Tag Archives: corporate governance

The institutional co-evolution of proto-multinationals

The Formative Years of the Modern Corporation: The Dutch East India Company VOC, 1602-1623

By Oscar Gelderblom (University of Utrecht), Abe de Jong (Erasmus University Rotterdam) & Joost Jonker (Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht)

URL: http://ideas.repec.org/p/ems/eureri/32952.html

Abstract

With their legal personhood, permanent capital with transferable shares, separation of ownership and management, and limited liability for both shareholders and managers, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and subsequently the English East India Company (EIC) are generally considered a major institutional breakthrough. Our analysis of the business operations and notably the financial policy of the VOC during the company’s first two decades in existence shows that its corporate form owed less to foresight than to constant piecemeal engineering to remedy original design flaws brought to light by prolonged exposure to the strains of the Asian trade. Moreover, the crucial feature of limited liability for managers was not, as previously thought, part and parcel of that design, but emerged only after a long period of experimenting with various, sometimes very ingenious, solutions to the company’s financial bottlenecks.

Reviewed by Stephanie Decker

The Dutch East India company may be among the best researched businesses of all time, but it is testament to its importance as a proto-multinational and the quality of its archive that research on this firm continues to inform contemporary research debates. The working paper by Gelderblom, De Jong & Jonker (NEP-HIS 2014-01-17), which has since been published in the Journal of Economic History, is interesting as it deals with the early years of the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), and presents both a historical narrative as well as some distinctive challenges to previous assumptions. Their paper has to be seen as both an interesting contribution to other researches on the VOC, as well as some more general debates.

The continued interest in this very old company is due to a variety of reasons. Even a short sweep of recent work that relates to the VOC shows a remarkable breadth of themes. Wim van Lent has compared management policies of the VOC with its competitor, the English East India company, to understand some problems of its organizational evolution (Sgourev & Van Lent, 2011). This comparison is so intriguing not just because of the Dutch-English colonial competition during this time period, but also because the two East India companies were organized very differently, and almost provide a naturally occurring counterfactual for each other in a laboratory that tests organizational effectiveness at long distance.

As both firms date back to the seventeenth century, and were among the first well-documented examples of how organizations dealt with the challenges of managing across vast distances, their corporate histories are of great importance in and of themselves. Both provide organizational solutions to some of the perennial problems of multinationals, which struggled with poor communication and oversight of operations, especially the difficulties of enforcing control and monitoring the trustworthiness of its agents.

test

Gelderblom et al. discuss the attitudes and conflicts within the Dutch Republic over the control of the VOC, the world’s first modern corporation

But despite all of these similarities to the multinationals of later stages, the East India companies were also fundamental different, and creations of their own time. The companies, especially the VOC, often took on roles that made them quasi-governmental bodies. As a result, they were involved in some of the day-to-day issues of governance of empire, which made these archives particularly rich. Thus they have been researched beyond the narrow confines of business history, and the particular insights that can be gained from those files have been discussed in great detail by Ann Laura Stoler (2009), a well-known postcolonial historian of gender and empire. The conduct of business often involved the company in political and personal issues well beyond what one would usually expect to see in a business archive, which offers rich contextual insights into the time period and its attitudes.

It is in this regard that the paper by Gelderblom et al. is interesting, as it discusses the attitudes and conflicts within the Netherlands over the control and financing of the VOC, and the exact rights and obligations of its directors. The paper takes core historical values such as contextualization and contingency (O’Sullivan & Graham, 2010) seriously, and paints a rich picture of the time period and some of the characters that influenced the decision-making within and beyond the VOC. The importance of these issues lies in more conceptual debates about the evolution of limited liability in the West (as opposed to other commercially vibrant areas such as the Middle East). Gelderblom et al.’s analytically structured narrative (Rowlinson, Hassard & Decker, 2014) highlights that although the VOC possessed some important legal features that we commonly associate with modern corporations, others developed only during its first years of operations in response to external pressures.
Consequently, having acquired two key features of the modern corporation (the split between ownership and management and transferable shares) from the outset, the VOC obtained three more (a permanent capital, limited liability for directors and by extension legal personhood) step-by-step over a period of some twenty years. Thus the five features did not come as a package, as a coherent logical set.

Their narrative shows how most of these pressures reflected financial constraints, as the large-scale trading activities in conjunction with military expeditions were a far larger undertaking than anything that had hitherto been financed on the Amsterdam money markets. This is an important contribution, and their short discussion in the conclusion quite sensitively highlights that some assumptions about the superiority of the Western institutional frameworks, such as argued for by Kuran (2010), are perhaps too ethnocentric to fully understand not just the different evolution of institutions in other cultures, but can also blind researchers to the historically contingent development of the legal frameworks that we now take for granted.

test

Gelderblom et al. hide much of their contribution in their paper’s appendix

In light of the above, it is noticeable that the actual narrative takes up the largest part of the paper, and that it is only at particularly important junctures that the historiographical literature is challenged, while the framing in the introduction and conclusion is more heavily conceptual. These insights that can only be developed from a careful, in-depth historical investigation perhaps deserve better highlighting. This extends to the title, which does not quite do justice to the large themes that inform the historical narrative. Finally, it is only in the appendix that it becomes clear for readers not familiar with the nature of the VOC archive that this early period that the paper deals with is indeed not as well-researched as the later period, especially in terms of its financial performance. All of this adds up to another interesting angle of research on the VOC, which as a company and an organizational archive is clearly a case of great importance for the history of business and its institutional developments.

References:

  • Kuran, T. 2010. The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • O’Sullivan, M., & Graham, M. B. W. 2010. Guest Editors’ introduction: Moving Forward by Looking Backward: Business History and Management Studies. Journal of Management Studies, forthcoming.
  • Rowlinson, M., Hassard, J., & Decker, S. 2014. Research Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue between Historical Theory and Organization Theory. Academy of Management Review, 39(3).
  • Sgourev, S. V., & van Lent, W. 2011. The Right Amount of Wrong? Private Trade and Public Interest at the VOC European Group of Organization Studies. Gothenburg, Sweden.
  • Stoler, A. L. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cold, Calculating Political Economy’: Fixed costs, the Rate of Profit and the Length of the Working Day in the Factory Act Debates, 1832-1847

By Steve Toms (Leeds University Business School)

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/54408.htm

The paper re-analyses the evidence presented by pro and anti-regulation interests during the debates on factory reform. To do so it considers the interrelationship between fixed costs, the rate of profit and the length of the working day. The interrelationship casts new light on the lobbying positions on either side of the debate. It does so by comparing the evidence presented in the debates before parliament and associated pamphlets with actual figures contained in the business records of implicated firms. As a result the paper identifies the compromise position of the working day length compatible with reasonable rates of profit based on actual cost structures. It is thereby able to reinterpret the validity of the claims of contemporary political economy used to support the cases for and against factory regulation.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-03-22 and its a follow up to that reviewed by Masayoshi Noguchi in an earlier post on the NEP-HIS blog (click here)

This second paper by Toms draws on a range of archival materials from both government and businesses to explore in detail the implications of legislative changes on British business during the industrial revolution.  It shows how the debates concerning the implementation of stricter working hours were contentious. Outlining the difficulties faced by the government and businesses to uniformly apply these new measures, particularly since businesses were exposed to different pressures according to their contribution to society, it shows how these factors further influencing the implementation and drafting of these measures.   By citing the debates of the anti-regulation bodies in Parliament, and also Parliamentary debates, it exemplifies how the interpretations of profit influenced the debates tabled by the Ten Hours movement – the pressure group created with a view to enshrine, in legislation, a maximum 10 hour working day.   This perspective in itself is new, particularly since it moves away from the traditional approaches adopted by trade union historians such as Alistair Reid and others who have examined the influence of unions in these disputes, but have examined them from the perspective of strikes (Reid, 2005).

 

Summary

Adopting a theoretical approach, especially in its examination of different interpretations of profit in the nineteenth century, this paper scrutinizes the range of factors that determined wages in nineteenth century factories, concluding that the reasons were much more complex than originally assumed.  In claiming that accounting manipulators were used as a major force in setting these wages, Toms shows how the considerations governing the decisions about wages were based on a range of accounting methods, although these methods at this time were not well-developed.  Furthermore, he claims convincingly that accountancy was poorly practiced in the nineteenth century, primarily owing to the apparent paucity of regulations governing the profession.   In adopting this approach, Toms highlights the two sides of the debate suggested by historians so far concerning the role of accountancy, that being: that it did not have an important role at all; or that it played a role that was sufficient to encourage competition.  By doing so, he has lucidly integrated the laissez faire ideology to elucidate the role of accountants in the policymaking process.

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Pressures on workers and the arduous hours did result in greater pressure on government to develop measures to regulate working hours

Much of the debates concerning workplace rights have adopted either a policy history perspective (examining the efforts of the government to regulate the economy) or a social history perspective (examining the perceived improvement in rights for workers).  Yet a detailed analysis of the implications of company accounting on government policy decisions has not yet been undertaken.  While economic historians such as Nicholas Crafts have used econometrics as a method to try and explain the causes of the industrial revolution, (Crafts, 2012) little attention has been given to the implications of these changes in terms of workplace legislation on not only the workers themselves, but on the calculations affecting industrial output and their response to government intervention.  Through examining the role of prominent socialists such as Robert Owen, this paper highlights the complex nature of the debates concerning profits, loss and its correlation with productivity to show that while the pro-regulation movement sought to protect the rights of individual workers, the anti-regulation movement created an inextricable link between the reduction of profit and the justification for longer working days. Locating this argument within the debate concerning fixed costs, it demonstrates how the definitions and arbiters of profits, loss and value was a moveable feast.

Robert Owen's ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

Robert Owen’s ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

This approach to the data has led to a different account of the costs faced by businesses than has hitherto been suggested by historians, and while Toms is careful to claim that this does not resolve the conceptual disputes surrounding the practice of accounting in the nineteenth century, it does provide a platform for further debate and a re-examination of the figures.  For example, in the analysis of the Ashworth accounts, Toms claims that the adoption of a variable approach to costing of volume-based products shows an annual running cost of £2500 per year, £3800 less than Boyson concluded in his 1970 study.  In his analysis of profit, Toms concludes that there could be a 3 hour variable that would not have detrimentally affected the profitability of companies.  Claiming that profitability would be at last 10 percent with 58 hour or 55 hour working week, this challenges previous assumptions those longer working hours would yield greater profits.  However, he highlights that the only significant difference would be that if these figures were compared to the onerous 69 hour week, where the profit margins could be expected to rise by a further 5 percent, although the pro-regulation body, for the purposes of strengthening their argument, presented this variable as high as 15 percent.

The final part of the paper lucidly examines the impact of foreign competition.  Citing the increased costs of British production when compared with European counterparts, with Manchester reported to be 50 percent higher in terms of spinning production costs than Switzerland, Toms shows how superficially the justification for maintaining the British market was now becoming even more difficult.  However, a deeper analysis of the figures reveals a different story, and to illustrate the point, evidence from Mulhausen is juxtaposed with Lancashire to show how wages were on average 18 d per day higher in Lancashire, although their productivity was almost double that of their German counterpart, and concludes that in effect, the overseas threat to the British market was as substantial as originally assumed.

Critique

This paper is extremely ambitious in its scope and development, and has covered significant ground in its analysis.  Its conclusions are convincing and are based on deep theoretical and conceptual understandings of the accountancy process.  My only suggestion is that the final section of the paper examining the ideological theories of profit could be fleshed out more so as to fully contextualise the political, legislative and business developments at this time.  It may also be possible to connect these issues with the contemporary debates concerning ‘thrift’, and the development of commercial banking.  For example, the idea of thrift was widely debated with the growth of friendly societies, and the decision of the government to open a Post Office Savings Bank to enable workers to deposit their savings.  Therefore, was there any connection between contemporary ideas of profit and thrift, and if so, was there a common ideological strand that linked people together in terms of their perceptions of money and its role in the wider society?

 

References

Crafts, NFR., “British Relative Economic Decline Revisited: the Role of Competition”, Explorations in Economic History (2012), 49, 17-29

Reid, Alastair J., United We Stand: A History of Britain’s Trade Unions (London: Penguin, 2005).

 

La Deutsche Vida

Foreign family business and capital flight. The case for a fraud to fail

By Giovanni Favero, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia (gfavero@unive.it)

Abstract:
The research here proposed is a micro-analysis of a business ending in bankruptcy in the aftermaths of the first oil shock, concerning the Italian subsidiary of a German wareenamelling group established in the town of Bassano in 1925. Following the budget reports and the interviews with the former entrepreurs, the company flourished until the 1960s, when managerial and entrepreneurial successions emphasized the growing difficulties deriving from growing labour costs. A tentative reorganization of the company was hindered in 1968 by union resistance and political pressures for the preservation of employment levels. In 1975 the board of directors decided to declare bankruptcy as a consequence of the huge budget losses. However, a subsequent inquiry of the Italian tax authority discovered an accounting fraud concerning hidden profits in 1974 and 1975. The fraud disclosure shows how historical conditions could create the convenience for performance understatement not only for fiscal purposes, but also in order to make divestment possible. However, it is also used here as an element to argue that business sources and the story they tell should not be taken at their face value, and that a different reconstruction of the company’s path to failure is possible. The literature concerning the missed recognition of opportunities is then mobilised in order to interpret the inconsistencies that emerge from the triangulation of business archives, press columns and interviews with union representatives and politicians. This allows to put back into perspective what results as an obsession of company management with labour costs, concealing the importance of other competitive elements, such as the increasing specialisation of the producers of home appliances. This ‘refractive error’ may be typical of businesses operating in (presumed) mature industries at international level, where wage differentials offer the opportunity to pursue quite literally exploitation much further.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/vnmwpdman/63.htm.

Reviewed by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-12-15 and offers an interesting combination of business and accounting history around the long-term performance of the Italian assets of an Austrian family business (named Westens). The investment relates to a enamelling plant in the town of Bassano in 1925 (called Smalteria Metallurgica Veneta or SMV, today part of BDR Thermea). The Bassano plant was one of the largest factories of glazed products (for use in electric water heaters, bathtubs and heating products like radiators). Favero’s story takes us from its origins until the Westens leave the company in 1975. Activities, however, continued and by “the end of the 1970s the company focused its production in the heating sector… In the mid-eighties the company expanded into foreign markets. “[see further here].

Air photo of original factory (Source: http://www.baxi.it/storia/)

Air photo of original factory (Source: http://www.baxi.it/storia/)

The narrative gyrates around the Bassano plant, some three generations of Westens and an equal number of internal grown talent at the helm of SMV. Favero argues that the reason behind the origins of SMV and other similar investments in Central and Easter Europe by the Westens was to overcome growing protectionism and the end of Empire. However, the number of secondary references suggests the SMV case is relevant for Italian business history and perhaps, more could have been said about this. Nevertheless, we can follow the changes in corporate governance, the attitude of the family to foreign investments, the changing relationship between national branches and SMV’s “strategy” (a term used rather loosely by the author) as the 20th century progresses. Also how the plant was established on the basis of a then unique process of enamelling, a source of competitive advantage that also erodes as time goes by. Some discussion about the role of Chandler’s “first mover advantage” within family business would have been desirable here.

It is evident that Favero has had access to a large number of source material (including oral histories and fiscal authority memoranda and investigative papers). Yet the case is rather short and this result in the narrative progressing some time in jumps rather than a smooth flow. For instance, it is only until the end that we learn why the fraud was discovered five years after the original owners declared bankruptcy. Namely the intervention of the Italian government to maintain employment kept the plant (or the company, its not clear) afloat. There is also reference to some “bad blood” between the Westens and the Italians but we are not totally sure why and when. There are indications of growing tensions with unions and Favero tries to make a case about “management’s “obsession with labour costs”. We could also benefit from learning about the inconsistencies Favero between different sources. Perhaps an idea would be to add a timeline where one side maps changes in strategy, corporate governance or in the ruling family and the other side maps changes in the environment.

However, in its present form this makes a potentially useful teaching case in a world economic history, international business or globalisation course. Favero also claims the SMV case is part of a larger project looking at Westens’ investments in different countries. I certainly look forward to future instalments.

Giovanni Favero

Giovanni Favero

Sunbeam gets toasted

Accounting fraud, business failure and creative auditing: A micro-analysis of the strange case of Sunbeam Corp.

Marisa Agostini (marisa.agostini@unive.it) and Giovanni Favero (gfavero@unive.it)
(Both at Department of Management, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, Italy)

Abstract
This paper puts under the magnifying glass the path to failure of Sunbeam Corp. and emphasizes the reasons of its singularity and exceptionality. This corporate case emerges as an outlier from the analysis of the US fraud cases mentioned by WebBRD: the consideration of the time between fraud disclosure and the final bankruptcy reveals the presence of an exceptional sampled case. In fact, the maximum value of this temporal variable is estimated equal to 840 days: it is really far from the range estimated by the survival function for the entire sample and it refers to Sunbeam Corp. Different hypotheses are evaluated in the paper, starting from the consideration of Sunbeam’s history peculiarities: fraud duration, scapegoating and creative auditing represent the three main points of analysis. Starting from a micro-analysis of this case that the SEC investigated in depth and this work describes in detail, inputs for future research are then provided about more general problems concerning auditing and accounting fraud.

URL http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/vnmwpdman/25.htm

Review by Masayoshi Noguchi

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 30 September 2012. It was also distributed by other NEP reports, namely Accounting (nep-acc), Heterodox Microeconomics (nep-hme) and Informal & Underground Economics (nep-iue).

Agostini and Favero use the case study method to raise questions and considerations concerning the accounting of fraud. Their analytical focus is the company now named Sunbeam Products Inc. It was established in 1897 as the Chicago Flexible Shaft Company by John K. Stewart and Thomas Clark. Its first ‘Sunbeam’ branded household appliance, the Princess Electric Iron, was launched in 1910 and following the success of this line of products the company officially change its name to ‘Sunbeam’ in 1946.

Wikipedia informs us that ‘in 1996, Albert J. Dunlap was recruited to be CEO and Chairman of what was then called Sunbeam-Oster. In 1997, Sunbeam reported massive increases in sales for its various backyard and kitchen items. Dunlap purchased controlling interest in Coleman and Signature Brands (acquiring Mr. Coffee and First Alert) during this time. Stock soared to $52 a share. However, industry insiders were suspicious. The sudden surge in demand for barbecues did not hold up under scrutiny. An internal investigation revealed that Sunbeam was in severe crisis, and that Dunlap had encouraged violations of accepted accounting rules. Dunlap was fired, and under a new CEO, Jerry W. Levin, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001. In 2002, Sunbeam emerged from bankruptcy as American Household, Inc. (AHI), a privately held company. Its former household products division became the subsidiary Sunbeam Products, Inc. Then AHI was purchased in September 2004 by the Jarden Corporation, of which it is now a subsidiary.’

Al ‘Chainsaw’ Dunlap

Agostini and Favero look at this situation in detail while aiming to show ‘how the specific fraudulent strategy of performance overstatement adopted in the Sunbeam case can be connected to the peculiar modality of its disclosure, allowing to scapegoat the CEO, to (temporarily) discharge the board and the company of any responsibility, and to pursue a business recovery’ (p. 4).

By examining what they consider an exceptional case, Agostini and Favero aim to avoid over simplification and ‘not to sacrifice knowledge of individual elements to wider generalization’, but to be coupled with the informed use of ‘all forms of abstraction since minimal facts and individual cases can serve to reveal more general phenomena’ (p.4). The reason for examining this single outlier case is that, in their view, ‘“deviant cases” follow a peculiar path-dependent logic where early contingent events set cases on an historical trajectory of change that diverges from theoretical expectations’ (p. 2). By so doing, Agostini and Favero aim to ‘enlighten causal mechanisms which are too complex to emerge from standard empirical studies based on statistical approaches’ (p. 4).

The case documents the very aggressive management strategies of Dunlap. As mentioned, these led to fraudulent financial reporting through the misstatement of significant amounts in the financial accounts. In other words, Dunlap was found to have manipulated accounting numbers in numerous ways, skilfully covering these up through the acquisitions of new subsidiaries. Measures were also taken to assure the survival of the company after revelations of the fraud emerged. But in spite of scapegoating, rather tyranic management and the extremely long duration of the fraud the company final reached bankruptcy.

Normally auditors are integral (either by action or omission) to the process leading to accounting fraud (see for instance my work with Bernardo on the auditing of building societies here). But the case of Sunbeam was exceptional in the sense that its auditor, Arthur Andersen, avoided being involved in the crisis (but shortly after were intimate involved in the infamous Enron case). Agostini and Favero point out that ‘[t]his represents another item of exceptionality in Sunbeam Corp. case where there is a shift from the auditors to the CEO of the scapegoat function’ (p. 9). They further add that it was indeed the ‘auditors’ peculiar behaviour that which led to Dunlap being ‘the scapegoat’ (p. 9).

From the late 1940′s to 1997, the upscale toaster market was dominated by the ‘Radiant Control Toaster’ from Sunbeam.

To explore the point above the authors propose the concept of ‘creative auditing’ in comparison with the counterpart of ‘creative accounting’ or ‘earnings management’. According to Agostini and Favero, ‘auditors (agents) may use their professional knowledge, the asymmetrical information and the flexibility inside auditing rules to distract the principals’ attention (owners, shareholders, investors, etc.) from news which will not be welcome’ (p. 14). Agostini and Favero argue that ‘auditors working with management of the company are privy to essential information that can be used in a legal, but not proper way, to maximize their own interests at the expense of the principal’ (p. 14) by citing that ‘Prior to scandal, many assumed that either legal liability or reputational concerns would prevent the large audit firms from engaging in collusion with their clients. Enron and the many frauds that followed have undermined these assumptions’ (p. 14) from Brown (2007, p. 178)

In spite of having effectively discovered the accounting fraud at Sunbeam, the partner in charge of Arthur Andersen, Phillip E. Harlow, signed clean audit report on the ground that ‘the part, which was not presented fairly, was not material, so it did not matter’(p. 22). Agostini and Favero further claim:

After Sunbeam fraud disclosure, Mr. Harlow was supported by its partners at Arthur Andersen, which stated that this case involved not fraud, but “professional disagreements about the application of sophisticated accounting standards.” As emphasized by The New York Times (May 18, 2001), “in the typical accounting fraud case, the auditors say they were fooled. Here, at least according to the S.E.C., the auditors discovered a substantial part of what the commission calls sham profits”. Moreover, stating the immateriality of a part of improper profits, they used their professional knowledge, the asymmetrical information and the flexibility inside auditing rules to distract other stakeholders’ attention from news which will not be welcome.

However, the above indication only refers to the technical nature of the accounting fraud committed and the professional judgment exercised for the degree of materiality. In order to consider the case of Sunbeam as an incident of creative auditing (as Agostini and Favero claim it is), elucidations as to the supposed for Arthur Andersen participating in the fraudulent scheme are insufficient. An improvement on this point would be desirable. Although one can fully agree with their view that the role of auditors for the financial reporting of business enterprises should be reexamined. This paper is thought provoking in this sense.

Must we question corporate rule?

Financialization of the U.S. corporation: what has been lost, and how it can be regained

William Lazonick (University of Massachusetts-Lowell)

Abstract
The employment problems that the United States now faces are largely structural. The structural problem is not, however, as many economists have argued, a labor-market mismatch between the skills that prospective employers want and the skills that potential workers have. Rather the employment problem is rooted in changes in the ways that U.S. corporations employ workers as a result of “rationalization”, “marketization”, and “globalization”. From the early 1980s rationalization, characterized by plant closings, eliminated the jobs of unionized blue-collar workers. From the early 1990s marketization, characterized by the end of a career with one company as an employment norm, placed the job security of middle-aged and older white-collar workers in jeopardy. From the early 2000s globalization, characterized by the movement of employment offshore, left all members of the U.S. labor force, even those with advanced educational credentials and substantial work experience, vulnerable to displacement. Nevertheless, the disappearance of these existing middle-class jobs does not explain why, in a world of technological change, U.S. business corporations have failed to use their substantial profits to invest in new rounds of innovation that can create enough new high value-added jobs to replace those that have been lost. I attribute that organizational failure to the financialization of the U.S. corporation. The most obvious manifestation of financialization is the phenomenon of the stock buyback, with which major U.S. corporations seek to manipulate the market prices of their own shares. For the decade 2001-2010 the companies in the S&P 500 Index expended about $3 trillion on stock repurchases. The prime motivation for stock buybacks is the stock-based pay of the corporate executives who make these allocation decisions. The justification for stock buybacks is the erroneous ideology, inherited from the conventional theory of the market economy, that, for superior economic performance, companies should be run to “maximize shareholder value”. In this essay I summarize the damage that this ideology is doing to the U.S. economy, and I lay out a policy agenda for restoring equitable and stable economic growth.

URL http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/42307.htm.

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

As I have noted before (see Bátiz-Lazo and Reese, 2010), financialisation has been coined to encompass greater involvement of countries, business and people with financial markets and in particular increasing levels of debt (i.e. leverage). For instance, Manning (2000) has used the term to describe micro-phenomena such as the growth of personal leverage amongst US consumers.

In their path breaking study, Froud et al. (2006) use the term to describe how large, non-financial, multinational organisations come to rely on financial services rather than their core business for sustained profitability. They document a pattern of accumulation in which profit making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production.

Instead, in the preface to his edited book, Epstein (2005) notes the use of the term as the ascendancy of “shareholder value” as a mode of corporate governance; or the growing dominance of capital market financial systems over bank-based financial systems.

Alternative view is offered by American writer and commentator Kevin Phillips, who coined a sociological and political interpretation of financialisation as “a process whereby financial services, broadly construed, take over the dominant economic, cultural, and political role in a national economy.” (Phillips 2006, 268). The rather narrow point I am making here and which I fail to elaborate for space concerns, is that ascertaining the essential nature of financialisation is highly contested and is in need of attention.

Sidestepping conceptual issues (and indeed ignoring a large number of contributors to the area), in this paper William Lazonick adopts a view of financialization cum corporate governance and offers broad-base arguments (many based on his own previous research) to explore a relatively recent phenomenon: the demise of the middle class in the US in the late 20th century. In this sense, the abstract is spot on and the paper “does what it says on the can”. Yet purist would consider this too recent to be history. Indeed, the paper was distributed by nep-hme (heterodox microeconomics) on 2012-11-11 rather than NEP-HIS. This out of neglect rather than design but goes on to show that the keywords and abstract were initially not on my radar.

William Lazonick

Others may find easy to poke the broad-stroke arguments that support Lazonick’s argument. Yet the article was honoured with the 2010 Henrietta Larson Article Award for the best paper in the Business History Review and was part of a conference organised by Lazonick at the Ford Foundation in New York City on December 6-7, 2012 (see program at the Financial Institutions for Innovation and Development website).

Lazonick points to the erotion of middle class jobs in a period of rapid technological change. This at a time when others question whether the rate of innovation can continue (see for instance The great innovation debate). Lazonick implicitly considers our age as the most innovative ever. But his argument is that the way in which the latest wave of innovation was financed is at the hear of the accompanying ever-growing economic inequality.

So for all its short comings, Lazonick offers a though provoking paper. One that challenges business historians to link with discussions elsewhere and in particular corporate governance, political economy and the sociology of finance. It can, potentially, launch a more critical stream of literature in business history.

References

Bátiz-Lazo, B. and Reese, C. (2010) ‘Is the future of the ATM past?’ in Alexandros-Andreas Kyrtsis (ed.) Financial Markets and Organizational Technologies: System Architectures, Practices and Risks in the Era of Deregulation, Basignstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, pp. 137-65.

Epstein, G. A. (2005). Financialization and The World Economy. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing.

Froud, J., S. Johal, A. Leaver and K. Williams (2006). Financialization and Strategy: Narrative and Numbers. London, Routledge.

Manning, R. D. (2000). Credit Card Nation. New York, Basic Books.

Phillips, K. (2006). American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. London, Penguin.