The conjuncture that ushered in the era of shareholder value served to embed capital market expectations into corporate governance aligning management and shareholder interests. Market arbitrage focussed on modifying contractual relations with stakeholders to extract a (higher) return on invested capital. In this article we focus on cash earnings on capital employed generated by the S&P 500 survivor group of firms covering the period 1990–2008. We use this financial data to construct three complementary perspectives on corporate financial performance: firm, firm-relative and macro. Within this framework the financial numbers and perspectives are analogous to a ‘hall of mirrors’ where ambiguity and contradiction are in play frustrating straightforward performative narratives that connect purpose with financial transformation an era of shareholder value.