Why rigged capitalism is damaging liberal democracy
Four weeks ago, the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs from the world’s largest corporations issued a statement that corporates should move from just focusing on maximising value for shareholders to benefit a wider group of stakeholders – customers, employees, vendors and the community at large. This statement has reignited the debate against capitalism and the consequent effects of inequality across political and economist circles alike. Martin Wolf of the FT offers his perspective on the debate in this lucid piece where he lays the blame primarily on rentier capitalism or financialisation of the global economy among other things. Wolf points out financial services as an industry and finance professionals have gained disproportionately in the last four decades with little contribution to the real economy or productivity growth, some would argue that the contribution has indeed been negative.
“Finance plays a key role, with several dimensions. Liberalised finance tends to metastasise, like a cancer. Thus, the financial sector’s ability to create credit and money finances its own activities, incomes and (often illusory) profits.
A 2015 study by Stephen Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi for the Bank for International Settlements said “the level of financial development is good only up to a point, after which it becomes a drag on growth, and that a fast-growing financial sector is detrimental to aggregate productivity growth”. When the financial sector grows quickly, they argue, it hires talented people.
These then lend against property, because it generates collateral. This is a diversion of talented human resources in unproductive, useless directions.
Again, excessive growth of credit almost always leads to crises, as Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff showed in This Time is Different. This is why no modern government dares let the supposedly market-driven financial sector operate unaided and unguided. But that in turn creates huge opportunities to gain from irresponsibility: heads, they win; tails, the rest of us lose. Further crises are guaranteed.
Finance also creates rising inequality. Thomas Philippon of the Stern School of Business and Ariell Reshef of the Paris School of Economics showed that the relative earnings of finance professionals exploded upwards in the 1980s with the deregulation of finance. They estimated that “rents” — earnings over and above those needed to attract people into the industry — accounted for 30-50 per cent of the pay differential between finance professionals and the rest of the private sector.
This explosion of financial activity since 1980 has not raised the growth of productivity. If anything, it has lowered it, especially since the crisis. The same is true of the explosion in pay of corporate management, yet another form of rent extraction. As Deborah Hargreaves, founder of the High Pay Centre, notes, in the UK the ratio of average chief executive pay to that of average workers rose from 48 to one in 1998 to 129 to one in 2016. In the US, the same ratio rose from 42 to one in 1980 to 347 to one in 2017.
As the US essayist HL Mencken wrote: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Pay linked to the share price gave management a huge incentive to raise that price, by manipulating earnings or borrowing money to buy the shares. Neither adds value to the company. But they can add a great deal of wealth to management. A related problem with governance is conflicts of interest, notably over independence of auditors.
In sum, personal financial considerations permeate corporate decision-making. As the independent economist Andrew Smithers argues in Productivity and the Bonus Culture, this comes at the expense of corporate investment and so of long-run productivity growth.”