Financialization of the U.S. corporation: what has been lost, and how it can be regained
William Lazonick (University of Massachusetts-Lowell)
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.
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.
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.
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.