Will Hutton in The Guardian
It has been obvious for years that British capitalism is profoundly dysfunctional. In 1970, £10 of every £100 of profit was distributed to shareholders: today, under intense pressure from short-term owners, companies pay out £70. Investment, innovation and productivity have slumped. Few new companies grow to any significant size before they are taken over.
Exports have stagnated. The current account deficit is at record proportions. The purpose of companies now is not to do great things, solve great problems or scale up great solutions –why capitalism is potentially the best economic system – it is to become payolas for their disengaged owners and pawns in the next big deal or takeover. Not only the British economy suffers – this process has become the major driver of rising inequality, low pay and insecurity in the workplace as management teams are forced to treat workers as costly commodities rather than allies in business building.
Regular readers of this column will be familiar with the refrain, and the stubborn resistance from the British mainstream. There is absolutely nothing wrong at all with the British private sector, runs the Conservative argument: to the extent the British economy does have problems they are rooted entirely in taxation, regulation, unions and government. But in a week when the Financial Times – a great British asset and embodiment of the best of our journalism – has been sold to Nikkei for no better reason than to support Pearson’s short-term share price, powerful and public criticism of the way British capitalism operates has come from an unexpected quarter.
Last year, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, called on firms to have a greater “sense of their responsibilities for the system”, in particular the social contract on which market capitalism’s long-term dynamism depends. On Friday’s Newsnight, the chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, built on the governor’s concerns. He began with the seven-fold increase in the proportion of profit distributed to shareholders in dividends and bought-back shares over the last 45 years, which he said necessarily “leaves less for investment”. The explanation was simple: British (and indeed American) company law “puts the shareholder at front and centre. It puts the short-term interest of shareholders in a position of primacy when it comes to running the firm.” He thought company law that placed shareholders on a more equal footing with other stakeholders – workers, customers, clients – would work better. Dare I say it – stakeholder capitalism?
He damned the way the public limited company has developed. “The public limited company model has served the world well from a growth perspective. But you can always have too much of a good thing. The nature of shareholding today is fundamentally different than what it was a generation ago. The average share was held by the average shareholder, just after the war, for around six years. Today, that average share is held by the average shareholder for less than six months. Of course, many shareholders these days are holding shares for less than a second.”
In New York, at almost exactly the same time Newsnight was transmitting its interview with Andrew Haldane, Hillary Clinton was speaking from the same script, attacking what she called “quarterly capitalism”. “American business needs to break free from the tyranny of today’s earning report so they can do what they do best: innovate, invest and build tomorrow’s prosperity,” the Democratic presidential front runner declared. “It’s time to start measuring value in terms of years – or the next decade – not just next quarter.” She does not want to reinvent the public limited company, but she proposed the most far-reaching tax reforms of any Democrat presidential nominee to change the incentives for shareholders and executives alike. In American terms this is a revolution.
It is long overdue and the argument is beginning to get traction in the US. Free-market apologists insist that the more cash is handed back to shareholders, then the more they have to invest in innovation. The stock market is doing its job: promoting efficiency. The trouble is that everyone can see it’s 100% wrong. The market is hopelessly inefficient, greedy and myopic. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin floated Google, they took care to insulate the company from “quarterly capitalism”: they accorded their shares as Google’s founders 10 times the voting rights in order to protect their capacity to innovate from the stock market – what they considered Google’s real business purpose.
From robots to self-driving cars, from virtual reality glasses to investigating artificial intelligence, Google is now one of the most innovative firms on Earth. Meanwhile the typical US Plc, like its counterpart in Britain, is hunkering down, investing and innovating ever less and distributing more cash to shareholders for the reasons Haldane explains. Far from market efficiency, the whole system is undermining the legitimacy of capitalism.
But bit by bit influential voices such as Haldane’s are having the nerve to declare the Anglo-American system does not work. A rich collection of reflections and commentary edited by Diane Carney (Mark Carney’s wife) was published after London’s Inclusive Capitalism conference last month. Yet, except for former business secretary Vince Cable, no leading British politician has entered the lists. It will be intriguing how George Osborne reacts: one instinct will be to sack Carney and Haldane, as he has done Martin Wheatley, the head of the Financial Conduct Authority, for being too tough on the City. Another will be to co-opt the argument for the one nation Tory cause before the Labour party does.
He needn’t worry too much. One of the reasons that Tony Blair dropped his advocacy for stakeholder capitalism back in 1996 after the publication of The State We’re In was because too many leftwing Labour MPs took the Jeremy Corbyn line that the party’s mission was to socialise capitalism rather than reform it, while too many rightwing Labour MPs such as Peter Mandelson and Alistair Darling were terrified of upsetting business, as today, it seems, is Liz Kendall. He had zero internal political support, business was distrustful and the Tories were accusing him of returning to 1970s corporatism. Today the Bank of England and the likely next US president are supporters. Will one of the contenders for the Labour leadership have the courage to make the case? So far, they have all been mute. If Andy Haldane has done nothing else, he will have dramatised the poverty of today’s thinking about capitalism – in both main political parties.