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.”
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.