Costco capitalism

I came across this blog post by Bryan Lehrer titled “Costco Capitalism” which I think offers an interesting variation on the discussion of companies seeking to do good, or even better, to “be” good.

It poses two questions:

  • whether some companies are built on “structurally fair” foundations that make it easier for them to be perceived as “good” or “fair” companies; and
  • what exactly does it mean to be an “ethical” company

This extract will give you a flavour of the author’s analysis of the Costco business model

Sustainable Capitalism? – What Costco shows us about the blurry relationship between ethical and fair

Costco shows that … simply providing your customers the feeling that they aren’t getting ripped off, and doing so in a way that matches mainstream views of acceptable externalities, is all that is required for success. If this sounds reductive, it’s because it is. The key to Costco’s success is just how straightforward the alignment of stakeholders within its business model are.

That being said, there are externalities associated with Costco’s business model, even if they aren’t viewed by the mainstream as such. The main thing here is a retail model that promotes rampant consumption, and the fallout from this which includes broad waste and sustainability concerns. Interestingly, because of Costco’s large purchasing power, dominance over its supply chains, and upper-middle class income of its shoppers, it generally has more progressive product standards than other retail brands in comparable price tiers.

Costco Capitalism, Bryan Lehrer

Lehrer argues that the foundation is to provide customers with “the feeling that they aren’t getting ripped off thereby building that elusive intangible asset of Trust that many companies routinely include in their statement of corporate values (e.g. “a Trusted Partner”). However, equally important is that the company can do this “in a way that matches mainstream views of acceptable externalities.

This qualification regarding externalities is the interesting part.

Other companies may have a credible claim to being able to provide a good or service cheaply but the often unasked question is what is the full cost of the good or service; i.e. is the low cost at the company/consumer level based on paying workers a subsistence wage with uncertain working hours, or reliance on an external supply chain with dubious environmental and labour standards. Lehrer notes that Costco could be vulnerable to criticism on a number of fronts (e.g. its business is, at its heart, a mass consumption model) but Costco is protected by virtue of adopting a position which fits community standards. Costco can afford to spend some of its efficiency dividend on progressive product standards but it is not necessarily pushing the boundaries of what might be done because it is also sensitive to what its customers are willing to pay for being good.

This framework (i.e. is our business built on an operating model that is structurally fair) offers a useful perspective when thinking about financial services companies. Initiatives such as the Bankers’ Oath have a contribution to make in addressing the cultural issues in banking but I suspect that there is as much value (potentially more) in exploring the structural features of the industry that create the pressure to cut corners in the pursuit of financial targets.

I don’t expect anyone will change their mind about bankers and banking in general on the basis of this post. I do hope to make the point that there are subtle structural challenges in banking that complicate the capacity to do good. Developing a better understanding of the structural issues is I think essential to crafting a lasting solution to the cultural issues. I don’t have any neat answers but I do feel that the issues covered in Bryan Lehrer’s analysis of Costco offer some insights.

Tony – From the Outside

Company purpose

There has been a lot written on this topic recently, particularly in response to the recent announcement by the Business Roundtable of it decision that corporations should seek to serve all stakeholders rather than focusing on shareholders. I don’t propose to add anything new to the discussion in this post but simply to call out a couple of references I have found useful in trying to make sense of the issues.

This post by Aswath Damodaran offers a useful review of the issues associated with choosing what purpose a company should serve, and what might go wrong as the current debate plays out. Damodaran identifies 5 variations on how companies pursue their purpose

  1. Cut throat corporatism
  2. Crony corporatism
  3. Managerial corporatism
  4. Constrained corporatism
  5. Confused corporatism

“Confused corporatism” is the label Damodaran applies to the “stakeholder” approach. No surprises that he is not a fan. This extract from his post captures his core arguments.

“I know that this is a trying time to be a corporate CEO, with people demanding that you cure society’s ills and the economy’s problems, with the threat of punitive actions, if you don’t change. That said, I don’t believe that you can win this battle or even recoup some of your lost standing by giving up on the focus on shareholder wealth and replacing it with an ill-thought through and potentially destructive objective of advancing stakeholder interests. In my view, a much healthier discussion would be centered on creating more transparency about how corporations treat different stakeholder groups and linking that information with how they get valued in the market. I think that we are making strides on the first, with better information disclosure from companies and CSR measures, and I hope to help on the second front by connecting these disclosures to intrinsic value. As I noted earlier, if we want companies to behave better in their interactions with society, customers and employees, we have to make it in their financial best interests to do so, buying products and services from companies that treat other stakeholders better and paying higher prices for their shares.”

“From Shareholder wealth to Stakeholder interests: CEO Capitulation or Empty Doublespeak?”; Musings on Markets, 28 August 2019

The Economist also offers a perspective on what might go wrong with the “stakeholder” version of corporate purpose. The Economist uses the term “Collective Capitalism” to label this alternative formulation.

I am not convinced the answer proposed by The Economist is going to solve the problem but I still found it worth reading. Firstly, it reminds us that companies have been granted unique rights – in particular “limited liability”. We probably take this for granted but recognising that it is a privilege begs the question what does society get in return.

“Ever since businesses were granted limited liability in Britain and France in the 19th century, there have been arguments about what society can expect in return”

Like Damodaran, The Economist questions the ways in which companies might make the social choices not being addressed now.

“Consider accountability first. It is not clear how CEOs should know what “society” wants from their companies. The chances are that politicians, campaigning groups and the CEOs themselves will decide—and that ordinary people will not have a voice. Over the past 20 years industry and finance have become dominated by large firms, so a small number of unrepresentative business leaders will end up with immense power to set goals for society that range far beyond the immediate interests of their company.”

The Economist also reminds us that it is not clear how this kinder form of capitalism retains the creative destruction that has been part and parcel of the process of economic growth

The second problem is dynamism. Collective capitalism leans away from change. In a dynamic system firms have to forsake at least some stakeholders: a number need to shrink in order to reallocate capital and workers from obsolete industries to new ones. If, say, climate change is to be tackled, oil firms will face huge job cuts. Fans of the corporate giants of the managerial era in the 1960s often forget that AT&T ripped off consumers and that General Motors made out-of-date, unsafe cars. Both firms embodied social values that, even at the time, were uptight. They were sheltered partly because they performed broader social goals, whether jobs-for-life, world-class science or supporting the fabric of Detroit.

Lastly, this opinion piece by Barry Ritholz is also worth reading for a fairly blunt reminder of the parts of the system status quo that fall far short of the free market fairy tale. I have only scratched the surface of this topic but hopefully you will find the articles and blog posts referenced above useful.

Tony

“The Great Divide” by Andrew Haldane

This speech by Andrew Haldane (Chief Economist at the Bank of England) was given in 2016 but is sill worth reading for anyone interested in the question of what role banks play in society and why their reputation is not what it once was. Some of my long term correspondents will be familiar with the paper and may have seen an earlier draft of this post.

“The Great Divide” refers to a gap between how banks perceive themselves and how they are perceived by the community. Haldane references a survey the BOE conducted in which the most common word used by banks to describe themselves was “regulated” while “corrupt” was the community choice closely followed by “manipulated”, “self-serving”, “destructive” and “greedy”. There is an interesting “word cloud” chart in the paper representing this gap in perception.

While the focus is on banks, Haldane makes the point that the gap in perceptions reflects a broader tension between the “elites” and the common people. He does not make this explicit connection but it seemed to me that the “great divide” he was referencing could also be argued to be manifesting itself in the increasing support for populist political figures purporting to represent the interests of the common people against career politicians. This broader “great divide” idea seemed to me to offer a useful framework for thinking about the challenges the banking industry is facing in rebuilding trust.

Haldane uses this “great divide” as a reference for discussing

  • The crucial role finance plays in society
  • The progress made so far in restoring trust in finance
  • What more needs to be done

The crucial role finance plays in society

Haldane argues that closing the trust deficit between banks and society matters for two reasons

  • because a well functioning financial system is an essential foundation for a growing and well functioning economy – to quote Haldane “that is not an ideological assertion from the financial elite; it is an empirical fact”
  • but also because the downside of a poorly functioning financial system is so large

Haldane uses the GFC to illustrate the downside in terms of the destruction of the value of financial capital and physical capital but he introduces a third form of capital, “social capital” that he argues may matter every bit as much to the wealth and well being of society. He defines social capital as the “relationships, trust and co-operation forged between different groups of people over time. It is the sociological glue that binds diverse societies into a cohesive whole”. The concept of “trust” is at the heart of Haldane’s definition of social capital.

Haldane cites evidence that trust plays an important role at both the micro and macro level in value creation and growth and concludes that “… a lack of trust jeopardises one of finance’s key societal functions – higher growth”.

In discussing these trends, Haldane distinguishes “personalised trust” and “generalised trust“. The former refers to mutual co-operation built up through repeated personal interactions (Haldane cites example like visits to the doctor or hairdresser) while the latter is attached to an identifiable but anonymous group (Haldane cites trust in the rule of law, or government or Father Christmas).

He uses this distinction to explore why banks have lost the trust of the community;

He notes that banking was for most of its history a relationship based business. The business model was not perfect but it did deliver repeated interactions with customers that imbued banking with personalised trust. At the same time its “mystique” (Haldane’s term) meant that banking maintained a high degree of generalised trust as well.

He cites the reduction in local branches, a common strategy pre GFC, as one of the changes that delivered lower costs but reduced personal connections thereby contributing to reducing personalised trust. For a while, the banking system could reap the efficiency gains while still relying on generalised trust but the GFC subsequently undermined the generalised trust in the banking system. This generalised trust has been further eroded by the continued run of banking scandals that convey the sense that banks do not care about their customers.

What can be done to restore trust in finance

He notes the role that higher capital and liquidity have played but that this is not enough in his view. He proposes three paths

  1. Enhanced public education
  2. Creating “Purpose” in banking
  3. Communicating “Purpose” in banking

Regarding public education, there is a telling personal anecdote he offers on his experience with pensions. He describes himself as “moderately financially literate” but follows with “Yet I confess to not being able to make the remotest sense of pensions. Conversations with countless experts and independent financial advisors have confirmed for me only one thing – that they have no clue either”. This may be dismissed as hyperbole but it does highlight that most people will be less financially literate than Haldane and are probably poorly equipped to deal with the financial choices they are required to make in modern society. I am not sure that education is the whole solution.

Regarding “purpose” Haldane’s main point seems to be that there is too much emphasis on shareholder value maximisation and not enough balance. This seems to be an issue that is amplified by the UK Companies Act that requires that directors place shareholder interests as their primary objective. To the best of my knowledge, the Australian law does not have an equivalent explicit requirement to put shareholders first but we do grapple with the same underlying problem. Two of my recent posts (“The World’s Dumbest Idea” and “The Moral Economy” touch on this issue.

Regarding communicating purpose, Haldane cites some interesting evidence that the volume of information provided by companies is working at cross purposes with actual communication with stakeholders. Haldane does not make the explicit link but Pillar 3 clearly increases the volume of information provided by banks. The points raised by Haldane imply (to me at least) that Pillar 3 might actually be getting in the way of communicating clearly with stakeholders.

This is a longish post but I think there is quite a lot of useful content in the speech so I would recommend it.

“The World’s Dumbest Idea” by James Montier of GMO.

Anyone interested in the question of shareholder value will I think find this paper by James Montier interesting.

The focus of the paper is to explore problems with elevating Shareholder Value to be the primary objective of a firm. Many companies are trying to achieve a more balanced approach but the paper is still useful background given that some investors appear to believe that shareholder value maximisation is the only valid objective a company should pursue. The paper also touches on the question of how increasing inequality is impacting the environment in which we operate.

While conceding that the right incentives can prompt better performance, JM argues that there is a point where increasing the size of the reward actually leads to worse performance;

“From the collected evidence on the psychology of incentives, it appears that when incentives get too high people tend to obsess about them directly, rather than on the task in hand that leads to the payout. Effectively, high incentives divert attention away from where it should be”

The following extracts will give you a sense of the key points and whether you want to read the paper itself.

  • “Let’s now turn to the broader implications and damage done by the single-minded focus on SVM. In many ways the essence of the economic backdrop we find ourselves facing today can be characterized by three stylized facts: 1) declining and low rates of business investment; 2) rising inequality; and 3) a low labour share of GDP (evidenced by Exhibits 7 through 9).” — Page 7 —
  • “This preference for low investment tragically “makes sense” given the “alignment” of executives and shareholders. We should expect SVM to lead to increased payouts as both the shareholders have increased power (inherent within SVM) and the managers will acquiesce as they are paid in a similar fashion. As Lazonick and Sullivan note, this led to a switch in modus operandi from “retain and reinvest” during the era of managerialism to “downsize and distribute” under SVM.” — Page 9 —
  • “This diversion of cash flows to shareholders has played a role in reducing investment. A little known fact is that almost all investment carried out by firms is financed by internal sources (i.e., retained earnings). Exhibit 13 shows the breakdown of the financing of gross investment by source in five-year blocks since the 1960s. The dominance of internal financing is clear to see (a fact first noted by Corbett and Jenkinson in 1997”— Page 10 —
  • “The obsession with returning cash to shareholders under the rubric of SVM has led to a squeeze on investment (and hence lower growth), and a potentially dangerous leveraging of the corporate sector” — Page 11 —
  • “The problem with this (apart from being an affront to any sense of fairness) is that the 90% have a much higher propensity to consume than the top 10%. Thus as income (and wealth) is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer, growth is likely to slow significantly. A new study by Saez and Zucman (2014) … shows that 90% have a savings rate of effectively 0%, whilst the top 1% have a savings rate of 40%…. ultimately creating a fallacy of composition where they are undermining demand for their own products by destroying income).” —Page 13 —
  • “Only by focusing on being a good business are you likely to end up delivering decent returns to shareholders. Focusing on the latter as an objective can easily undermine the former. Concentrate on the former, and the latter will take care of itself.” — Page 14 —
  • “… management guru Peter Drucker was right back in 1973 when he suggested “The only valid purpose of a firm is to create a customer.”” — Page 14 —