The theory which, over the past three decades, has become the ubiquitous orthodox free market wisdom, is widely assumed to be simply the current version of classical economics originally expounded by Adam Smith. Moreover, it might be reasonable to assume, it being the latest, it is the most insightful and effective, having been shaped by the errors and excesses of previous versions. The current free market model certainly includes Adam Smith in its provenance, but what makes it different from previous models is the fact it is also based on certain theoretical foundations which are demonstrably false and which previous versions did not share. It has become what J K Galbraith described as an institutional truth. That is, not a truth at all, but a downright lie, but one to which all associated must subscribe if their careers are to prosper.
As recounted in ‘The Rise and Fall of Management’, from the earliest days of industrialisation down to the present day, perhaps one of the most striking step changes to take place has been the adoption of the strategic perspective. It was not till the mid 1960s that long range planning and what became known as strategic management received much overt attention. First in large companies, then among consultants and, finally, in academe, strategy became a dominant perspective, widely acknowledged as the lynch pin of management theory and practice.
Justification of bank bonus payments proceeds apace. Despite having in effect gone bust last year, and being only rescued as a publicly quoted company because the Labour Government was so paranoid about nationalisation, the directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland now wish to set aside £1.5Bn of tax payers’ money for next year’s bonus payments. Their argument is that unless the bonuses are paid, their most talented people will leave and they won’t be able to recruit in this highly competitive field. But it’s been said before that it was precisely these individuals who broke the bank. So why should the tax payer worry if they leave and aren’t replaced?
The Financial Reporting Council (FRC)’s latest publication, “Proposed Reforms to the UK Corporate Governance Code”, is rather a waste of time. Changing an ineffectual and irrelevant code, even though at considerable expense to the tax payer, is hardly a matter of huge importance. And when the changes themselves are so slight they will have no impact at all on what is done, the significance is disappearingly small. But perhaps that was the intention.
Cadbury’s future as a British owned confectionery manufacturer seems doomed, for reasons discussed in ‘The Rise and Fall of Management’. Cadbury’s management may well have sought to fulfill their legal corporate duty, as defined in the 2006 Companies Act, to have regard to the company’s long term future and to the interests of employees and other stakeholders rather than just the shareholders. But, despite the law, shareholders’ interests are widely held to be paramount, and in the face of a hostile takeover bid, management are driven to simply maximizing the price that can be obtained for Cadbury shareholders. In the frenzy of this battle to the death, they most probably have little time for anything else, least of all making chocolate.
Earlier this year it was reported in the national press that, despite the decline in its investments and fall in profit from £576m to £17m, the former mutual Standard Life’s chief executive, Sir Sandy Crombie, received £380,000 bonus on top of his salary of £754,000. Fellow director Keith Skeoch’s take was £1.3m while finance director David Nish’s take was £885,000.
The following extracts are from a letter, arguing the case made from a historical perspective in ‘The Rise and Fall of Management’, written to Sir Sandy Crombie asking how these payments could be justified:
Dear Sir Sandy,
Successive governments from Thatcher on, have been committed to free market capitalism with minimised regulation. That was the bad theory that got us into this mess. But the prescriptions for what will get us out of it, permanently, have so far been piecemeal and fragmentary. The pragmatic response of the British government may restore confidence short term and get the wheels turning again, but it does not offer a coherent long term alternative to the erstwhile orthodox wisdom propounded by the late Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and colleagues.
The long standing fixation with creating shareholder value still persists just below the surface despite the current crisis. ‘The Rise and Fall of Management’ flags up the much broader responsibilities that directors have legally shouldered for the past 150 years, but if the City and top directors have their way, when the current crisis is over, it’ll be ‘back to business as usual’. Those directors will still be aligned with shareholders rather than customers and employees, and paying themselves extreme amounts of money irrespective of either short or long term performance. The bonus culture is regaining momentum and no matter how much the media and politicians berate the greed of City martinets, until action is taken to restrict or tax unwarranted bonuses, they will continue to be taken.
A key tenet of free market capitalism is that businesses should focus exclusively on maximising shareholder value and not allow other considerations, apart from compliance with the law, to intrude on their business activities. As demonstrated in ‘The Rise and Fall of Management’, approaches such as corporate philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and business ethics, are only justifiable if they add to profitability. This appears to be a clear and simple model for businessmen to work.