A comment in today’s Financial Times, “The fall of a financial model,” by Jean-Louis Beffa, chairman of Saint Gobain and Xavier Ragot of the Paris School of Economics argues that the approach to financial capitalism in operation for the last decade is coming to an end. They define the model as giving a primary to profit as the measure of corporate efficiency and having minimal government regulation of the financial sector (for the most part, it is self-regulated).
The piece does not pose a crisp solution to the stresses it cites and argues that governments are likely to experiment with new approaches which may not be compatible with each other.
From the Financial Times:
Recent changes in the world economy and financial markets mark the end of the present standard model of financial capitalism, built up over the last decade or so. In this model, financial stability is mainly based on the self-regulation of the financial sector, which alone assesses the risks produced by its financial innovations.
Moreover, the link between finance and the real economy hinges on an adequate return on investment for shareholders, who punish poor management by making share prices fall, leaving the company open to takeover. The only role assigned to governments is to guarantee free circulation of capital between companies and between countries. As alternative economic models collapsed over the past two decades, public opinion came to accept this model of financial capitalism. Today, governments and labour unions accept profit as the most relevant criterion for assessing a company’s efficiency. This model is experiencing three crises, all of which refer to changes in the relationship between governments and markets.
The first concerns the significant, yet silent, return of governments to the economic playing field. Three of the five richest nations by total gross domestic product have become de facto neo-mercantilist, setting their sights on trade surpluses. China is keeping its currency artificially low in order to increase its trade surplus and lower its costs of production vis-a-vis competitor countries. Japan is pursuing government-oriented policies to bolster its position in high-technology markets. Finally, and to a lesser degree, Germany has been carrying out reforms to restore industrial competitiveness. In addition, countries that have access to natural resources, notably oil and gas, have revenues that serve as both an instrument and aim of their international policy. Trade surpluses have resulted, demonstrating the capacity of governments to acquire massive amounts of foreign assets through sovereign wealth funds. The problems that arise are not economic, but political. Governments may use technology transfer or control of strategic national assets as a means to increase bargaining power in international affairs.
The second change involves company ownership. Three transformations should be noted. The first relates to the emergence of active shareholders, who build up significant stakes with the aim of exerting strong influence on management. The second relates to activist shareholders and their demand for short-term returns, resulting in decisions that are not in the company’s long-term interests. The third involves leveraged buy-outs, closely linking the interests of managers and shareholders and taking advantage of easy credit.
These shifts in the distribution of power raise questions: what is the relationship between shareholder meetings and boards? To what extent should companies be allowed to protect themselves from hostile bids or creeping takeovers? In what form and how frequently should accounting information be provided to shareholders?
Company ownership has not yet found a new balance, as shown in Europe by the absence of agreement on the takeover directive and on one share/one vote rather than multiple voting rights. Regulators’ desire to increase supervision of creeping takeovers is telling. The trends are risky: a shareholder can pursue speculative or self-interested aims to the detriment of other shareholders and against the company’s best interest by breaking up the business or by avoiding taking risk.
The third crisis is the one rocking financial markets. Unlike the internet bubble, this is not a crisis based on irrational behaviour but one of sophistication and disintermediation. The new risks produced by financial innovation were left to a sector that alone was considered able to understand its instruments. The crisis demonstrates the costs to the real economy and lack of an efficient self-regulating system.
All these risks call for a new relationship between the workings of financial markets and regulatory actions of governments. Democratic governments will have to deal for a long time with less democratic economies that use financial market mechanisms for political ends. Each sovereign investor must clarify its intentions and define its code of conduct. Governments must also define with greater precision the sectors they consider strategic.
The changes in company ownership also call for greater transparency in order to prevent actions that offend business ethics, such as creeping takeovers and speculative strategies that undermine companies’ long-term interests. The board’s role of defining solutions that satisfy shareholders’ divergent interests will have to be strengthened. It should allow for corporate governance that encourages long-term strategies while satisfying shareholder interests. Finally, regulators should supervise the whole of financial markets to assess systemic risk, eliminate off-balance-sheet ambiguities and bring within the scope of supervision actors that have eluded market authorities.
How governments deal with these crises will depend on their national interests. These issues will be difficult to deal with in Europe where country responses will diverge. One can expect to see the co-existence of various models, varying by level of government intervention in financial markets. There is a great distance, however, between co-existence and compatibility.