Where did all the heroes go? Hero CEOs, that is. Late in bull markets, investors typically christen a slew of rising corporate leaders as near-infallible. They go gaga on these visionaries’ views of a gigantic far-flung future their firms will supposedly dominate. But such romantic tales are hidden warnings. CEO celebration signals rising exuberance—the kind stretching expectations to unattainable heights. The good news? Lionized corporate leaders are near non-existent now—a sign this bull market isn’t near a euphoric top.
Successful visionary CEOs can juice a firm’s stock price. Usually not “old guard” legends, but fresh faces overseeing surprise turnarounds or leading boring, backward businesses to futuristic innovations. Think of the adulation Hubert Joly received while overseeing Best Buy’s retail renaissance last decade. When he took charge in 2012, most saw the firm as a brick-and-mortar dinosaur doomed by Internet retailers’ rise. When he left in 2019, operating losses had turned to stellar growth. Best Buy’s stock had soared almost 400%—more than doubling the S&P 500. While he never reached true “hero” status, Joly’s tenure illustrates this key point: When a competent leader meets a good business with untapped potential, the stock often shines, minting a hero CEO. But when heroes abound, it’s instead a warning sign: You are in a bull markets’ greedy late stages.
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Take the mid-1980s bull market. Hero CEOs reigned—like Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca. He transformed a failed bailed-out automaker into a rocket stock. Pundits loved Iacocca—they used words like “visionary” and “savior” to describe him. The New York Times spilled 3,000 words alone detailing how publishers convinced him to write a book!
Iacocca wasn’t alone then. Disney’s Michael Eisner was celebrated after turning it around as that bull market peaked. And Japanese business leaders, like Sony’s Akio Morita, were widely heroed, too. And, of course, the Japanese stock market became worth more in total money value then than America’s. Many Japanese were considered just better business leaders. Pundits deemed CEO talent recruiters “kingmakers”–writing glowingly of their quests to lure presumed superstars to fill open roles.
Late in the 1990s bull market, hero CEOs rivaled Hollywood stars. Rival tech luminaries Bill Gates and Steve Jobs inspired actual movies. No kidding! America Online’s Steve Case and IBM’s Lou Gerstner, meanwhile, earned heaping praise for actually not being tech whizzes but, instead, sensible outsiders who brought mature, long-term thinking to myopic industries. And as GE’s stock soared, many dubbed CEO Jack Welch the manager of the century.
Today, though, heroes are scant. Yes, some CEOs have cult-like followings, but none hold Jobs- or Welch-like reverence. Elon Musk is as close as any. He has fervent fans—but many detractors, too, including those who sued him for Tesla’s purchase of money-bleeding Solar City. Also, more than a few suppose his many outside endeavors spread him too thin as Tesla staggers sideways this year. Jeff Bezos? More often cast as villain than hero now—nearly 200,000 people cheekily petitioned to keep him afloat in space from his rocket ride.
And forget the financial sector—since the 2008 – 2009 crisis, more often than not big banks’ and insurers’ executive bonuses are seen as symbols of rampant inequality. Even legendary Warren Buffett takes licks for Berkshire Hathaway’s lagging stock. Tech-fund manager and investment firm CEO Cathie Wood may come closest in this category to hero status, but even there, praise isn’t universal.
Overseas? After dominating the luxury goods industry for over 30 years and amassing one of the world’s biggest fortunes, Bernard Arnault is as close as Europe comes. Phenomenal results. But few make a hero of him, instead highlighting his supposedly predatory wolf-like cunning. Richard Branson? Whatever glory he got for beating Bezos to space seems gone already.
Perhaps the next hero will be an established star who makes the leap to legendary status—like Lisa Su. She took over languishing Advanced Micro Devices in 2014 and engineered a radical comeback bringing the semiconductor firm into the 21st century. Under her tough leadership, AMD got lean and mean while moving beyond the PC market to become a leading high-end chip provider for videogame consoles. Magazines fawned over her—and AMD’s share price boom. With current shortages reminding everyone just how crucial her firms’ chips are, maybe Su is set to ascend to heroe-ness.
Or perhaps some superstar emerges from a pandemic-pummeled industry—airlines, hospitality, or restaurants. Pundits love comeback sagas—and CEOs finding innovative remedies to resuscitate struggling-to-survive businesses could garner generous accolades.
CEO talent isn’t lacking. No, not at all. The point: The lack of heroes merely—and bullishly—reflects sentiment. Blind CEO reverence smacks of euphoria. When moods turn greedy, confirmation bias leaves many craving bullish narratives supporting their enthusiasm. These visions of heroes who can do no wrong inflate expectations to levels no human can meet. So cheer the heroes’ absence—it signals more bull market ahead.