Business strategies around long-run investment have varied over time. In General Theory (GT), John Maynard Keynes reinforces the analysis of the modifications in the structure of the capitalist class to explain the differences between entrepreneurs and investors in terms of the effects of their behaviour and decisions on capital accumulation. In Chapter 12 (GT), he establishes the difference between the old and the new business models. This historical approach shows that, in the old business model, there was an irrevocable commitment towards investment. Taking into account the new business model, the decisions about what amount and where to invest are no more an irrevocable commitment for investors and managers. Indeed, in the new business model, investors decide the volume of investment, but aggregate investment is not irrevocable since liquidity is the target. This fact fosters macroeconomic instability in the economic system. As Keynes wrote:
“Decisions to invest in private business of the old-fashioned type were, however, decisions largely irrevocable, not only for the community as a whole, but also for the individual. With the separation between ownership and management which prevails today and with the development of organized investment markets, a new factor of great importance has entered in, which sometimes facilitates investment, but sometimes adds greatly to the instability of the system” (Keynes, General Theory, 12, III).
And he added:
“If I may be allowed to appropriate the term speculation for the activity of forecasting the psychology of the market, and the term enterprise for the activity of forecasting the prospective yield of assets over their whole life, it is by no means always the case that speculation predominates over enterprise. As the organisation of investment markets improves, the risk of the predominance of speculation does, however, increase” (Keynes, General Theory, 12, VI).
The historical changes in business have been related to qualitative transformations in capital accumulation and competition. Mainly after the 1970s, the changing practices in corporate finance fostered the growth of the participation of institutional investors, such as pension funds or private equity firms, in business management as relevant shareholders. The drive to increase the share-holders’ value and the incorporation of the managerial strata through share options has tended to postpone long-term investments. In addition, these practices have favoured mergers and acquisitions and fostered financial speculation.
After the middle 1990s, public policies and private strategies influenced the dimension and composition of balance sheets in different economic sectors. Among the main features:
- The household sector has got increasingly indebted.
- Corporations have moved to “surplus units” running financial surpluses that have been diverted towards the acquisition of financial assets instead of financing physical investments.
- The balance sheets of mutual investment funds are now larger that before the global crisis with respect to the GDP and they have influenced the flows of investment in companies.
Considering the evolution of the business models since the 2000s, the strategies of corporations and private equity funds have turned out to focus on short-term gains and the distribution of dividends to shareholders, that is to say, to investors. In other words, the current business model can be apprehended as a form of governance that aims increasing short-term earnings by means of a “clash of rationalization”. In this context, competitiveness and productivity have been put together in the attempt to promote higher business performance.
In fact, the centralization of capital, through waves of mergers and acquisitions, created new challenges to business stability. Accordingly the OCDE, the current investment chain is complex due to cross-investments among institutional investors, increased complexity in equity market structure and trade practices, and an increase in outsourcing of ownership and asset management functions. In this scenario, the economic and social outcomes have involved a trend to ‘downsize and distribute’, that is to say, a trend to restructure, reduce costs and focus on short- term gains. In practice this has meant plants displacement and closures, changing employment and labour conditions, outsourcing jobs, besides the pressure on supply chain producers in the global markets.
As a result of current business strategies, investments that are fixed for society turn out to be liquid for investors. Today, the dominance of a culture based on short-term speculation has major implications that go far beyond the narrow confines of the financial markets. The costs of this business model fall disproportionately on society because of the commitment to liquidity. As Keynes warned,
“Thus the professional investor is forced to concern himself with the anticipation of impending changes, in the news or in the atmosphere, of the kind by which experience shows that the mass psychology of the market is most influenced. This is the inevitable result of investment markets organized with a view to so-called ‘liquidity’. Of the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity, the doctrine that it is a positive virtue on the part of investment institutions to concentrate their resources upon the holding of ‘liquid’ securities. It forgets that there is no such thing as liquidity of investment for the community as a whole” (Keynes, General Theory, 12, V).
If we WEA economists want to disseminate among our students these relevant changes in business models, then it would be interesting to include some of the following readings mainly in micro and macroeconomic courses.
Berle, Adolf A., and Gardiner C. Means (1932), The Modern Corporation and Private Property, Macmillan.
Blair, Margaret M. (1995) Ownership and Control: Rethinking Corporate Governance for the Twenty-First Century, Brookings Institution.
Crotty, J. (2002) “The effects of increased product market competition and changes in financial markets on the performance of nonfinancial corporations in the neoliberal era”. Working Paper Series, n. 44. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Political Economy Research Institute,
Çelik, S. and Isaksson, M. (2013) “Institutional Investors as Owners: Who Are They and What Do They Do?”, OECD Corporate Governance Working Papers, No. 11, France: OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5k3v1dvmfk42-en (accessed 10 October 2015)
Fligstein, N. (2001) The architecture of markets, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Jacoby, S. (2008) Finance and Labor: Perspectives on Risk, Inequality and Democracy, Working Paper, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, USA, California Digital Library.
Keynes, J. M. [1936 (1964)] The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Lazonick, W. (2013) “From Innovation to Financialization: How Shareholder Value Ideology is Destroying the US Economy” , in Martin H. Wolfson and Gerald Epstein, eds., The Handbook of PoliticalEconomy of Financial Crises, Oxford University Press.
Lazonick, W. and O´Sullivan, M. (2000) “Maximizing shareholder value: a new ideology for corporate governance”, Economy and Society, 29 (1).
Seccareccia, M. (2012) “Financialization and the transformation of commercial banking; understanding the recent Canadian experience before and during the international financial crisis”, Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, 35 (2): 277-300.