myths of american capitalism

Myths of American Capitalism

Inspired by Joseph Stiglitz discovery that the American Dream is a “myth” – which would seem tautological to me, but I’m not an economist – I have been thinking about current myths in American capitalism. It seems to me that the top one, at the moment, has to do with upper management. It goes like this: upper management in American companies are paid top dollar because, like athletes, they have certain irreplaceable skills that make them worth it.
This idea is hauled out every time a company has a good couple of years. GE makes fifty billion dollars in profit over four or five years, and Jack Welch is hosannahed as a genius.

There are two parts to this myth. The first part is that upper management and professional athletes are in the same category.

The best answer to this is: nobody ever bought a gadget from Microsoft because they had seen Steve Jobs manage the product from R and D to the market. 

Athletes and movie stars aren’t paid for their skills – they are paid because there is a demand for their skills. These skills are theatrical and visible. If basketball was played in secret, the wages of the players would soon diminish to zero, or around that amount. There is a great deal of marketing that goes into making sure that the players are seen. That is the point. Unfortunately, nobody was bringing up this point in the 1980s, when Harvard Business Journal, among others, was floating the idea that upper management needed to be paid vastly more. The figures are stark – CEOs, who were once paid 20 times the median wage of workers in their companies, were soon taking home one hundred times, two hundred times, four hundred times their median employee. Because athletes and stars are public figures with very public salaries, and because these salaries were going up, the CEO propagandist set – including most mainstream economists – latched onto the easy comparison. In fact, though, the comparison is completely bogus. Salaries in entertainment and salaries in fortune five hundred executive suites are moved for very different reasons.

However, there is a second part of the myth. In this part of the myth, what the firm does is conflated with the upper management. If a clerk at a store processes twenty more people on a good day, we don’t conflate the clerk and the store’s increased revenue. But somehow, we are supposed to conflate the management and the business phenotype.

A good way to get a handle on this is to look at two things: the company’s record in relation to other companies in its sector, and the company’s record over time.

Now, the indexes  for a  company’s record differ. Is it profit, or is it stock prices? In the eighties, there was a definite turn to the company’s stock price as the ultimate index of company merit. Now, this seems, to me, to be reductive and wrong, but even so, it was often trotted out as the alpha and omega of company mightiness. In the stock boom that occurred from 1981 to 2000, this was a very favorable record for the upper management.

Notice, however, that one average, the stocks of Fortune five hundred companies stagnated for ten years – from 2000 to 2010. In fact, they went down enormously from 2008-2010. Notice, too, that this had no effect on the salaries of management. They did not slip down from being 200 times the median wage to, say, 10 times the median wage.

Notice, too, that outliers would, sooner or later, converge with their sector. GE is a great example. Jack Welch pumped up profits at GE by creating a very exaggerated financial unit. In 1997, Fortune magazine published one of those “let’s drool over a CEO” article about the great and transcendent genius of Welch, “scaring  the hell” out of competitors, entitled: GE CAPITAL: JACK WELCH'S SECRET WEAPON. Here’s a graf:

“Capital, as it's known inside GE, is less a business than an energy source, radiating growth through a mature--some might say lackluster--conglomerate. You can see it in GE's third-quarter results, where Capital comfortably outgrew its parent. But not until you break down GE's performance in recent years are you struck by the glow of its nuclear core. Nicholas Heymann, an analyst at Prudential Securities, calculates that from 1991 to 1996, GE's revenues would have increased just 4% a year were it not for Capital, which more than doubled the growth rate to 9.1%. And its 27 businesses, ranging from credit cards to computer programming to satellite leasing, now generate 39% of GE's earnings, up from 29% in 1990. As some analysts see it, Wall Street's confidence in Capital is the main reason GE stock is rising at a rate that makes the overall market advance look modest, up 123% in two years, vs. 63% for the S&P 500.”
 Running the tape forward, we get to 2009. Here’s the Business Insider headline: The Man who destroyed GE
  And here’s a graf:

As GE's stock struggles to hold $7 $6, a level at which it is still arguably expensive (17X cash flow), shareholders are calling for CEO Jeff Immelt's head.
And it's true: Jeff has had 7 years to reduce GE's dependence on the business that is sinking the ship--GE Capital--and he has chosen not to do so.  Until last fall.  When it was too late.
But let's not forget who built GE Capital in the first place: GE's legendary CEO, Jack Welch.”
Incidently, who rescued GE Capital?
I said the Fed/
I kept them from bleeding and bleeding the red/
until they were good and stone cold and dead.
Here’s a story from Bloomberg:

General Electric Co. sold about $16 billion of commercial paper through a Federal Reserve program to unlock credit markets frozen in September 2008, making up 2 percent of the central bank’s total purchases.
GE, whose GE Capital unit was the biggest U.S. issuer of commercial paper in 2008, said in October of that year that it planned to use the Commercial Paper Funding Facility to support the Fed’s efforts to make credit available at the height of the crisis. The program purchased a total of $738.3 billion, according to documents that the Fed released today.
Under the plan’s rules, GE could have issued as much as $98 billion, according to the company’s regulatory filing for 2008. The $16 billion was repaid as it came due in January and February 2009, the Fairfield, Connecticut-based company said. GE’s finance unit remained profitable throughout the crisis, helped in part by tax credits.”

Notice the words of this announcement are nicely phrased to make one think that GE is simply ‘supporting’  the Fed. This is like a drowning swimmer supporting the lifeguard. Warren Buffett loaned General Electric money at this time on a ten percent interest schedule. Uncle Sam, well, he charged 1 percent or below. However, we pretend that this unfortunate episode didn't happen. We built it, as all the white boys from Bain shout. This, of course, is also part of American Capitalist mythology, but more on that at another time.

So the question is why upper management was so successful in going on a peculative run that tilted the very composition of wealth. This is where myth – also known as economic models – intersects with certain odd facts about the labor market.

As the CEOs were becoming world dominating plutocrats, an odd thing was happening in the world of education: business schools were becoming dominant at universities. What this means is that there was more talent pouring into the management labor pool. But hark! Notice that in this supply and demand story, salaries went up instead of down. Lands sakes, it is as if the labor market is… another myth.

What happened in the 80s was simply good old fashion guilding. Guilds now stretch across thirty percent of the American work force. These are the invisible barriers to entry that prevent, say, myself from setting up a business as a doctor. The state comes down like a ton of bricks to support the doctor’s monopoly, and would put me in jail, thus spitting on free markets and the right of people to decide for themselves. The same thing would happen if I set myself up in many a licenced position. These are, of course, guilds. On the one side, they operate to protect the public. On the other hand, the public pays for that protection. It is the other hand that gets erased, of course, in the stories guilds tell about themselves. Upper management monopolies, however, while having a guild like structure, don’t represent the convergence of the state and private power. This actually makes the actors in the upper management guilds very nervous. What they have, instead, is a rigged up power involving doubledealing by the representatives of the investors. In form, upper management is more like the mafia than like doctors or lawyers. And having the power to shut off the kind of bargaining moves that would send their compensation packages down, they use it.

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which we actually used the technology we have not just to get robots to make parts of cars on assembly lines, but also to manage companies. Impossible? All that tacit knowledge?  If we look at the way companies converge in their sectors over time, we see something that at least theoretically cries out for formalization. And in fact we have the systems: we have expert systems that could, for instance, have pretty much advised GE on how to invest and manage the company as a whole. The top level of management, far from being creative decision makers, are mostly dealers in what computers do best: algorithms. ROI algorithms. If GE had computerized most of its upper management functions back in the 90s, and reduced Jack Welch’s salary to around 150 – that is, 150,000 per year – they would not only have saved the perhaps billion he cost  them over ten years, but they would have ended up pretty much converging with their sector -  which, of course, they did. GE’s common stock price when Welch left in 2000 was 60 dollars and fifty cents, while in 2010 it had declined by almost forty dollars. Was this because Welch was a better CEO than Immelt?

Well, he may have been. On the other hand, he was pretty much the same old same old when compared to his predecessor, Reg Jones.

John Francis Welch (i.e., Jack) took the reins at GE in 1981, following a long, exhaustive, and competitive succession process overseen by his predecessor, Reg Jones. But, contrary to the notion that Welch inherited a moribund company, things were going pretty well already. Over the course of Jones's stint at the top, which began in 1972, revenue had grown at an average annual rate of 12 percent, and earnings had grown at 16 percent. The spin offered by Robert Slater, author of The New GE: How Jack Welch Revived an American Institution (as well as three other Welch volumes), is that Welch "did not want to wait until General Electric was in trouble.... To keep those figures from declining, Welch knew he had to push the company to become more competitive." Janet Lowe, author of Jack Welch Speaks and the recent biography Welch: An American Icon, echoes this line: "The challenge for Welch was to spot trouble before it occurred, to take preventative measures, and to make the most of GE's tremendous momentum."
Fine. And in fact GE has averaged a solid 12 percent annual earnings growth throughout Welch's time at the top, and about 15 percent over the last eight years. But if no trouble had yet "occurred" when he took over, and GE already boasted "tremendous momentum," why credit Welch with a revival rather than with maintaining a past record of excellence? The truth is that while CEO biographers need a larger-than-life hero, GE did not. Indeed, as James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras explain in their celebrated and insightful 1994 book Built to Last, the firm has enjoyed success under a series of innovative chief executives stretching back to the early 1900s.”
So, how much did Reg Jones make, as compared to Jack Welch?

In 1975, the most widely acclaimed CEO in the United States was Reginald Jones, the chief executive at General Electric. Reginald Jones took home $500,000 in 1975, a sum that equaled 36 times the income of that year’s typical American family.

In 2000, the most widely acclaimed CEO in the United States was Jack Welch, who also happened to be the chief executive at General Electric. Welsh took home $144.5 million in the year 2000, a sum that equaled 3,500 times the income of that year’s typical American family.”



Ed said…
"The best answer to this is: nobody ever bought a gadget from Microsoft because they had seen Steve Jobs manage the product from R and D to the market."

Minor correction, you meant Apple, not Microsoft, though this doesn't affect the overall argument.

On the larger point, these people have been extracting more money from their shareholders and workers in good years. They have been extracting more money from their shareholders, workers, and the taxpayers in bad years. The only difference is that the government chips in during the bad years. So I think this is overargued. What we are seeing happening in the U.S. is mafia/ nomenklatura style theft, with the predictable effects on the society.
roger said…
Evidently! Thanks Ed, I was thinking of Gates and then at the last moment wrote down Steve Jobs. Perhaps some kind of freudian slip.