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A Tale of Three Capitalisms

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Kevin Dowd
October 27, 2010

One of the most important issues in the ongoing economic controversy is whether the crisis is due to a "failure of capitalism." What both sides of this argument often overlook, however, is that there is not just one but three different and not equally desirable kinds of capitalism. The failure to appreciate this point has been the source of much confusion.

The issues that distinguish between them are: ownership, control, and the role of the state.

The first of these forms is individual shareholder capitalism, a form of capitalism in which firms are primarily controlled – as well as owned – by individual large shareholders, and with little state involvement. These large shareholders have extensive personal liability – they bear the downside as well as the upside of their decisions – and typically operate under unlimited liability in which all their wealth is “at risk” from the decisions they make: if the company fails, the big shareholders can lose everything they have. This gives them a strong incentive to exercise effective control: they hold the management accountable and the typical manager knows his place and is moderately remunerated.

At the risk of some oversimplification, this is “classic” early-19th-century capitalism – the capitalism of the industrial revolution. Ownership and control go together, leading to strong corporate governance and a long-term outlook, and there is little state intervention. This is capitalism at its best and most effective.

The second and more modern form of capitalism is managerial capitalism: the shareholders still own the company, but the management is much more powerful. There is now a major disconnect between ownership and control – the “separation between ownership and control” identified by Berle and Means in 1932 – and corporate governance is much weaker.

This second form of capitalism is associated with the limited liability corporation, in which shareholders’ liability is limited to the value of their investment. Adam Smith had identified the problem with this arrangement in his Wealth of Nations in 1776. In a prescient passage, Smith deplored the “negligence and profusion” that “must always prevail” in such a company, because its directors would never look after its money as carefully as their own. The dominant shareholders are no longer the old powerful founding families but modern institutional investors, who don’t have the same long-term stake in “their” company; their behaviour is determined by middle-level asset managers who have the instincts of sheep, unable and unwilling and lacking the incentive to tackle powerful directors.

Not surprisingly, management remuneration increases sharply, and the focus shifts to the short run. Long-term industrial logic gives way to short-term “pop” and, in the (all too common) worst cases, to senior management’s unconstrained Napoleonic fantasies. This management feather-bedding is often disguised by convenient ideologies, such as the nonsense of “shareholder value” theory and much of Modern Finance. The ideology of free markets also provides another convenient fig-leaf for managerial self-aggrandisement, thus tarnishing the image of free-market capitalism. However, these are no longer truly free markets.

Managerial capitalism represents a major deterioration from the older form of capitalism. This is made possible by the availability of limited liability – itself a major form of state intervention, which creates corrosive moral hazards and incentives towards excessive risk-taking – and by tax regimes that erode old family fortunes and penalise shareholding in favour of the issuance of debt. Thus, the move towards managerial capitalism is largely due to an increasingly interventionist state.

Then there is the third and least desirable but most modern form of capitalism: crony capitalism. Management is now largely out of control and its remuneration skyrockets. This is especially so in the so-called "financial services” sector. This sector encapsulates the excesses of “capitalism” at its worst: stratospheric remuneration for practitioners, a disregard for both shareholders and customers, and an obsession with short-run, “grab and run” profits, with no concern about the longer run. It is also characterized by massive risk-taking, with practitioners safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer will bail them out if they get into difficulties. Profits are privatised, but losses are socialised, i.e. the social contract is “heads I win, tails you lose."

In this form of capitalism, the financial sector is dominant: it is the biggest sector in the economy. Thus, trading stocks and similar activities (such as shuffling paper) become more important than, say, making things or providing useful services such as health or education.

Worst of all, the financial sector becomes so powerful that is able to take over the state itself: its financial resources enable it to buy political influence and subvert the state apparatus for its own ends. Financial regulation becomes a tool for the “regulated” to control the markets in which they operate; and, when a crisis hits, they are able to blackmail the politicians into bailing them out: we need a bailout – fast – otherwise, the world will end. Of course, their world would end, but that is not a bad thing for the rest of us and we don’t get a say in the matter. There is, in short, a financial coup d’etat.

At this point, the financiers have the politicians in their pocket. No wonder they are openly bragging that happy days are here again (whilst adding insult to injury by telling us in the Sunday Times that theirs is God’s work!), even as banks are still on life support, courtesy of the taxpayers who are being robbed blind. Meanwhile, the politicians they elect to represent their interests do not so much as stand idly by, but actively collude in the robbery.

So what do we do about our descent into crony capitalism?

Let’s begin by being clear about which form of capitalism we support – and there can, I believe, be only one answer. As for those who advocate further state intervention, we need to get the message across that it is state intervention that is the problem.

Dr. Kevin Dowd is Senior Professor at the Cobden Centre (http://www.cobdoncentre.org), Professor Emeritus at the Nottingham University Business School, and the co-author of "Alchemists of Loss: How Modern Finance and Government Intervention Crashed the Financial System." This article originally appeared October 18, 2010 on the Institute of Economic Affairs website (www.iea.org.uk).