What Really Matters Now

Professor Gary Hamel’s new book is available: ‘What Matters Now: how to win in a world of relentless change, ferocious competition, and unstoppable innovation’. Hamel is a breathless optimist. He sees the world changing and he encourages and motivates managers to achieve near impossible ends. He believes in the potential greatness and goodness of industry and teaches bright young people how to raise their game so as to take us forward to the promised land. He is today’s Peter Drucker, with slightly less gravitas, but rather more academic shape and a whole lot more bounce. We need Gary Hamel. Big business under the Hamel code would be honest and trustworthy, exciting and innovatory, giving people real opportunity to develop to their full potential and encouraging them to participate in decision making at all levels. He puts five issues at the centre of whether a business will ‘thrive or dive’ in the years ahead: values, innovation, adaptability, passion and ideology. They’re all people based factors which together ratchet up corporate performance to winning. But there’s a problem with Hamel’s brave new world. It’s not going to work.

Management practitioners today, at least the vast majority, believe in something quite different. They are taught to be, and have become, dedicated followers of the Friedman line: their bounden duty, they believe, is to maximise the wealth of shareholders, having no other social responsibility than that. To hell with everything else! Oblivious of the fact that maximising any one thing necessarily results in the neglect and impoverishment of everything else, they are taught that the relentless pursuit of shareholder value will end with the best result in the best of all possible worlds. But that, as Sir Mike Darrington of the Pro-Business Anti-Greed campaign would put it, is all ‘total bollocks’.
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Who Rules the World?

A news item on budget day, commanding all of two column inches on an inside page of some of the national press, was of far greater importance than anything Mr Osborne had to say. It reported the completion of Glencore’s acquisition of Viterra, Canada’s largest grain handling company. Glencore has ways of making money as reported previously on this site (see http://www.gordonpearson.co.uk/28/glencore-and-their-ilk-are-screwing-the-world/). Briefly, they bet on the future price of a commodity in a market they can fix. They then fix the price and take the profit. The example given in the previous posting was Glencore’s bet on future wheat and corn prices. Despite Russian harvests in 2010 being threatened by drought, prices didn’t rise sufficiently for Glencore to profit, till Yuri Ognev, the relevant Glencore executive, “suggested” to Moscow they might be well advised to ban wheat exports. Two days later exports were banned and prices rose by 15%, enough for Glencore’s profit. That’s how Glencore works. An unfortunate bi-product of Glencore’s price rise would be added numbers starving to death in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.

Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trader, listed in London but successfully avoiding UK taxes, is currently taking over its associate company Xstrata, one of the world’s largest mining and metals companies. Xstrata’s London IPO ten years ago established it from day one in the FTSE100. Its boast is that over the past decade it has grown faster than Amazon, largely by acquisition. It is now big enough to fix supply, and therefore prices, of strategic minerals such as nickel, zinc, platinum, chrome and copper and being highly influential in thermal and coking coal. Glencore with Xstrata will be able to create and exploit prices of all these commodities and more. And with Viterra on board they’ll be even more powerful in the grain markets, adding starvation to the millions already struggling for survival. The already weak and poor will pay for Glencore’s profitable growth. But they won’t be alone: we all will pay.
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Budgeting for Naked Greed

All sorts of hares are set loose in the run up to the budget: removal of the 50% income tax rate, ending of national pay settlements in the public sector, imposition of a mansion tax, a clamp down on stamp duty avoidance, and so on, not to mention the various stimulus–austerity alternatives. Debate centres around the clash of two different motivations: the desire to get the economy going again, and the desire for fairness and equity, or not. All this punctuated by outbreaks of naked greed by the likes of Bob Diamond. Sometimes those motivations are opposed and sometimes they coincide. Underlying this cacophony, there are simplistic party dogmas, clearly based on half understood or partly remembered ideas from undergraduate economics. Blind faith in ‘free and open markets’ is one such tenet which quite ignores reality: freedom from government interference inevitably results in monopolistic control and predation, a far worse limit on freedom than that imposed by democratically elected government. Check out the audit industry, or the Glencore-Xstrata merger, and have fear.

In amongst all this, Vince Cable, the nearest thing the coalition has to a non-dogmatic, avuncular influence on the economy, is trying to make sure the better off shoulder more of their share of the burden, while those at the bottom of the heap are given some respite, which would also, coincidentally, have some immediate stimulus effect. One Cable initiative is to curb the excesses of executive pay by making it subject to shareholder control. Executive greed is certainly out of control, and on the face of it, restraint by shareholders doesn’t sound unreasonable. But it wouldn’t have the effect Vince intends.
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Cameron’s Anti-Business ‘Snobbery’: Real or Synthetic?

The Prime Minister used the word ‘snobbery’ to deride what he referred to as anti-business rhetoric. By which he was meaning the arguments that business ‘has no inherent moral worth’, that it ‘isn’t really to be trusted’, and that it had ‘no social concerns’ but was solely to do with ‘making money that pays the taxes’. He was addressing the charity, Business in the Community, attended by the Prince of Wales. ‘Snobbery’ seems a curious word to use. Maybe it is some left-over frisson from the landed gentry, even royalty, of old England, for whom the idea of making money, rather than inheriting it, may be thought somewhat beyond the pale. But surely the Prime Minister doesn’t take such ideas seriously!

So far as is known, Milton Friedman was never accused of snobbery. But it was he, more than anyone, who persuaded business that it should have no social concerns and not strive after moral worth, but focus exclusively on making as much money as possible for shareholders. He was less enthusiastic about paying taxes, but snobbery played no part in his argument. It purported to emanate from the cold logic of economic theory, if such a thing were possible.
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Public Services and Predatory Shareholders

The trouble with the provision of public services such as health, education and the police by private for-profit companies is pretty obvious. Successive governments from Thatcher on, have pursued this flawed policy which derives from a hopelessly simplistic ideology. Private providers, who are subject to the discipline of the market, are held to be more efficient than public providers. The late lamented Milton Friedman claimed they were twice as efficient. Therefore, the argument goes, services would be most efficiently provided by private firms operating in competitive markets so that, for example, NHS patients have choice, and providers who are not good enough to get chosen, will fail. That’s how markets work.

So far so good, despite the famous lack of supporting empirical evidence, and the difficulties, where real markets don’t exist, of creating pseudo-markets without the costly bureaucracy of targeting, monitoring and supervising pseudo-competitive performance. But another thread of that same ideology, most famously enunciated by the same late lamented Friedman, is that those who run for-profit businesses have no social responsibility other than to make as much money as possible for shareholders.
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