Category Archives: Company Law

What will replace the public company?

The public company, the corporate form that Chandler once described as the most powerful institution in the economy and which made industrialisation possible, is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Over the past decade the number of public companies in the UK has almost halved and declined by 38% in the United States. Similarly, the number of Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) has declined by over two thirds, and in the case of SMEs by more than 80%.

These statistics are quoted in a recent article in The Economist which puts the rapid decline down to the over regulation of public companies. This is the only explanation available that fits The Economist’s free market dogma. The article cites the case of Boots the Chemist as an exemplar of how ‘now it is perfectly respectable to choose to “go private”’. This is a distortion of what happened to Boots. Under the leadership of asset stripping accountant, Sir Nigel Rudd, Boots merged with Alliance Unichem which was preliminary to the opportunistic takeover by an American private equity firm, which saddled the company with the debt raised for its acquisition and moved its registration to a tax avoiding canton in Switzerland. What part of that sad story is ‘perfectly respectable’ is open to debate. The result is that a great British company was raped and pillaged for the benefit of a small number of individuals, mainly in an American private equity limited liability partnership.
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The Criminal Company

The threat to the world’s liberty today comes from the monopolistic power of unregulated corporates. That is exercised mainly through banks such as Goldman Sachs and financial intermediaries and traders such as Glencore. A year ago the Financial Times ran a series of articles showing how Glencore fix commodity prices for their own profit and everyone else’s loss. The Russian wheat and corn harvest being threatened by drought, the FT reported how Glencore made speculative long term proprietary trades in wheat and corn. When wheat prices failed to rise sufficiently for a profit to be made over the period of Glencore’s trade, their man in Moscow ‘encouraged’ the Russians to ban wheat exports. That had the desired effect forcing prices up sufficiently to enable Glencore to close its earlier bets at a decent return. The obvious side effect of the price rise was that the struggling millions had to struggle that bit more. That’s the Glencore way of doing business. (See http://www.gordonpearson.co.uk/28/glencore-and-their-ilk-are-screwing-the-world/)

Glencore is currently in the throes of taking over of its associate company Xstrata, one of the world’s largest mining and metals companies. Xstrata is already big enough to fix supply, and therefore prices, of strategic minerals such as nickel, zinc, platinum, chrome and copper and is highly influential in thermal and coking coal. Using the Glencore business method, they will together be able to create and exploit prices of all these commodities and more. And with Viterra also acquired, they’ll be even more powerful in the grain markets, adding starvation to the millions already struggling for survival.
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A New and Legal Orthodox Wisdom

Unilever’s Paul Polman must be a Chief Executive in a million. Or more. In his interview with Guardian Sustainable Business, Polman calls on business leaders, politicians and NGOs to recognise they cannot deal with the world’s environmental and social challenges by pursuit of Milton Friedman’s target of maximising shareholder wealth. Polman names a few other companies who are moving in that same direction, and suggests their numbers are growing. But it is a drop in the ocean.

“Why,” he asks, “would you invest in a company which is out of synch with the needs of society, that does not take its social compliance in its supply chain seriously, that does not think about the costs of externalities, or of its negative impacts on society?”

Sadly, the answer is simple and obvious: to make a quick buck. Friedman said that corporate officials had no other social responsibility than to make as much money as possible for shareholders, and that is what the business schools and university departments have been teaching ever since. So that is how the world now works. The world – business leaders, politicians, academics, and even the people in the street – have come to believe that it is the legal duty of those who run businesses to maximise the wealth of shareholders, and to hell with everything else. But it is simply not the case. We should not need heroic figures like Paul Polman to change the world. It should simply be a matter of compliance with the law.
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Modifying the Capitalist System

Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein, Citibank’s Vikram Pandit and, of course, Barclay’s Bob Diamond, all have something in common. Even their normally acquiescent shareholders have been moved to express concern about their latest round of excess, greed and thuggery. But they are only the tip of the ice-berg. It has become custom and practice for top people to take spectacularly from the businesses they command. Whether their take, largely for unacceptable performance, is £5m or £67m makes little difference. It obviously bears no relation to their true worth: their talent, or their hard work.

These are the unacceptable faces of capitalism, the reasons why people have so little trust in the integrity of corporate business. They are why people are demanding ‘new models of capitalism’, ‘ethical capitalism’, ‘capitalism with a conscience’, etc. And why Ed Milliband makes the clear distinction between what he refers to as ‘good capitalism’ and ‘bad capitalism’.

But capitalism with a conscience won’t work. We may all start out with a conscience, but if the system tempts us with untold riches for doing not a lot, then most of us are likely to fall for it. Our intrinsic good intentions will be crowded out by extrinsic incentives or greed. The problem is making the system proof against that simple human frailty. Continue reading Modifying the Capitalist System

Free Markets Controlled by the Unaccountables

How does a basic item of clothing, say a shirt, come into existence. Where does the cloth come from? And the colours or dyes, the buttons and thread, the machines that cut the fabric and the machines that stitch the bits together? And who dreamed up the designs and how did they get printed on the fabric? And what brought all these things together to produce the finished article? And how did it get distributed to people wanting such a shirt? The answer to all those questions is, of course, ‘the market’. No other form of economic organisation gets anywhere near that level of efficiency or provides a comparable degree of choice. All the tools of central planning and control of the former communist states, proved incapable of organising the production and distribution of shirts that people actually wanted to buy. That is the beauty and power of the market for something as simple as a shirt. For more complex products, and most products are, the competitive advantage of the market over any alternative, is far greater even than that.

The thing that makes the market so effective is competition: the existence of alternative suppliers of cloth, dyes, thread, machines and the rest. Without competition , the market would be no different from the central planning and control system. That failed not only because of its inherent inefficiency and proneness to bad decisions, but because the empowered bureaucracy was vulnerable to self-interested, even corrupt and illicit decision making. Monopolists are in exactly the same position: inefficient and vulnerable, and likely to take corrupt and predatory decisions to further their avowed aim of maximising shareholder wealth.
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Monopolistic Complacency and the Big Four

A couple of “industries”, audit and management consultancy, which have deliberately entwined themselves round each other and called themselves ‘professional services’, have developed strongly monopolistic tendencies. The degree of industry concentration is truly remarkable: the four leading firms employ around 650,000 people, earn revenues of over US$100 billion, and take around 80% of the global market for large and medium businesses, plus a huge involvement in public sector consulting.

The big four ceased to be truly competitive decades ago. They now exist for the benefit of their own people, rather than their customers. It’s a carve up comparable to the various cartels and closed shops which existed in the City of London prior to the ‘big bang’. It seems unlikely to last much longer.
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Making Capitalism Work: some initial steps

The centrally planned socialist alternative has been tried and didn’t work. Even without the bureaucracy and corruption enabled by the communist system, central planning could never be as efficient or effective as a real market. But, as we are currently experiencing, unregulated markets can also lead to disaster. Most of our current trouble lies in the changed role of the financial sector.

When the 18th century canals were built it took on average over seven years from the start of construction to the first revenues being generated, seven years in which huge and not risk-free expense was incurred. Shares, bonds and bank credit were the means of raising the necessary money to get the industrialisation project going. So the financial sector was brought into existence to support the real economy. And it grew in importance, supporting the progress of industrialisation for over two hundred years. But since the 1980s computerisation and deregulation of financial markets, it has been possible to make substantially higher returns from speculation than from the real economy. Consequently the sector no longer supports the real economy with any real enthusiasm. Instead, when it invests in the real economy, more often than not, it does so to extract value, destroying real jobs, purely for its own benefit. It is not just, as Adair Turner once described it “socially useless”, but is actually working against the interests of ordinary people.
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Capitalism without bankruptcy: too big to fail

Industrialisation is what fired capitalism. Prior to that most capital was held in the form of land and buildings with not a lot of spare cash lying around waiting to be invested. Nor any pressing need for it. But when industrialisation began in the eighteenth century, it required major infrastructural investment in things such as canals, turnpike roads and subsequently railways. These huge projects took years before producing any return and the sums required were way beyond the capacity of wealthy individuals. Dispersed shareholding and large scale credit finance were brought into existence to enable the massive capital investments of industrialisation.

Contributory sums from large numbers of relatively small investors were multiplied by the bankers new found capacity for lending a proportion of deposits lodged with them for safe keeping. Even Marx acknowledged the ‘capitalistic system’ worked, having ‘created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.’ That was years before joint stock companies were allowed to provide the luxury of limited liability to their shareholders. When Marx was working on the Communist Manifesto, shareholders responsibility for their companies was total. If the company went bankrupt, they were liable for its debts and would in all probability go bankrupt with it. The possibility of bankruptcy was what gave the ‘capitalistic system’ its edge. As widely asserted, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.
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Bury the Dogma

Neo-classical microeconomic theory, especially in its more recent fundamentalist manifestations, has done immense damage to the real economy while nurturing the parasitic financial sector, as recounted from time to time elsewhere on this site.

Various alternative approaches have identified and addressed problems created by that theory. Welfare economics, the economics of social balance, and what is referred to as behavioural economics, have all sought to modify how the neo-classical maximising model operates. However they have not provided a clear and simple alternative to neo-classical mathematics. So the neo-classical model prevails and will survive all such challenges. Utility maximising economic man and the profit (or shareholder wealth) maximising firm, operating within an assumed to be efficient market, will continue to be accepted as the solution to maximising economic growth and social welfare. The obvious inequity of distribution between rich and poor, both within and between nations, will continue to be regretted as necessary to the utilitarian result. Moreover, it is argued, care for the environment could be more readily financed by a successful economy, rather than by one which is struggling to survive.

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A Further Word on Cadbury

The takeover of British confectioner Cadbury, with its long and honourable history in British industry, from its Quaker origins to its death throes earlier this year, has been featured as the main topic of two posts on this site, and mentioned in passing on five others. It is a compulsive story which celebrates the satisfaction of greed, the naïve stupidity of ideologically driven government, the destruction of Britain’s real economy and its real jobs, and the fatalistic acceptance of all this by the population at large.

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