Why “business needs certainty” is destructive

Too many business executives are paid handsomely for taking no risk, and that's bad for all of us

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If you read the business and even the political press, you’ve doubtless encountered the claim that the economy is a mess because the threat to reregulate in the wake of a global-economy-wrecking financial crisis is creating “uncertainty.” That is touted as the reason why corporations are sitting on their hands and not doing much in the way of hiring and investing.

This is propaganda that needs to be laughed out of the room.

I approach this issue as as a business practitioner. I have spent decades advising major financial institutions, private equity and hedge funds, and very wealthy individuals (Forbes 400 level) on enterprises they own. I’ve run a profit center in a major financial firm and have have also operated a consulting business for over 20 years. So I’ve had extensive exposure to the dysfunction I am about to describe.

Commerce is all about making decisions and committing resources with the hope of earning profit when the managers cannot know the future. “Uncertainty” is used casually by the media, but when trying to confront the vagaries of what might happen, analysts distinguish risk from “uncertainty”, which for them has a very specific meaning. “Risk” is what Donald Rumsfeld characterized as a known unknown. You can still estimate the range of likely outcomes and make a good stab at estimating probabilities within that range. For instance, if you open an ice cream store in a resort area, you can make a very good estimate of what the fixed costs and the margins on sales will be. It is much harder to predict how much ice cream you will actually sell. That is turn depends largely on foot traffic which in turn is largely a function of the weather (and you can look at past weather patterns to get a rough idea) and how many people visit that town (which is likely a function of the economy and how that particular resort area does in a weak economy).

Uncertainty, by contrast, is unknown unknowns. It is the sort of risk you can’t estimate in advance. So businesses also have to be good at adapting when Shit Happens. Sometimes that Shit Happening can be favorable, but they still need to be able to exploit opportunities (like an exceptionally hot summer producing off the charts demand for ice cream) or disaster (like the Fukushima meltdown disrupting global supply chains). That implies having some slack or extra resources at your disposal, or being able to get ready access to them at not too catastrophic a cost.



So why aren’t businesses investing or hiring? “Uncertainty” as far as regulations are concerned is not a major driver. Surveys show that the “uncertainty” bandied about in the press really translates into “the economy stinks, I’m not in a business that benefits from a bad economy, and I’m not going to take a chance when I have no idea when things might turn around.”

The “certainty” they are looking for is concrete evidence that prevailing conditions have really turned. But with so many people unemployed, growth flagging in advanced economies, China and other emerging economies putting on the brake as their inflation rates become too high, and a very real risk of another financial crisis kicking off in the Eurozone, there isn’t any reason to hope for things to magically get better on their own any time soon. In fact, if you look at the discussion above, we actually have a very high degree of certainty, just of the wrong sort, namely that growth will low to negative for easily the next two years, and quite possibly for a Japan-style extended period.

So why this finger pointing at intrusive regulations, particularly since they are mysteriously absent? For instance, Dodd Frank is being water down in the process of detailed rulemaking, and the famed Obamacare actually enriches Big Pharma and the health insurers.

The problem with the “blame the government” canard is that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The pattern businesses are trying to blame on the authorities, that they aren’t hiring and investing due to intrusive interference, was in fact deeply entrenched before the crisis and was rampant during the corporate friendly Bush era. I wrote about it back in 2005 for the Conference Board’s magazine.

In simple form, this pattern resulted from the toxic combination of short-termism among investors and an irrational focus on unaudited corporate quarterly earnings announcements and stock-price-related executive pay, which became a fixture in the early 1990s. I called the pattern “corporate dysmorphia”, since like body builders preparing for contests, major corporations go to unnatural extremes to make themselves look good for their quarterly announcements.

An extract from the article:

Corporations deeply and sincerely embrace practices that, like the use of steroids, pump up their performance at the expense of their well-being…

Despite the cliché “employees are our most important asset,” many companies are doing everything in their power to live without them, and to pay the ones they have minimally. This practice may sound like prudent business, but in fact it is a reversal of the insight by Henry Ford that built the middle class and set the foundation for America’s prosperity in the twentieth century: that by paying workers well, companies created a virtuous circle, since better-paid staff would consume more goods, enabling companies to hire yet more worker/consumers.

Instead, the Wal-Mart logic increasingly prevails: Pay workers as little as they will accept, skimp on benefits, and wring as much production out of them as possible (sometimes illegally, such as having them clock out and work unpaid hours). The argument is that this pattern is good for the laboring classes, since Wal-Mart can sell goods at lower prices, providing savings to lower-income consumers like, for instance, its employees. The logic is specious: Wal-Mart’s workers spend most of their income on goods and services they can’t buy at Wal-Mart, such as housing, health care, transportation, and gas, so whatever gains they recoup from Wal-Mart’s low prices are more than offset by the rock-bottom pay.

Defenders may argue that in a global economy, Americans must accept competitive (read: lower) wages. But critics such as William Greider and Thomas Frank argue that America has become hostage to a free-trade ideology, while its trading partners have chosen to operate under systems of managed trade. There’s little question that other advanced economies do a better job of both protecting their labor markets and producing a better balance of trade—in most cases, a surplus.

The dangers of the U.S. approach are systemic. Real wages have been stagnant since the mid-1970s, but consumer spending keeps climbing. As of June, household savings were .02 percent of income (note the placement of the decimal point), and Americans are carrying historically high levels of debt. According to the Federal Reserve, consumer debt service is 13 percent of income. The Economist noted, “Household savings have dwindled to negligible levels as Americans have run down assets and taken on debt to keep the spending binge going.” As with their employers, consumers are keeping up the appearance of wealth while their personal financial health decays.

Part of the problem is that companies have not recycled the fruits of their growth back to their workers as they did in the past. In all previous postwar economic recoveries, the lion’s share of the increase in national income went to labor compensation (meaning increases in hiring, wages, and benefits) rather than corporate profits, according to the National Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the current upturn, not only is the proportion going to workers far lower than ever before—it is the first time that the share of GDP growth going to corporate coffers has exceeded the labor share.

And businesses weren’t using their high profits to invest either:

Companies typically invest in times like these, when profits are high and interest rates low. Yet a recent JP Morgan report notes that, since 2002, American companies have incurred an average net financial surplus of 1.7 percent of GDP, which contrasts with an average deficit of 1.2 percent of GDP for the preceding forty years. While firms in aggregate have occasionally run a surplus, “. . . the recent level of saving by corporates is unprecedented. . . .It is important to stress that the present situation is in some sense unnatural. A more normal situation would be for the global corporate sector—in both the G6 and emerging economies—to be borrowing, and for households in the G6 economies to be saving more, ahead of the deterioration in demographics.”

The problem is that the “certainty” language reveals what the real game is, which is certainty in top executive pay at the expense of the health of the enterprise, and ultimately, the economy as a whole. Cutting costs is as easy way to produce profits, since the certainty of a good return on your “investment” is high. By contrast, doing what capitalists of legend are supposed to do, find ways to serve customer better by producing better or novel products, is much harder and involves taking real chances and dealing with very real odds of disappointing results. Even though we like to celebrate Apple, all too many companies have shunned that path of finding other easier ways to burnish their bottom lines. and it has become even more extreme. Companies have managed to achieve record profits in a verging-on-recession setting.

Indeed, the bigger problem they face is that they have played their cost-focused business paradigm out. You can’t grow an economy on cost cutting unless you have offsetting factors in play, such as an export led growth strategy, or an ever rising fiscal deficit, or a falling household saving rate that has not yet reached zero, or some basis for an investment spending boom. But if you go down the list, and check off each item for the US, you will see they have exhausted the possibilities. The only one that could in theory operate is having consumers go back on a borrowing spree. But with unemployment as high as it is and many families desperately trying to recover from losses in the biggest item on their personal balance sheet, their home, that seems highly unlikely. Game over for the cost cutting strategy.

And contrary to their assertions, just as they’ve managed to pursue self-limiting, risk avoidant corporate strategies on a large scale, so too have they sought to use government and regulation to shield themselves from risk.

Businesses have had at least 25 to 30 years near complete certainty — certainty that they will pay lower and lower taxes, that they’ will face less and less regulation, that they can outsource to their hearts’ content (which when it does produce savings, comes at a loss of control, increased business system rigidity, and loss of critical know how). They have also been certain that unions will be weak to powerless, that states and municipalities will give them huge subsidies to relocate, that boards of directors will put top executives on the up escalator for more and more compensation because director pay benefits from this cozy collusion, that the financial markets will always look to short term earnings no matter how dodgy the accounting, that the accounting firms will provide plenty of cover, that the SEC will never investigate anything more serious than insider trading (Enron being the exception that proved the rule).

So this haranguing about certainty simply reveals how warped big commerce has become in the US. Top management of supposedly capitalist enterprises want a high degree of certainty in their own profits and pay. Rather than earn their returns the old fashioned way, by serving customers well, by innovating, by expanding into new markets, their ‘certainty’ amounts to being paid handsomely for doing things that carry no risk. But since risk and uncertainty are inherent to the human condition, what they instead have engaged in is a massive scheme of risk transfer, of increasing rewards to themselves to the long term detriment of their enterprises and ultimately society as a whole.

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