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  • Jerry Schuitema

The corporate cauldron.

Reflecting on the wider issues of the Steinhoff scandal.

If there is one conversation that I would love to hear, it is that between Milton Friedman and Mervyn King. As a Nobel Prize winning economist and adviser to American President Ronald Reagan, Friedman strongly influenced the course of economics and the “greed is good” era of the 80’s; arguing that the sole purpose of enterprise was to create value for shareholders. South Africa’s governance architect, Mervyn King, on the other hand has taken a broader view in King IV, arguing that business has to create value for all. But both would find common ground on the need for regulation, differing only on what and how.

Regulation alone can never prevent corporate malfeasance. All it can really do is limit it. But the problem with that is that the larger the organisation involved, the greater the potential harm. It’s a bit like having basic rules of the road apply to all drivers, but the mistake of a car driver will seldom have the same impact as the mistake of a bus driver carrying many passengers. Our own Steinhoff scandal is one example, but globally we have seen misconduct by large organisations causing havoc with severe socio-economic implications, including a global meltdown.

There can be little doubt that concentration of economic power, of which big business is a key feature, is at the centre of a shift in economic thinking. I say this not only on the strength of empirical and anecdotal evidence, but also on intuition based on years of exposure in this field. Developments such as the attack on the establishment, state capture, national isolationism, trade wars, pay and wealth disparities, our own populist hysteria around “monopoly capital”, exclusivity, increasing governance regulation, the effects of technology, environmental concerns and growing discomfort with globalisation, can all be traced back to a greater or lesser extent to financialisation, capital concentration and the size of multi-national corporations.

It is also at the centre of the evolvement of economic ideology, captured in this article: An age of economic soul-searching. It is perhaps supreme irony that the masters behind the ideological divide between capitalism and Marxist socialism – Adam Smith and Karl Marx found common ground in the threat of big business and mercantile interests charting our economic destiny.

In the end, like the fallible bus driver, these large corporations are headed by fallible men and women whose task is compounded by trying to reconcile the broad interests of society with the narrow, often short-term interests of shareholders rewarding executive greed. They are very often in conflict, and it is a disingenuous over-simplification to argue that regulation can bring the two together. We had an inkling of this conundrum in Christo Wiese’s testimony to the Steinhoff Parliamentary enquiry, in which he highlighted the complexity of a multi-national corporation; where working in different countries with different legislative requirements created many loopholes for misconduct. Even more revealing was the testimony of JSE CEO, Nicky Newton-King that it was standard business practice for large corporations to maximise capital and tax efficiencies. I could not tell whether it was simply a statement of fact or one suggesting censure. But the two together point to the heart of the problem.

The standard defence of big business, corporates, large holding companies, and mergers and acquisitions mostly falls back on capital efficiency and the hunger for capital. In turn that is often distilled into a simple formula of the cost of capital. That assumption about capital formation is far too narrow and flawed both in terms of structure and motive. Human beings are simply not that one dimensional and one of the biggest failings of economic theory is that it tries to reduce us all to predictable, measureable abstracts. What has become clear however, is that the “invisible hand” does not work very well when that hand is very large, powerful and driven primarily by self-gain.

This is a vast subject and difficult to cover in an article of this nature. The last few decades have seen a significant shift in the debate against big business. Flying on the fuel of capital efficiency is no longer seen as valid, and it is difficult to find many arguments in favour of bigness.

Robert Atkinson, head of a Washington research group, is one champion of corporate consolidation, on the grounds that big businesses create more jobs, pay better wages, and — by some metrics — comply better with environmental and workplace laws. He goes further in slamming the enthusiasm for small business whose only value, he argues, is as incubator for large businesses, especially if they do so with disruptive technology that makes the economy overall more efficient. He does have a point. Labour, for example, contrary to their trashing of “monopoly capital”, would find it difficult to extort their demands from a widely fragmented business sector.

Of the many criticisms of big business, one of the most coherent and well researched I have read is that of two Johannesburg academics: Pamela Mondliwa and Simon Roberts. They wrote in this Moneyweb article: “Economic concentration opens the door to market power being exercised in a way that undermines productivity. This can be seen, for instance, in value chains where downstream players have to pay high prices for inputs, with dire consequences for their competitiveness. The knock on effect is that economic growth slows down and employment creation is affected if downstream industries are labour absorbing.”

We too often seek answers in laws and coercion – until we are buried in police and have overflowing jails. And then the miscreants always seem to be one step ahead. We have to construct a different understanding of and relationship with capital in the economy. While Friedman’s shareholder-value creed may have been the “dumbest idea ever”, King’s “creating value for all” may become the “smartest idea ever.” All that is needed is for the three contributors to wealth creation -- labour, capital and state – to think and behave entrepreneurially and become customer driven in a common purpose and common fate context.

It’s not going to require a huge shift, but it certainly will create one.

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