The Capitalist Wants an Exit, Short Fiction Edition

    “All these people have a sort of parlay mentality, and they need to get on the playing field before they can start running it up. I’m a trader. It all happens for me in the transition. The moment of liquidation is the essence of capitalism.”
    “What about the man in Rigby?”
    “He’s an end user. He wants to keep it.”
    I reflected on the pathos of ownership, and the ways it could bog you down.

– from Tom McGuane, “Gallatin Canyon”.

The guy may just be selling a car dealership, but he gets it: You’re not a capitalist until you get to M’. Getting attached to C-C’ for its own sake will just bog you down. But of course, organizing life around the moment of liquidation has its drawbacks as well.

UPDATE: Variation on a theme. From today’s fascinating post by Felix Salmon on a lawsuit over some disputed Jackson Pollock paintings:

In this lawsuit, Mirvish has taken the idea of art-as-an-investment to a particularly bonkers extreme. In Mirvish’s world, it seems, artworks have no inherent value, just by dint of being beautiful or genuine or unique. Instead, an artwork is only an investment if it’s being shopped around — if someone’s trying to make a profit on it, by selling it. 

Similarly, in Mirvish’s world, if a gallery has a claim to 50% of the value of a painting, but again isn’t actively shopping that painting around, then the gallery’s claim is worthless. 

Value doesn’t inhere in a thing, only in the process by which that thing is eventually converted to money. Bonkers, sure, yes, but also the organizing principle of the world we live in.

When Do Profits Count?

From today’s New York Times story about the new crop of billion-dollar internet startups:

Most of these chief executives are also veterans of the Internet bubble of the late ’90s, and confess to worries that maybe things are not so different this time. Mr. Tinker… said, “The reality is, I’ve taken $94 million in investors’ money, and we haven’t gone public yet. I feel that responsibility every day.” … 

The nagging fear is that valuations, which are turned into profits only if the company goes public successfully or is bought for a high price, could still plunge.

The cheap pleasure here is gawking at the next stupid Pets.com. (The NYC subway right now is plastered with ads for some company that, wait for it, lets you order pet food online.) But maybe all of this lot will thrive, I have no idea. What I’m interested in is that bolded phrase.

You might naively think that whether a business makes profits is independent of who happens to own it. Profits appear as soon as a commodity is sold for more than the cost of its inputs. So the bolded sentence really only makes sense with the implied addition, profits for venture capitalists or for finance. But in the disgorge-the-cash era, that’s taken as read.

Capitalism is still about M-C-C’-M’, same as it ever as. But C-C’ now includes not just the immediate process of production, but everything related to the firm as a distinct entity. Profits aren’t really profits, under the current regime, as long as the claim on them is tied to a specific business or industry. And the only real capitalists are owners of financial assets.

(Of course what is interesting about the internet economy is the extent to which this logic has not held there. Functionally, profitability for internet companies has meant a relationship of sales to costs that allows them to grow, regardless of the level of payouts to financial claimants. Whether articles like this are a sign of a convergence of Silicon Valley to the dominant culture, or just an example of the bondholder’s-eye view reflexively adopted by the Times, I don’t know.)

EDIT: From the Grundrisse:

It is important to note that wealth as such, i.e. bourgeois wealth, is always expressed to the highest power as exchange value, where it is posited as mediator, as the mediation of the extremes of exchange value and use value themselves. … Within capital itself, one form of it in turn takes up the position of use value against the other as exchange value…: the wholesaler as mediator between manufacturer and retailer, or between manufacturer and agriculturalist, or between different manufacturers; he is the same mediator at a higher level. And in turn, in the same way, the commodity brokers as against the wholesalers. Then the banker as against the industrialists and merchants; the joint-stock company as against simple production; the financier as mediator between the state and bourgeois society, on the highest level. Wealth as such presents itself more distinctly and broadly the further it is removed from direct production and is itself mediated between poles, each of which, considered for itself, is already posited as economic form. Money becomes an end rather than a means; and the higher form of mediation, as capital, everywhere posits the lower as … labour, as merely a source of surplus value. For example, the bill-broker, banker etc. as against the manufacturers and farmers, which are posited in relation to him in the role of labour (of use value); while he posits himself toward them as capital, extraction of surplus value; the wildest form of this, the financier.

Finance stands with respect to productive enterprises as capitalists in general stand with respect to labor (and raw material). So it makes sense that, from finance’s point of view, profit is not realized with the sale of the commodity, but only with the sale of the enterprise itself.

The Story of Q

More posts on Greece, coming right up. But first I want to revisit the relationship between finance and nonfinancial business in the US.

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with Tobin’s q. The idea is that if investment decisions are being made to maximize the wealth of shareholders, as theory and, sometimes, the law say they should be, then there should be a relationship between the value of financial claims on the firm and the value of its assets. Specifically, the former should be at least as great as the latter, since if investing another dollar in the firm does not increase its value to shareholders by at least a dollar, then that money would better have been returned to them instead.

As usual with anything interesting in macroeconomics, the idea goes back to Keynes, specifically Chapter 12 of the General Theory:

the daily revaluations of the Stock Exchange, though they are primarily made to facilitate transfers of old investments between one individual and another, inevitably exert a decisive influence on the rate of current investment. For there is no sense in building up a new enterprise at a cost greater than that at which a similar existing enterprise can be purchased; whilst there is an inducement to spend on a new project what may seem an extravagant sum, if it can be floated off on the Stock Exchange at an immediate profit. Thus certain classes of investment are governed by the average expectation of those who deal on the Stock Exchange as revealed in the price of shares, rather than by the genuine expectations of the professional entrepreneur.

It was this kind of reasoning that led Hyman Minsky to describe Keynes as having “an investment theory of the business cycle, and a financial theory of investment.” Axel Leijonhufvud, on the other hand, would warn us against taking the dramatis personae of this story too literally; the important point, he would argue, is the way in which investment responds to the shifts in the expected return on fixed investment versus the long-term interest rate. For better or worse, postwar Keynesians including the eponymous Tobin followed Keynes here in thinking of one group of decisionmakers whose expectations are embodied in share prices and another group setting investment within the firm. If shareholders are optimistic about the prospects for a business, or for business in general, the value of shares relative to the cost of capital goods will rise, a signal for firms to invest more; if they are pessimistic, share prices will fall relative to the cost of capital goods, a signal that further investment would be, from the point of view of shareholders, value-subtracting, and the cash should be disgorged instead.

There are various specifications of this relationship; for aggregate data, the usual one is the ratio of the value corporate equity to corporate net worth, that is, to total assets minus total liabilities. In any case, q fails rather miserably, both in the aggregate and the firm level, in its original purpose, predicting investment decisions. Here is q for nonfinancial corporations in the US over the past 60 years, along with corporate investment.

The orange line is the standard specification of q; the dotted line is equity over fixed assets, which behaves almost identically. The black line shows nonfinancial corporations’ nonresidential fixed investment as a share of GDP. As you can see, apart from the late 90s tech boom, there’s no sign that high q is associated with high investment, or low q with low investment. In fact, the biggest investment boom in postwar history, in the late 1970s, comes when q was at its low point. [*]

The obvious way of looking at this is that, contra Tobin and (at least some readings of) Keynes, stock prices don’t seem to have much to do with fixed investment. Which is not so strange, when you think about it — it’s never been clear why managers and entrepreneurs should substitute the stock market’s beliefs about the profitability of some new investment for their own, presumably better-informed, one. Just as well, given the unanchored gyrations of the stock market.

This is true as far as it goes, but there’s another way of looking at it. Because, q isn’t just uncorrelated with investment; for most of the period, at least until the 1990s, it’s almost always well below 1. This is even more surprising when you consider that a well-run firm with an established market ought to have a q above one, since it will presumably have intangible assets — corporate culture, loyal customers and so on — that don’t show up on the balance sheet. In other words, measured assets should seem to be “too low”. But in fact, they’re almost always too high. For most of the postwar period, it seems that corporations were systematically investing too much, at least from the point of view maximizing shareholder value.

I was talking with Suresh the other day about labor, and about the way labor organizing can be seen as a kind of assertion of a property right. Whether shareholders are “the” residual claimants of a firm’s earnings is ultimately a political question, and in times and places where labor is strong, they are not. Same with tenant organizing — you could see it as an assertion that long-time tenants have a property right in their homes, which I think fits most people’s moral intuitions.

Seen from this angle, the fact that businesses were investing “too much” during much of the postwar decades no longer is a sign they were being irrational or made a mistake; it just suggests that they were considering the returns to claimants other than shareholders. Though one wouldn’t what to read too much into it, it’s interesting in this light that for the past dozen years aggregate q has been sitting at one, exactly where loyal agents for shareholders would try to keep it. In liberal circles, the relatively low business investment of the past decade is often considered a sign of something seriously wrong with the economy. But maybe it’s just a sign that corporations have learned to obey their masters.

EDIT: In retrospect, the idea of labor as residual claimant does not really belong in this argument, it just confuses things. I am not suggesting that labor was ever able to compel capitalist firms to invest more than they wanted, but rather that “capitalists” were more divided sociologically before the shareholder revolution and that mangers of firms chose a higher level of investment than was optimal from the point of view of owners of financial assets. Another, maybe more straightforward way of looking at this is that q is higher — financial claims on a firm are more valuable relative to the cost of its assets — because it really is better to own financial claims on a productive enterprise today than in the pr-1980 period. You can reliably expect to receive a greater share of its surplus now than you could then.

[*] One of these days I really want to write something abut the investment boom of the 1970s. Nobody seems to realize that the highest levels of business investment in modern US history came in 1978-1981, supposedly the last terrible days of stagflation. Given the general consensus that fixed capital formation is at the heart of economic growth, why don’t people ask what was going right then?

Part of it, presumably, must have been the kind of sociological factors pointed to here — this was just before the Revolt of the Rentiers got going, when businesses could still pursue growth, market share and innovation for their own sakes, without worrying much about what shareholders thought. Part must have been that the US was still able to successfully export in a range of industries that would become uncompetitive when the dollar appreciated in the 1980s. But I suspect the biggest factor may have been inflation. We always talk about investment being encouraged by stuff that makes it more profitable for capitalists to hold their wealth in the form of capital goods. But logically it should be just as effective to reduce the returns and/or safety of financial assets. Since neither nominal interest rates nor stock prices tracked inflation in the 1970s, wealthholders had no choice but to accept holding a greater part of their wealth in the form of productive business assets. The distributional case for tolerating inflation is a bit less off-limits in polite conversation than it was a few years ago, but the taboo on discussing its macroeconomic benefits is still strong. Would be nice to try violating that.

The Capitalist Wants an Exit, Facebook Edition

In today’s FT, John Gapper reads the Facebook prospectus. [1] And he doesn’t like what he sees:

There is still time to cancel its IPO and the filing provides plenty of reasons why it ought to… It begs a question if a company trying to raise capital from investors cannot think of anything to do with the money. Yet this is Facebook’s predicament – as it admitted in its filing on Wednesday, its cash flow and credit “will be sufficient to meet our operational needs for the foreseeable future”. … So what are its plans for the additional $5bn it may raise from an IPO? It intends to put the cash into US government bonds and savings accounts…

Gapper, looking at the IPO from the perspective of what it does for Facebook the enterprise, understandably thinks this is nuts. Why incur the costs of an IPO and the ongoing requirements of a public listing, if you have so little need for the cash that you are literally just planning to leave it in a savings account. But of  course, the purpose of the IPO has nothing to do with Facebook the enterprise.

Given that it doesn’t need capital…, why the IPO? … Facebook’s motivation is clear: to gratify its venture capital investors and employees. This is not a cynical statement; it is a quote from Mr Zuckerberg’s letter to new shareholders. “We’re going public for our employees and our investors,” he writes. “We made a commitment to them when we gave them equity that we’d work hard to make it worth a lot and make it liquid, and this IPO is fulfilling our commitment.”

In terms of Silicon Valley’s logic, it makes sense… For the company itself, however, the logic is far less obvious. As a corporate entity, Facebook could clearly thrive without seeking new shareholders, whose main purpose is to allow the insiders to get rich and eventually exit.

 As I’ve written before, the function of the stock market in modern capitalism is to get money out of corporations, not put money into them. The social problem they are solving is not society’s need to allocate scarce savings to the most promising investments, but wealth-owners desire to free their fortunes from particular firm or industry and keep them as claims on the social product as a whole.

[1] It’s been said before, but can I just point out how unbearably stupid is the FT’s policy of actively discouraging people from excerpting their articles?

The Mind of the Master Class

In comments, Arin says,

my view of the world is that there were (at least) two distinct phases … First was the emergence of a market for corporate control through hostile takeovers in the 1980s, which may have changed managerial incentives to basically ward off such possibilities. However, it didn’t lead to greater power of shareholders over management … consolidation and mergers over time ended up actually increasing managerial prerogatives. However, it was of course a very different type of management … one whose incentives were quite aligned with short term capital gains which were also potentially helpful to ward off challenge for control… So yes, the market for corporate control changed the world – but ironically it changed it by passing more rents to managers, not less.

I don’t know that I agree — or at least, it depends what you mean by managerial prerogatives. Relative to workers, to consumers, to society at large? Sure. Relative to shareholders? I’m not so sure. But let’s say Arin is right. I don’t think it fundamentally changes the story. What I’m talking about isn’t fundamentally a conflict between two different groups of people, but between two functions. Capital, as we know, is a process, value in a movement of self-expansion: M-C-C’-M’. The question is whether capital as a sociological entity, as something that act on its own interests, is conscious of itself more in the C moments or in the M moments. Do the people who exercise political power on behalf of capital think of themselves more as managers of a production process, or as stewards of a pool of money? The point is that sometime around 1980, we saw a transition from the former to the latter. Whether that took the form of an empowering of the money-stewards at the expense of the production-managers, or of everyone in power thinking more like a money-steward, is less important.

I heard a story the other day that nicely illustrates this. Back in the Clinton era, a friend of a friend was on a commission to discuss health care reform, the token labor guy with a bunch of business executives. So, he asked, why don’t the Big Three automakers and other old industrial firms support some kind of national health insurance? Just look at the costs, look at how much you could save if you focus on making cars instead of being a health insurer. Well yes, the auto executives at the meeting replied, you make a good point. But you know, our big focus right now is on reducing the capital gains tax. Let’s deal with that first, and then we can talk about health insurance.

If you’re an executive in neoliberal America, you’re an owner of financial assets first and foremost, and responsible for the long-term interests of the firm you manage second, third or not at all.