The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.
Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.
The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.
The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.
At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.
An evolving capitalism
So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?
Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.
But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.
If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.
Articles and videos
- Why the next stage of capitalism is coming
BBC Future, Matthew Wilburn King (27/5/21)
- During the pandemic, a new variant of capitalism has emerged
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/7/21)
- When it comes to social and environmental justice, words don’t cut it
GreenBiz, C J Clouse (28/4/21)
- Introducing the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican
Inclusive Capitalism (7/12/20)
- The State and Direction of Inclusive Capitalism
Saïd Business School, Ford Foundation and Deloitte Social Impact practice, Richard Barker, Mary Johnstone-Louis, Colin Mayer, Pradeep Prabhala, Noah Rimland Flower, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, Tony Siesfeld and Peter Tufano (2018)
- Rising Market Power—A Threat to the Recovery?
IMF Blog, Kristalina Georgieva, Federico J Díez, Romain Duval and Daniel Schwarz (15/3/21)
- The Pandemic Alone Can’t Transform Capitalism
Jacobin, Ramaa Vasudevan (30/7/21)
- Down to earth: How entrepreneurs can collaborate to rejuvenate capitalism
EU-Startups, Luca Sabia (4/8/21)
- How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
- What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
- What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
- How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
- What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
- Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?
Firms are increasingly having to take into account the interests of a wide range of stakeholders, such as consumers, workers, the local community and society in general (see the blog, Evolving Economics). However, with many firms, the key stakeholders that influence decisions are shareholders. And because many shareholders are footloose and not committed to any one company, their main interests are short-term profit and share value. This leads to under-investment and too little innovation. It has also led to excessive pay for senior executives, which for many years has grown substantially faster than the pay of their employees. Indeed, executive pay in the UK is now, per pound of turnover, the highest in the world.
So is there an alternative model of capitalism, which better serves the interests of a wider range of stakeholders? One model is that of employee ownership. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the John Lewis Partnership, which owns both the department stores and the Waitrose chain of supermarkets. As the partnership’s site claims, ‘when you’re part of it, you put your heart into it’. Although the John Lewis Partnership is the largest in the UK, there are over 330 employee-owned businesses across the UK, with over 200 000 employee owners contributing some £30bn per year to UK GDP. Again, to quote the John Lewis site:
Businesses range from manufacturers, to community health services, to insurance brokers. Together they deliver 4% of UK GDP annually, with this contribution growing. They are united by an ethos that puts people first, involving the workforce in key decision-making and realising the potential and commitment of their employees.
A recent example of a company moving, at least partly, in this direction is BT, which has announced that that every one of its 100 000 employees will get shares worth £500 every year. Employees will need to hold their shares for at least three years before they can sell them. The aim is to motivate staff and help the company achieve a turnaround from its recent lacklustre performance, which had resulted in its laying off 13 000 of its 100 000-strong workforce.
Another recent example of a company adopting employee ownership is Richer Sounds, the retail TV and hi-fi chain. Its owner and founder, Julian Richer, announced that he had transferred 60% of his shares into a John Lewis-style trust for the chain’s 531 employees. In addition to owning 60% of the company, employees will receive £1000 for every year they have worked for the retailer. A new advisory council, made up of current staff, will advise the management board, which is taking over the running of the firm from Richer.
According to the Employee Ownership Association (EOA), a further 50 businesses are preparing to follow suit and adopt forms of employee ownership. As The Conversation article linked below states:
As a form of stakeholder capitalism, the evidence shows that employee ownership boosts employee commitment and motivation, which leads to greater innovation and productivity.
Indeed, a study of employee ownership models in the US published in April found it narrowed gender and racial wealth gaps. Surveying 200 employees from 21 companies with employee ownership plans, Joseph Blasi and his colleagues at Rutgers University found employees had significantly more wealth than the average US worker.
The researchers also found that the participatory management practices that accompanied the employee ownership schemes led to employees improving their communication skills and learning management skills, which had helped them make better financial decisions at home.
But, although employee ownership brings benefits, not only to the employees themselves, but also more widely to society, there is no simple mechanism for achieving it when shareholders are unlikely to want to relinquish their shares. Employee buyout schemes require funding; and banks are often cautious about providing such funding. What is more, there needs to be an employee trust overseeing the running of the company which takes a long-term perspective and not just that of current employees, who might otherwise be tempted to sell the company to another seeking to take it over.
- What are the main benefits of employee ownership?
- Are there any disadvantages of employee ownership and, if so, what are they?
- What are the main barriers to the adoption of employee ownership?
- What are the main recommendations from The Ownership Effect Inquiry? (See linked report above.)
- What are the findings of the responses to the employee share ownership questions in the US General Social Survey (GSS)? (See linked Global Banking & Finance Review article above.)
The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
- Write a brief defence of traditional economic analysis (i.e. that based on the assumption of ‘rational economic behaviour’).
- What are the shortcomings of traditional economic analysis?
- What is meant by ‘behavioural economics’ and how does it address the concerns raised in Evan Davis’ article?
- How is herd behaviour relevant to explaining macroeconomic fluctuations?
- Identify various stakeholder groups of an energy company. What influence are they likely to have on the company’s behaviour?
- In an era of social media, web-based information and e-commerce, why might it be necessary to rethink the concept of GDP and its measurement?
- What is meant by an efficient stock market? Why may the stock market not be efficient?
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?
Kraft was seeking to take over Cadbury since September 2009, (see Cadbury: Chocolate all change and A Krafty approach to Cadbury). But the Cadbury board had rejected previous bids as being too low. The September bid, for example, was valued at £10.2bn. On 19 January 2010, however, after heated negotiations the board accepted the latest offer by Kraft valued at £11.5bn ($19bn).
But is the deal good news? Or will what is sweet for senior management and the financial institutions which brokered the deal be dark bitter news for the main stakeholders – consumers, workers and shareholders? The following articles explore the issues.
Cadbury battle ends with midnight handshake Financial Times, Lina Saigol (19/1/10)
Cadbury takeover: a crafty bit of business or an overpriced confection? Telegraph, Jonathan Sibun (20/1/10)
Cadbury’s sweet City deal leaves a bitter taste in Bournville Guardian, Heather Stewart and Nick Mathiason (19/1/10)
Thousands of Cadbury jobs under threat as Kraft swallows a British icon (including video) Times Online, Helen Nugent and Catherine Boyle (20/1/10)
Cadbury deal ‘the price of globalisation’ Financial Times, Jenny Wiggins and Jonathan Guthrie (19/1/10)
Cadbury sale ‘right thing to do’ FT video (19/1/10)
Bitterness as Kraft wins Cadbury Independent, Nick Clark (20/1/10)
The winners: Management duo in line for bumper pay packet from takeover deal Independent, Nick Clark (20/1/10)
Kraft came hunting in the only country that would sell – Britain Independent, James Moore (20/1/10)
Kraft’s takeover leaves a bitter taste in the mouth Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (19/1/10)
A sweet deal – or a takeover that is hard to swallow? Independent, Hamish McRae (20/1/10)
Cadbury: banks are the real winners BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (20/1/10)
Warren Buffett blasts Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury Guardian, Graeme Wearden (20/1/10)
Cadbury says job cuts inevitable after Kraft takeover (including videos) BBC News (19/1/10)
Cadbury and the open market theory: they’d better be right Guardian blog, Michael White (20/1/10)
The Business: Bonus season and the Cadbury takeover Guardian podcast, Aditya Chakrabortty
How did Quakers conquer the British sweet shop? BBC News Magazine, Peter Jackson (20/1/10)
Why Kraft must keep organic cacao farmers sweet Guardian blog, Craig Sams (20/1/10)
- What were the incentives for the Cadbury board to accept the proposed offer by Kraft?
- Do such incentives lead to the efficient operation of markets?
- Explain what is meant by ‘competition for corporate control’. To what extent is such competition in the interests of consumers?
- What economies or diseconomies of scale are likely to result from the takeover? What will determine the extent to which changes in costs are passed on to the consumer?
- How will the following stakeholders fare from the takeover, both in the short run and in the long run: (a) consumers; (b) workers; (c) shareholders?
- Examine Warren Buffet’s arguments for rejecting the deal.