Category Archives: Business & Management

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

So, who was lightning the bulb in Latin America?

Foreign Electricity Companies in Argentina and Brazil: The Case of American and Foreign Power (1926 – 1965)
[Original title: Companhias estrangeiras de eletricidade na Argentina e no Brasil: o caso da American & Foreign Power (1926-1965]

By Alexandre Macchione Saes (alexandre.saes@usp.br), Universidade de São Paulo – FEA/USP and Norma S. Lanciotti (nlanciot@unr.edu.ar), Universidad Nacional de Rosario – CONICET

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/spawpaper/2013wpecon14.htm

Abstract

The article analyses the evolution, strategies and position of American & Foreign Power subsidiaries in electric power sector in Argentina and Brazil from their entry in the mid-1920s to their nationalisation. We compare the economic performance and entry strategies followed by the American holding in different host economies. We also examine the relations between the American electricity firms and the Governments of both countries, focusing on the debates and policies that explain American & Foreign Power’s withdrawal from Argentina and Brazil in 1959-1965. Finally, the article reviews the role of foreign direct investment in the development of electric power sector in both countries. The study is based upon the Annual Reports and Proceedings of American & Foreign Power (1923-1963) and other corporate reports, Government statistics and official Reports from Argentina, Brazil and the United States.

Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-11-02. Its topic deals with the popular subject of energy provision. Indeed, there has been no shortage of turning points in the history of the energy markets around the world. Since the development of the electricity in the late nineteenth century, energy markets have been a constant cause for debate. The discussion ranges from technical and engineering issues (such as heated debates around Nikola Telsa and Thomas Alva Edison), to the adoption of common standards, to questions as to who will provide the service, to a wider debate on government policies such as pricing and, more recently, on how to become “greener” (see for example the debate on UK gas and electricity providers).

Kilowatt

In the developing countries, the debate on energy has been tied to the relation between the foreign direct investment, the efficient provision of electricity, and nationalization policies (topics that, by the way, were picked up from a business history perspective in William J. Hausman, Peter Hertner & Mira Wilkins “Global Electrification” (2008, CUP). The question on the relation between foreign companies investing in such countries and the debate on the effects of imperialism is also latent in recent research (see for example the work of Marcelo Bucheli, Stephanie Decker, or Niall Ferguson). In this line of work, the paper by Macchione Saes and Lanciotti further explores the intricate relationship between a foreign company and its host countries but, at the same time, offers a contribution to the literature on Latin American foreign investment during the second half of the twentieth century.

According to Alexandre Macchione and Norma Lanciotti, the arrival of the American and Foreign Power Co in Brazil and Argentina marked the start of an expansion of US direct investment in those countries, while seeking new consumer markets during the 1920s (p. 2). However, it is important to notice that the company arrived to the region more than 20 years after the first electricity companies had established. Therefore, the case of American and Foreign Power Co offers an example of the aggressive expansion of an electricity company that only few years after its arrival suffered the effects of the crisis of 1929 and later on, had to deal with centralization and nationalization policies.

AlexandreNorma

The aim of the paper is to analyse the evolution, strategies, and position of the American and Foreign Power Company in both countries between 1926 and 1965. Divided in four sections, including an introduction and the concluding remarks, it presents first the greater attention that US companies gave to Latin America after the First World War, looking mainly to the evolution of the company in the US market and the subsidiaries in Brazil and Argentina. Then, the paper discusses the shift of the regulation and describes the complex relation between the state and the company. As a result, the main sections widely discuss the investment strategies which focus was in improving the service while achieving higher returns.

Three important issues emerge from this paper, namely:

1) The US investment was dominated by a few large holding companies that controlled the utilities supply in various countries. The localization in South America answers to both the search of economies of scale through new consumer markets and the need to diversify investment (p. 3). In order to keep growing in the local markets, the electricity companies acquired small and medium concessions keeping their organizational structure. Clearly, this served to the purpose of increasing returns, but there is no mention of the effects of this choice in the need for improving the service. In other words, how efficient the company became as a result of greater scale.

2) The effects of the Great Depression were greater than expected for the directors of the company. As explained by Macchione and Lanciotti, their main concern was that currency devaluation would damage the sustainability and profitability of their investments (p. 13), but they did not expect the shifted in the regulation that followed in the 1930s and 1940s. The link between government policy and business strategy is then questioned by the authors and the company strategies are evaluated. Small differences between the two countries are noticed, opening space for a future discussion on how foreign companies deal with diverse economic and political contexts, including an analysis of their role as regulators.

American and Foreign

3) One of the main factors for the company’s decision to withdraw from the region was the expropriation lead by the Latin American governments since the late 1950s (p.22). But to what extent expropriations responded to the inefficiency of the company? Macchione and Lanciotti explained that the low quality of the service added to the fluctuation of the long-term revenues and, in some cases, led to the confiscation of assets by the local national government. These arguments, of course, are not to minimise political and nationalistic ideas driving the confiscation of assets in Latin America during the twentieth century.

In summary, the paper Macchione and Lanciotti offers a case study that brings together elements from Latin American economic history that deserve more attention. These include the role of state, the interaction between businesses and regulators, foreign direct investment, and the relative efficiency of domestic acquisitions by foreign companies in the long-term. This paper is an important contribution to understand from the company perspective the links between strategy and government policies.

Are Cartels Pragmatic Responses to Market Failures?

The International Mercury Cartel, 1928 – 1949

By Miguel López-Morell (mlmorell@um.es), Universidad de Murcia and Luciano Segreto (segreto@unifi.it), Università degli Studi di Firenze.

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:pra:mprapa:46772&r=his

Abstract

Mercury has been one of the most persistent cases in contemporary history of international market regulations and this in spite of its having been affected by important technological changes and the regular discovery of new deposits. This paper offers an approach to the least known period, although perhaps the one in which the greatest rises in process and production occurred as a consequence of market manipulation. The period coincides with a series of agreements between the Spanish and the Italian producers and the outcome was a worldwide cartel known as “Mercurio Europeo” which came into being in 1928. The aims of this work will, therefore, be first to describe the features of the various stages of development of the international mercury market during the first half of the twentieth century, with emphasis on the characteristics and conditioning factors in each period. Secondly, the objective is to analyse the various market agreements that came about, the effectiveness of the clauses therein, the construction of distribution networks and the influence that the increase in production had on other mines and on certain technological developments.

Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal

There are two sides to every argument and the different forms of competitive collaboration is no exception. On the one hand, the claim against cartels and other forms of collusion is the loss of efficiency and the dampening of incentives for technological progress. These are exacerbated by the potential to influence the political process (e.g. lobbying, regulatory capture, etc.) and the potential to augment economic inequality through biased distribution of profits. On the other hand, business historians have documented the importance of cartels for industrialisation in Germany as well as to achieve network externalities in banking (particularly around payment systems). Legally sanctioned competitive collaboration can provide an industry with a guaranteed profitability and a secure competitive path by being more stable, dividing up markets, and securing price and production.

The case of competitive collaboration around the extraction of mercury documented by López-Morell and Segreto, distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-05-11, looks at the cartel known as Mercurio Europeo, to advance arguments which favour collaboration in industries were collusion allows producers to achieve economies of scale as well as foster technological change and reduce market prices in the long-term. The central question is whether a cartel was or not a pragmatic response to the imperfect allocation of the resources between the Spanish and Italian mercury producers from 1928 to 1949.

Based on the assumption that cartel agreements have been around for a while, López-Morell and Segreto present a thorough revision of the strategies during its early years. The agreement between Minas de Almaden y Arrayanes (Spain) and Monte Amiata (Italy) was signed in 1928 as a way to control the supply of mercury in a very stable market. In other words, the cartel was organized in order to deal with an unchanging demand. The result was a cartel with a complex internal organization that, in a very short time kept, managed to place the price of mercury close to monopoly levels but, at the same time, failed in achieve greater efficiency in production and/or increase sales volume.

López-Morell and Segreto explore in detail the reasons for the formation of the Spanish-Italian mercury cartel while arguing that there was a desire to stabilise production levels in order to increase profits without losing market share nor, as it was mainly in the Italian case, to invest in new technology. The cartel strategy proved to be effective because the demand for the product was inelastic and the collusion between the two producers increased the profit without harming the individual production targets.

Although, López-Morell and Segreto omit a discussion of the relative efficiency of collusion and competitive collaboration, from their empirical evidence it would seem that a carel was the best organisational option for the case of mercury. Mercurio Europeo was successful at least in part because during the 1928-1949 period mercury was a key input in the production of other metals and at the time there were only a handful of mines around the world. A cartel, therefore, became the answer to best manage scarcity.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)

However, the argument by López-Morell and Segreto is in need of a counter factual. Perhaps one that explores the option of a monopoly with private ownership (such as the Rothschild family) rather than a cartel agreement. In other words, could the absence of a cartel change ownership structures, market share, and international price levels? Further, there is a need to understand the role of both governments in the agreement. The 1928-1949 period coincides with fascist governments in both Spain and Italy, which characterised by radical nationalistic ideas, peculiar forms of corporatism, the role of the state (e.g. protectionism, interventionism), economic self-sufficiency and autarky, among others. Hence, the particular form of cooperation between Spanish and Italian mines could well be the result of institutional pressures (including, the war effort) rather than the behaviour of consumers.

Francisco Franco y Bahamonde (1892-1975)

In summary, the paper by López-Morell and Segreto is an interesting contribution to the study of collaboration because it focuses on the strategies taken by two national companies to organise a cartel. It builds upon surviving internal documents (e.g. analyses of Board meeting minutes) of each company to bring about a better understanding of changes in the market. Moreover, it shows that the strategic decision to whether co-operate or cheat within the cartel has a profound effect on the market outcome.

On the effects of income tax to the private businesses

Income Taxation and Business Incorporation: Evidence from the Early Twentieth Century

By Li Liu (li.liu@sbs.ox.ac.uk), Centre for Business Taxation, University of Oxford

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:btx:wpaper:1205&r=his

Abstract

If the corporate income tax is set at a different rate from non-corporate income tax, it can play an important role in a firm’s choice of organizational form. The impact and interdependency of income tax incentives are crucial factors to take into account when designing efficient tax policies. In this paper I exploit the substantial variation in income taxes across U.S. states in the early twentieth century to estimate these sensitivities. The potential endogeneity of state taxes is addressed using an IV approach. The results demonstrate that the relative taxation of corporate to personal income has a significant impact on the corporate share of economic activities. Raising the entrepreneur’s tax cost of incorporation by 10% decreases the mean corporate share of economic activities by about 11-18%. In addition, higher personal tax rates may affect the share of corporate activities through tax evasion and tax progressivity.

Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal

What are the implications of income tax on the organizations? As Li Liu claims in this paper distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-10-20, the interplay of corporate and personal income taxes are central to tax policy design. As we have all witnessed, the new century has been marked by a turbulent corporate world. Politicians, economic-policy makers, and citizens are calling for new regulation and control over the giant corporations ruling the economies of most countries.

After almost a century of dealing with corporations, the issue is still which is the best way to keep the corporations within the limits of what is right for a country’s economy without having a negative effect on the firm’s growing path. The fact that the taxation lies in the heart of the relation between the businesses and the rest of the society, implies that its understanding needs both sides of the story (even shown from different perspectives): the policy-maker decision on how, when, and whom to tax; and, the effects of taxation in the structure, productivity, and revenues of the firm. The former commonly studied, and the latest still open to include case studies of firms and countries.

CNN Money online / 20 September 2011

Studying the case of the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Liu brings together a period of tremendous changes in the income regimes –including the introduction of the income taxes (corporate in 1909, personal in 1913)- with the appearance of the first well-known big corporations. In other words, this paper is a step forward to fill the gap in the literature on the contribution of income taxes in the spread of corporate forms during an early period.

Using a dataset that includes the tax rates, the corporate share of establishment, employment, and production in the manufacturing sector, Liu builds a theoretical framework that starts with a simple model to illustrate how firms make decisions about whether to incorporate based on comparison of the profits they are likely to obtain from each organizational form (p. 7). This offers a result that shows the complexity of the business decisions and the reality which the policy-maker has to deal with: the taxation of firms differs by organizational form.

Interestingly, Liu adds to the discussion the degree of incorporation making a case on the economic importance of corporations and the fact that a great number of firms incorporate in response to tax incentives, rather than productivity options. Therefore, there is a strong relationship between business incorporation and income taxes when the big transformation occurred.

In other words, firms were not keeping it simple for the policy-maker! As a dynamic unit, the decision on the organizational form they were going to take while growing depended not only on the complexity of the production, the financial options available, or the size of the markets, but also on how they relate with the taxation system that at the end could increase or decrease the degree of incorporation.

Being this intuition not new for those who study the evolution of firms, this paper adds data to a methodological approach that combines the advances of the corporate governance on the structure of the firm and the accounting concern on how to deal with what they have to give back to the society.

Successful Entrepreneurship: A Matter of Location?

Entrepreneurship and Geography: An Evolutionary Perspective

By Erik Stam (Utrecht University)

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:wiw:wiwrsa:ersa10p1267&r=his

Abstract

This paper is an inquiry into the role of entrepreneurship in evolutionary economic geography. The focus is on how and why entrepreneurship is a distinctly spatially uneven process. We will start with a discussion on the role of entrepreneurship in the theory of economic evolution. Next, we will review the empirical literature on the geography of entrepreneurship. The paper concludes with a discussion of a future agenda for the study of entrepreneurship within evolutionary economic geography.

Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-07-29. For the business historians immerse in the research of the history of entrepreneurship, this paper by Erik Stam is a piece to read. The thoughtful review of the challenges that the relation between entrepreneurship and geography present to future research invites to open the discussion on the differences among countries based on the characteristics of the entrepreneur’s location rather than only on its cultural values and the institutional environment.

Stam challenges the growing view of entrepreneurship as a subject exclusively to be deal by management scholars. The paper brings the history back to the discussion and innovates in the use of evolutionary economic geography. As Jones and Wadwhani (2006) explain, the historical research on entrepreneurship has been particularly concerned with understanding the process of structural change and development within economies using Schumpeter’s approach to innovation.

Understanding the importance of the newcomers is beyond the focus of only one discipline and the use of economic geography will allow the researcher to deal with the question on how the location increases the chances to have entrepreneurs that introduce organizational and product innovations, without falling in the vicious cycle of explaining the increase of entrepreneurs exclusively by social variables such as religion, family values, or networks.

Moreover, by explaining that the entrepreneurs are hardly lone individuals who rely primarily on their extraordinary efforts and talents to overcome difficulties, Stam introduces the argument that for nascent entrepreneurs the focal choice is what kind of firm to start given their location, not so much choosing a location for a given firm. Therefore, it deals with the concern on the spatial distribution of entrepreneurship by searching the aspects of the interaction between the newcomers and the geographical distribution.

Stam claims that “in order to improve the insights in the spatial variations of entrepreneurship, we need to specify the type of entrepreneurship” (p. 10). Although, this is not new for those who study entrepreneurship, Stam’s proposition to include evolutionary geography gives space to a new research agenda. In the future the study of entrepreneurship should take into account the spatial concentration of the industry, the combined use of the entrepreneur and the firm as a unit of analysis, and the study of the exit of young firms to accomplish a deep analysis of the role of entrepreneurs in economic development.