Colin Mayer is a distinguished professor at the University of Oxford, former dean of the Said Business School and a Fellow of the British Academy . Throughout his career one of his fields of interests has been the business corporation and at present he is director of the Academy’s research programme into the Future of the Corporation.
However neither the title nor sub-title of the book do justice to its contents. The book is nothing if not ambitious. In examining the business corporation the claim is that “it will take you across history, around the world, through philosophy and biology to business, law and economics, and finance to arrive at an understanding of where we have gone wrong, why, how we can put it right and what specifically we need to do about it”.
The remarkable fact is that I believe he has achieved his aim. The book is wide in scope, has considerable depth and is not superficial. It is well written, interesting to read and draws on a lifetime of research into different aspects of the business organisation.
The book is first a sustained and vigorous attack on Milton Friedman’s claim that the sole social responsibility of business is to increase its profits, subject however to doing so in open and free competitive markets, without deception or fraud, while conforming to the basic rules of the society embodied in law and custom. For Mayer the public have lost trust in business precisely because business has followed Friedman’s advice and put the interests of shareholders above other stakeholders.
In its place he proposes a total reinvention of the corporation. Corporate law should be changed so that each company is required to state its ultimate purpose over and above profit, redefine the responsibilities of directors to deliver these new objectives, develop new measures by which they can be judged and introduce incentives to deliver them.
In exploring the purpose of business Mayer distinguishes between ‘making good’ (such as manufacturing cars, or electrical products) and ‘doing good’ (treating employees well, cleaning up the environment, enhancing the well-bring of communities). The latter has a social public-service element which goes beyond the private interests of the firm’s customers and investors, and even beyond section 172 of the 2006 UK companies Act, which already imposes duties on directors to take into account the interests of stakeholders other than shareholders. As examples of successful and enlightened corporations he mentions with approval “industrial foundations” companies such as Bertelsmann, Bosch, Carlsberg, Tata and John Lewis which are set up as foundations or trusts.
While I admire his ability to explore different dimensions of the business in one book, I have serious problems with his argument.
First, the pursuit of long term profitability is essential if a company wishes to prosper in the long term. Long term profit is a great discipline. This applies not just to publicly quoted companies; it applies equally to private companies, B-corps, partnerships, foundations and trusts. If companies of any kind make losses, capital will drain away and either they get taken over or go bust. This applies to all companies even those which are foundations and trusts. Not only that but long term profitability is a pre-condition of companies doing good: being able to reward employees well, help communities, develop new products and services for customers and invest to protect the natural environment. In this context it is important to distinguish between long term profitability and short term profitability.
The pursuit of short term profitability is bad business. Just recall the financial derivative products created by banks in the feverish boom years leading up to the 2008 crisis which ultimately led to some banks going bust and others being bailed out by governments. This was bad business. British Home Stores was a classic example of short term profit maximization with inadequate investment in the business itself or the pension fund. Again short termism leading to bad business.
Pursuing long term profitability is not just a matter of management getting numbers right. Before they can do that it requires them to set out a vision which makes the firm “a great place to work”, ensures customers recognize value for money in what they buy, becomes known as an ethical organization by the way they conduct business and admired by shareholders for earning a superior long term return to capital.
A second problem with Mayer’s proposals is the sheer complexity of managing the diverse and frequently opposing interests of stakeholders. It is logically impossible to maximize in more than one dimension. If managers have to manage the interests of all stakeholders they need to be able to make meaningful tradeoffs between competing interests. Profit or change in long-term market value is a way of keeping score in the game of business. Michael Jensen and others have shown that in the long term prospective profit maximization and shareholder maximization amount to the same thing. The use by management of a balance scorecard is no better as it ultimately gives no objective way in which to weigh all of the elements in the scorecard to arrive at a single figure.
A third problem with Mayer’s argument is accountability. “Accountability to everyone means accountability to no one”. The author’s proposal is a revolutionary re-definition of property rights within a modern corporation to make it “trustworthy” but to whom is the board of this new “trustworthy” corporation responsible? And what are the rights of ownership over the funds invested in the business? Already in the US the number of publicly traded companies quoted on exchanges has roughly halved over the past 25 years. One reason is the increasing cost of regulation: another is the availability of private equity finance. If Mayer’s proposals were ever to be implemented they would constitute a major disincentive for companies to raise capital through the public markets and only accelerate the decline in stock market listings.
In Mayer’s proposal shareholders would become providers of capital to business rather than owners of the business. The general public have never had a great trust in business which is why ever since the Industrial Revolution governments have stepped in to control business through laws passed by parliament, regulation, mutualisation, nationalization and state ownership. Mayer’s proposals will downgrade the existing well defined ownership rights which exist in publicly traded companies and replace them with a form of ‘social’ decision making in which the leadership of the company is answerable to trustees but shielded from competition in the market place through take over bids. A sure way to create inefficiency.
In this respect these proposals are a far cry from an exercise in academic research, more a political statement. Far from having no objection to the existence of ‘trustworthy’ corporations as one of many different forms of corporate ownership, I welcome them. In terms of corporate structures let a hundred flowers bloom. If the author was making a case for the idea of ‘Industrial corporation’, fine. However he is doing more than that. He is making the case for eroding private property rights and restricting what companies can do, which is as much a political statement as one based on objective analysis.
“Prosperity: better business makes the greater good” by Colin Mayer was published in 2018 by Oxford University Press (ISBN: 978-0-1988240-08). 288pp.
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