment of Don Thompson and McDonald’s company filings. The record includes articles from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as local and industry publications.
The case examines the role of financial accounting in evaluating CEO performance in the context of the appointment of McDonald’s first African-American chief executive and his subsequent two-and-a-half years on the job. The case deepens students’ understanding of the link between financial reporting and stewardship, while highlighting the subjectivity inherent in assessing managerial performance, particularly over relatively short time periods. As students analyze the case, they must consider the extent to which a firm’s results are attributable to luck vs skill. We use “skill” to refer to CEO effort and other controllable factors, while “luck” refers to exogenous factors, such as macroeconomic conditions. Assessing stewardship is of practical significance. It allows pay to be better aligned with performance and empowers stakeholders to identify when a change of leadership may be warranted. The case may also be used to spur reflection, in an applied context, on the importance of being alert to unconscious bias, even when evaluating seemingly objective financial reporting data. Recent research, discussed herein, suggests that business students sometimes exhibit bias when making assessments.
Complexity academic level
The case should be included in discussions of corporate governance, executive compensation and the role of accounting information in efficient contracting. It is appropriate in intermediate financial accounting courses for undergraduates, introductory graduate accounting courses, or other courses with an element of financial statement analysis. Standard introductory accounting textbooks offer helpful supplementary reading for students. Horngren et al.’s (2014) book, Introduction to Financial Accounting (12th ed.), Pearson, London, provides an overview of the income statement and its role in assessing performance (see Chapter 2) as well as a useful discussion on evaluating the components and trends of a business (see Chapter 12). More advanced students may benefit from the in-depth discussion of earnings quality, operating income and non-operating income found in Chapter 4 of Intermediate Accounting (9th ed.), McGraw Hill Education, New York by Spiceland et al. (2018).
Disclaimer. This case is written solely for educational purposes and is not intended to represent successful or unsuccessful managerial decision making. The author/s may have disguised names, financial and other recognizable information to protect confidentiality.
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