Short-termism is a problem which has dogged British firms and is part of the explanation of low investment in the UK. Shareholders, many of which are large pension funds and other financial institutions, are more concerned with short-term returns than long-term growth and productivity. Likewise, senior managers’ rewards are often linked to short-term performance rather than the long-term health of the company.
But the stakeholders in companies extend well beyond owners and senior managers. Workers, consumers, suppliers, local residents and the country as a whole are all stakeholders in companies.
So is the current model of capitalism fit for purpose? According to the new May government, workers and consumers should be represented on the boards of major British companies. The Personnel Today article quotes Theresa May as saying:
‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions. In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.
We’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.’
This model is not new. Many countries, such as France and Germany, have had worker representatives on boards for many years. There the focus is often less on short-term profit maximisation and more on the long-term performance of the company in terms of a range of indicators.
Extending this model to stakeholder groups more generally could see companies taking broader social objectives into account. And the number of companies which put corporate social responsibility high on their agenda could increase significantly.
And this approach can ultimately bring better returns to shareholders. As the first The Conversation article below states:
This is something that research into a ‘Relational Company’ model has found – by putting the interests of all stakeholders at the heart of their decision making, companies can become more competitive, stable and successful. Ultimately, this will generate greater returns for shareholders.
While CSR has become mainstream in terms of the public face of some large corporations, it has tended to be one of the first things to be cut when economic growth weakens. The findings from Business in the Community’s 2016 Corporate Responsibility Index suggest that many firms are considering how corporate responsibility can positively affect profits. However, it remains the case that there are still many firms and consumers that care relatively little about the social or natural environment. Indeed, each year, fewer companies take part in the CR Index. In 2016 there were 43 firms; in 2015, 68 firms; in 2014, 97 firms; in 2013, 126 firms.
In addition to promising to give greater voice to stakeholder groups, Mrs May has also said that she intends to curb executive pay. Shareholders will be given binding powers to block executive remuneration packages. But whether shareholders are best placed to do this questionable. If shareholders’ interests are the short-term returns on their investment, then they may well approve of linking executive remuneration to short-term returns rather than on the long-term health of the company or its role in society more generally.
When leaders come to power, they often make promises that are never fulfilled. Time will tell whether the new government will make radical changes to capitalism in the UK or whether a move to greater stakeholder power will remain merely an aspiration.
Will Theresa May break from Thatcherism and transform business? The Conversation, Arad Reisberg (19/7/16)
Democratise companies to rein in excessive banker bonuses The Conversation, Prem Sikka (14/3/16)
Theresa May promises worker representatives on boards Personnel Today, Rob Moss (11/7/16)
If Theresa May is serious about inequality she’ll ditch Osbornomics The Guardian, Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs (19/7/16)
Theresa May should beware of imitating the German model Financial Times, Ursula Weidenfeld (12/7/16)
- To what extent is the pursuit of maximum short-term profits in the interests of (a) shareholders; (b) consumers; (c) workers; (d) suppliers; (e) society generally; (f) the environment?
- How could British industry be restructured so as to encourage a greater proportion of GDP being devoted to investment?
- How would greater flexibility in labour markets affect the perspectives on company performance of worker representatives on boards?
- How does worker representation in capitalism work in Germany? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this model? (See the panel in the Personnel Today article and the Financial Times article.)
- What do you understand by ‘industrial policy’? How can it be used to increase investment, productivity, growth and the pursuit of broader stakeholder interests?
Tax avoidance has been in the news since the publication of the Panama papers, which show the use of offshore tax havens by rich individuals and companies, partly for tax avoidance, partly for money laundering and other criminal activities – some by corrupt politicians and their associates – and partly to take advantage of lower regulation of financial dealing.
There are many tax havens around the world, including Switzerland, Hong Kong, British overseas territories (such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda), Jersey, Singapore and certain US states (such as Arizona, Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming).
Here we focus on tax avoidance. This is the management of tax affairs by individuals or firms so as to avoid or minimise the payment of taxes. Tax avoidance is legal, unlike tax evasion, which is the practice of not declaring taxable income.
In a statement from the White House, directly after the publication of the Panama papers, President Obama spoke about the huge international scale of tax evasion and tax avoidance:
“A lot of it is legal, but that’s exactly the problem. It’s not that [people are] breaking the laws, it’s that the laws are so poorly designed that they allow people, if they’ve got enough lawyers and enough accountants, to wiggle out of responsibilities that ordinary citizens are having to abide by.
Here in the United States, there are loopholes that only wealthy individuals and powerful corporations have access to. They have access to offshore accounts, and they are gaming the system. Middle-class families are not in the same position to do this. In fact, a lot of these loopholes come at the expense of middle-class families, because that lost revenue has to be made up somewhere. Alternatively, it means that we’re not investing as much as we should in schools, in making college more affordable, in putting people back to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure, creating more opportunities for our children.”
Tax avoidance, whether in tax havens, or through exploiting loopholes in the tax system may be legal. But is it fair?
Various principles of a tax system can be identified. These include:
|People in the same situation should be treated equally. For example, people earning the same level of income and with the same personal circumstances (e.g. number and type of dependants, size of mortgage, etc.) should pay the same level of income tax.
|Taxes should be ‘fairly’ apportioned between rich and poor. The rich should pay proportionately more taxes than the poor.
|Equity between recipients of government services
|Under the ‘benefit principle’, it is argued that those who receive the most benefits from government expenditure ought to pay the most in taxes. For example, it can be argued that roads should be paid for from fuel tax.
|Difficulty of evasion and possibly of avoidance
|If it is desirable to have a given tax, people should not be able to escape paying.
|Taxes alter market signals: taxes on goods and services alter market prices; taxes on income alter wages. They should not do this in an undesirable direction.
|Convenience to the taxpayer
|Taxes should be certain and clearly understood by taxpayers so that they can calculate their tax liabilities. The method of payment should be straightforward.
|Convenience to the government
|Tax rates should be simple to adjust and as cheap to collect as possible.
|Minimal disincentive effects
|Taxes may discourage people from working longer or harder, from saving, from investing or from taking initiative. It is desirable that these disincentives should be kept to a minimum.
Of course, not all these requirements can be met at the same time. One of the most serious conflicts is between vertical equity and the need to keep disincentives to a minimum. The more steeply the rich are taxed, it is argued, the more serious are the disincentive effects on them likely to be (see the blog post from 2012, The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). Another is between vertical equity and equity between recipients of services. Some of the people most in need of government support are the poorest and hence pay the least taxes.
The crucial question is what is regarded as ‘fair’. What is vertically equitable? According to the second article below, people’s preferred tax rates depend on how information is presented. If information is presented on how much tax is paid by the rich, people generally feel that the rich pay too much. If, however, information is presented on how much income people are left with after paying tax, people feel that the rich still have too much and ought to pay more tax.
The majority of people in the UK feel that tax avoidance, although legal, is morally wrong. According to the results of an HMRC survey in 2015, “the majority (63%) of respondents felt that the use of tax avoidance schemes was widespread. However, the majority (61%) also responded that it was never acceptable to use a tax avoidance scheme. The most frequent reason given as to why it was unacceptable was that ‘it is unfair on others who pay their taxes’.”
In making judgements about the fairness of tax, people generally have inaccurate knowledge about the distribution of income, believing that it is more equal than it really is, and about the progressiveness of the tax system, believing that it is more progressive than it really is. Despite this, they want post-tax income distribution to be more equal.
What is more, although people generally disapprove of tax avoidance, it is the system that allows the avoidance of taxes that they want changing. As long as it is possible to avoid taxes, such as giving gifts to children to avoid inheritance tax (as long as the gift is made more than seven years before the person’s death), most people see no reason why they should not do so themselves.
The following articles look at tax avoidance and people’s attitudes towards it. They are all drawn from The Conversation, “an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.”.
Explainer: what are ‘tax havens’? The Conversation, Tommaso Faccio (5/4/16)
When it comes to tax, how do we decide what’s fair? The Conversation, Stian Reimers (8/4/16)
Six things a tax haven expert learned from the Panama Papers The Conversation, Ronen Palan (6/4/16)
The Panama Papers The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Exploring public attitudes to tax avoidance in 2015: HM Revenue and Customs Research Report 401 HMRC, Preena Shah (February 2016)
2010 to 2015 government policy: tax evasion and avoidance HMRC/HM Treasury (8/5/15)
- Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion.
- Give some examples of tax avoidance.
- Look through the various principles of a tax system and identify any conflicts.
- What problems are there in having a highly progressive tax system?
- What is a ‘shell company’? How can it be used to avoid and evade taxes?
- What are bearer shares and bonds? Why were they abolished in the UK in 2015?
- What legitimate reasons may there be for a company or individual using a tax haven?
- To what extent might increased transparency in tax affairs discourage individuals and companies from engaging in aggressive tax avoidance?
- What light does/can behavioural economics shed on people’s perceptions of fairness?
- How might the use of absolute amounts or percentages influence people’s thinking about the fairness of a tax system? What implications does this have for politicians in framing tax policy?
- In the principal–agent problem, where the principals are the tax authorities and the agents are taxpayers, why does asymmetric information arise and why is it a problem? How do the tax authorities seek to reduce this problem?
The Big Four are well known: Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG and PWC. They act as auditors for 90% of the UK’s stock-market listed companies. They have a very close relationship with the companies that they audit and because of this have faced criticism of not warning of the financial crisis. A further accusation is that the relationship between auditors and managers has become blurred.
In some sense, there is a problem of divorce of ownership from control. The companies that are audited by the Big Four have shareholders who are interested in profits and their dividends. But they employ managers who are responsible for the day-to-day running of the business. However, there are concerns that the auditors have become more concerned with meeting the interests of the managers and not of the shareholders. It has been suggested that the company’s management tend to ‘present their accounts in the most favourable light, whereas shareholder interests can be quite different.’ Laura Carstensen, the chair of the Audit Investigation Group said:
It is clear that there is significant dissatisfaction amongst some institutional investors with the relevance and extent of reporting in audited financial reports … management may have incentives to present their accounts in the most favourable light, whereas shareholder interests can be quite different.
The Big Four have been criticised for limiting competition in the industry. The Competition Commission has said that companies typically stay with the same auditing firm and this acts to limit competition. One suggestion to encourage competition is to enforce rotation of Auditors. However, the Big Four have said that the market remains competitive, ‘healthy and robust’ and that any enforcement as noted above would not be in the public interest. Other, smaller auditing companies have praised the preliminary report of the Competition Commission. One firm said:
No one solution will achieve market correction, but rather a combination of tendering requirements, encouragement of transparency and dialogue between auditors, companies and investors, and reform of outdated exclusionary practices should provide a backdrop for a healthier FTSE 350 audit market.
The report is not yet final, but the future of the Big Four is somewhat uncertain, especially with the European Commission’s desire to break them up. The following articles look at this industry.
Big Four accountants reject claims over high prices and poor competition The Guardian, Josephine Moulds and David Feeney (22/2/13)
Competition Commission raps Big Four accountants BBC News (22/2/13)
Big Four’s rivals welcome audit shake-up Financial Times, Adam Jones (22/2/13)
UK’s “Big Four” accountants under fire from watchdog Reuters, Huw Jones (22/2/13)
Big Four chastised by Competition Commission The Telegraph, Helia Ebrahimi (22/2/13)
The uncompetitive culture of auditing’s big four remains undented The Guardian, Prem Sikka (23/2/13)
Big Four accountants ‘in closed club on audits’ Independent, Mark Leftly (23/2/13)
- What is the role of the Competition Commission?
- Explain with other examples the problem of the divorce of ownership from control. How might the interest of shareholders and managers differ? Can they ever be aligned?
- Is market share a good measure of the competitiveness of an industry?
- What are the benefits of competition?
- Why has the regulator suggested that the Big Four are limiting competition?
- What solutions have been proposed by the Competition Commission? Explain how they are likely to stimulate competition in this market.
The news in many European countries has been dominated in February by the ‘horse meat scandal’. Small traces of horse meat may be the result of faulty quality control. But the significant amount of horse found in several processed meat products suggest fraud at one or more points in the supply chain from farm to supermarket or other outlet. Indeed several specific suppliers, from abattoirs to processors are facing criminal investigation.
The scandal has put the supply chain under intense scrutiny. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is often very long and complex. As the Guardian article states:
The food and retail industries have become highly concentrated and globalised in recent decades. A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold stores operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders “just in time”. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.
Then there is the huge pressure on all parts of the supply chain to reduce costs.
Supermarkets use their market power to drive down the prices of the products they buy from their suppliers and this has a knock-on effect backwards down the supply chain. This pressure has intensified as real wages have fallen and consumers have found their budgets squeezed.
At the same time, beef and other meat prices have been rising as the costs of animal feed have soared. This all puts tremendous pressure on suppliers to add cheaper ingredients. Again to quote the Guardian article:
Manufacturers add other cheap ingredients including water and fat, and use concentrated proteins to bind the water and fat in. They may appear on labels as ‘seasoning’. One of the cheapest sources of these protein additives is pork rind. It is possible that horse hide is now also being used. The widespread adulteration of cheap chicken breast with pig and beef proteins and water has been uncovered in previous scandals. The beef proteins were derived from hydrolysed cattle hides. It is not illegal to use these protein concentrates so long as they are identified correctly to the manufacturer.
It is not surprising that if cheap horse meat becomes available to suppliers, such as from old horses towards the end of their working lives, some processing companies may be tempted to add it fraudulently, stating that it is beef.
The articles look at the issues of long and complex supply chains in the processed food industry and assess why they have evolved into their current form and the difficulties in regulating them.
Horsegate: heed economics of the cold chain The Grocer, Andrew Godley (16/2/13)
Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (15/2/13)
After the horse has been bolted The Economist (16/2/13)
Slavery, not horse meat, is the real scandal on our doorstep The Telegraph, Fraser Nelson (14/2/13)
Industry must take the reins on food safety Globe and Mail (Canada)Sylvain Charlebois (15/2/13)
Supply chains changed the growth model The Economist, Richard Baldwin (15/8/12)
Supply-chain management The Economist (6/4/09)
Tesco pledges to open up supply chain after horse meat scandal The Telegraph (16/2/13)
Horse meat scandal: Shoppers who buy ‘cheapest food’ at risk The Telegraph, James Quinn, Jason Lewis and Patrick Sawer (16/2/13)
Let Them Eat Horse Bloomberg, Marc Champion (15/2/13)
Scandal shows meat supply chain must be policed heraldscotland (14/2/13)
MPs push for new powers for FSA as officials seize yet more suspect meat Independent, Martin Hickman (13/2/13)
- Why do supermarkets and their suppliers use long supply chains?
- Explain the concepts of ‘countervailing power’ and ‘monopsony or oligopsony power’? How do they apply in the processed meat supply chain?
- Identify the types of transactions costs in the processed meat industry.
- In what ways do consumers (a) gain and (b) lose from such supply chains?
- Why is the problem of fraud in processed food supply chains likely to have intensified in recent years?
- How have supermarkets reacted to the horse meat scandal? Why has it taken the scandal to make them react in this way?
- To what extent is the problem simply one of inaccurate labelling?
- To what extent is there a principal–agent problem in the processed meat supply chain?
With the fall of communism in eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, many hailed this as the victory of capitalism.
Even China, which is still governed by the Chinese Communist Party, has embraced the market and accepted growing levels of private ownership of capital. It is only one or two countries, such as North Korea and Cuba, that could be described as communist in the way the term was used to describe the centrally planned economies of eastern Europe before 1990.
But whilst market capitalism seemed to have emerged as the superior system in the 1990s, may are now questioning whether the market capitalism we have today is fit for the 21st century. Today much of the world’s capital in the hands of big business, with financial institutions holding a large proportion of shares in such companies. And the gap between rich and poor is ever widening
The market system of today, is very different from that of 100 years ago. In fact, as John Kay agues in his article “Let’s talk about the market economy” below, it would be wrong to describe it as ‘capitalism’ in the sense the term was used in the debates of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, the term is still used and generally refers to the market system we now have. And it is a market system that many see as failing and unfit for purpose. It is a system that coincided with the bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s, the credit crunch of 2007–9 and the recession of 2008/9, now seeming to return as a double-dip recession
With the political and business leaders of the world meeting at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland on 25–29 January 2012, a central theme of the forum has been the future of capitalism and whether it’s fit for the 21st century.
Is there a fairer and more compassionate capitalism that can be fostered? This has been a stated objective of all three political parties in the UK recently. Can we avoid another crisis of capitalism as seen in the late 2000s and which still continues today? What is the role of government in regulating the market system? Does the whole capitalist system need restructuring?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to talk about capitalism. The following webcasts and articles do just that.
Webcasts and podcasts
Davos 2012 – TIME Davos Debate on Capitalism< World Economic Forum (25/01/12)
Can capitalism be ‘responsible’? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (19/01/12)
Capitalism ‘nothing to do with responsibility’ BBC Newsnight, Eric Hobsbawm (19/01/12)
Are there alternatives to capitalism? BBC Newsnight, Danny Finkelstein, Tristram Hunt and Julie Meyer (19/01/12)
America Beyond Capitalism The Real News on YouTube, Gar Alperovitz (27/12/11)
The future of capitalism CNBC, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (12/11/09)
Capitalism Hits the Fan (excerpt) YouTube, Richard Wolff (2/1/12)
Panel Discussion “20 years after – Future of capitalism in CEE” Erste Group on YouTube, Andreas Treichl, Janusz Kulik, Jacques Chauvet, and media Adrian Sarbu (24/2/11)
The Future of Capitalism: Constructive Competition or Chaos? YouTube, Nathan Goetting, Tony Nelson, Craig Meurlin and Judd Bruce Bettinghaus (24/1/11)
Capitalism in Crisis Financial Times, Various videos (24/1/11)
Bill Gates: Capitalism a ‘phenomenal system’ BBC Today Programme, Bill Gates talks to Evan Davis (25/1/12)
Capitalism (See also) BBC The Bottom Line, Evan Davis and guests (28/1/12)
Meddle with the market at your peril Financial Times, Alan Greenspan (25/1/12)
The world’s hunger for public goods Financial Times, Martin Wolf (24/1/12)
When capitalism and corporate self-interest collide JohnKay.com, John Kay (25/1/12)
Let’s talk about the market economy JohnKay.com, John Kay (11/1/12)
A real market economy ensures that greed is good JohnKay.com, John Kay (18/1/12)
Seven ways to fix the system’s flaws Financial Times, Martin Wolf (22/1/12)
To the barricades, British defenders of open markets! The Economist, Bagehot’s Notebook (26/1/12)
Community reaction to doubts about capitalism in Davos CBC News (26/1/12)
Capitalism saw off USSR, now it needs to change or die The National (UAE), Frank Kane (26/1/12)
Words won’t change capitalism. So be daring and do something Observer, Will Hutton (22/1/12)
A political economy fit for purpose: what the UK could learn from Germany Our Kingdom, Alex Keynes (20/1/12)
Debate on State Capitalism The Economist (24/1/12)
- How has the nature of capitalism changed over recent decades?
- Can capitalism be made more ‘caring’ and, if so, how?
- What do you understand by the term a ‘fair allocation of resources’? Is capitalism fair? Can it be made fairer and, if so, what are the costs of making it so?
- Can greed ever be good?
- How does the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism differ from the European model?
- What do you understand by the term ‘crony capitalism’? Is crony capitalism on the increase?
- John Kay states that “Modern titans derive their authority and influence from their position in a hierarchy, not their ownership of capital.” Explain what this means and what its implications are for making capitalism meet social goals.
- In what ways can governments control markets? Have these instruments and their effectiveness changed in effectiveness over time?
- What are the costs and benefits to society of the increasing globalisation of capital?
- To what extent was the financial crisis and credit crunch the result of a flawed capitalist system and to what extent was it a failure of government intervention?
- Why is it important for the success of capitalism that companies should be allowed to fail? Consider whether this should also apply to banks. How is the concept of moral hazard relevant to your answer?