Capitalism in paradigm shift
Anti-capitalist protests tip the balance in favor of stakeholder capitalism
By Kim Jae-kyoung
It takes only two years for greed to re-take the stage of the global financial sector. While both financial and emotional fallout from the 2008-2009 financial crisis has yet to disappear and is still very really amongst us, financial firms and their managers seem to have already forgot what happened for the past few years.
In short, the financial world is now a contrast of misery and happiness. The global economy and financial markets remain highly volatile due to lingering uncertainties, causing many individual investors to suffer huge losses. Ironically, some business leaders, who were responsible for putting many people into hardship, are making big bucks in the process.
The two faces of the American-style capitalism, in its current form, have frustrated the public and forced them to take to the street all around the world, which was initiated by “Occupy Wall Street,” anti-capitalist protests in New York.
The occupation, inspired by the anti-Wall Street protests in lower Manhattan, has blossomed into other parts of the world. In Seoul, hundreds of civic group members and labor activists also held rallies over the past few weeks under the slogan of “99 percent of ordinary Koreans who stand up against the super-wealthy 1 percent.”
On the surface, the globalized anti-capital movements suggest that the public has become frustrated by moral hazards among financial managers and economic hardships caused by the crisis, such as poverty, unemployment, lack of social mobility, and deepening economic polarization.
However, if you look into what’s happening behind the scene, it is much more than just public anger. The occupation has tipped the balance of the capitalistic regime in favor of workers, customers and creditors, signaling the demise of shareholder capitalism and the advent of stakeholder capitalism.
The crisis has proved that businesses that ignore other stakeholders risk losing their competitive edge and face forced exits from the market. Many economists argue that capitalism which seeks to maximize shareholders’ values is in crisis and it is time to overhaul it and develop a more sustainable one.
“People feel disenfranchised economically and politically. Unemployment is high and incomes stagnant. Young people don’t see the “system” as working for them. My take is that this type of spontaneous movement should be a reminder to politicians that they are not doing their job,” Mauro F. Guillen, the director of Lauder Institute at the Wharton School, told Business Focus.
“We need stakeholder capitalism, that is, a more balanced deal among shareholders, bondholders, workers, and other stakeholders,” he added.
Evolution of management paradigm
The key trigger for the worldwide demonstration was financial executives’ salaries recovering to pre-crisis levels amid widening polarization of wealth between the rich and the poor. According to Equilar, a U.S. executive compensation data provider, total pay packages for CEOs at S&P 500 companies rose 28 percent in 2010, to a median of $9 million.
The public has felt anger about Wall Street not admitting to such irresponsible behavior and not getting any meaningful punishment. Furthermore, people have furor to learn that many Wall Street bankers got very rich in the process.
JP Morgan Chase has become one of the main targets for protesters as its CEO Jamie Dimon made $20.8 million in 2010, making him the highest paid banker in the county, up 1,541 percent from a year ago and around 440 times the U.S. GDP per capita.
Given that CEO’s compensation tends to move in tandem with the company’s stock price, it can be good news for investors. However, it is quite disturbing news for most people as it suggests that financial firms are trying to stick to the flawed old system _ tying compensation to short-term performance _ that made the rich even richer while putting the entire system at risk.
The biggest lesson from the 2008-2009 crisis was that firms should exist for all of their stakeholders _ not only their CEOs and shareholders but also their employees, customers and bondholders. Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns went bankrupt as a result of managers seeking only to make short-term gains and maximize returns for their shareholders.
In the immediate wake of the crisis, many business leaders agree that the world needs to jettison shareholder capitalism and revamp it in a more efficient way. However, they have been balking at reforming it by themselves, which has enraged the pubic still suffering from the aftermath of the massive fallout.
Inspired by anti-capitalist movements, stakeholder capitalism is now taking a firmer shape in the business world, replacing shareholder capitalism, the doctrine that companies exist solely to make money for their shareholders.
Shareholder capitalism emerged in the mid 1970s by taking the throne from management capitalism, which started in the early 1930s and first introduced the concept of professional management.
It had since dominated the global economy and finance until the 2008 crisis, after which a new management paradigm, customer capitalism, is developing, according to Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman Business School at the University of Toronto.
In his contribution titled “Customer Capitalism: Does It Pay Off?” to Harvard Business Review in February, 2010, the Nobel economics prize winner wrote that shareholder capitalism is a flawed theory, introducing the notion of customer capitalism, which many believe is a precursor of stakeholder capitalism.
“…companies should seek to maximize customer satisfaction while ensuring that shareholders earn an acceptable risk-adjusted return on their equity,” he wrote.
Case study: Alibaba.com and Starbucks
While many companies are still reeling from the financial crisis, there are some businesses that have successfully headed it off and enjoyed solid growth. In many cases, those companies have principles regarding stakeholder capitalism.
Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of Alibaba.com, China’s most successful e-commerce group, is one of the most vocal supporters. As opposed to American shareholder capitalism model, he established three important principles _ customers first, employees second and shareholders third.
“Value of a company comes from customers. Customers participate in our business and pay us money. So they are the first value of our company. And our employees, server of customers, make sure that customers gain the benefit of platform,” Timothy Leung, channel sales director of global sales at Alibaba.com, said.
“It’s not that shareholders are not important, they are third in the rank. They input the value from the benefit chain. We don’t forget the shareholders. We know that if we serve our customers well, we pay attention to our employees, we will run a very good and healthy business. Subsequently, our shareholder will get the benefit.”
Ma once said that although shareholders say that they are in for the long haul, they run away when crisis comes around while customers and employees are forced to stay. Despite the global crisis, the company showed robust growth, with its total number of registered users reaching 65 million in March 2011, up from 18.98 million at the end of 2006.
Starbucks, the largest coffeehouse company in the world headquartered in Seattle, is one of the few Western players believing in stakeholder capitalism. In his recent book Onward, which describes the firm’s efforts to overcome difficult years, CEO Howard Schultz wrote, "Starbucks had three primary constituencies _ partners, customers, and shareholders, in that order, which is not to say that investors are third in the order of importance. But to achieve long-term value for shareholders, a company must, in my view, first create value for its employees as well as its customers."
“Stakeholder capitalism is an alternative. Firms don't operate in a void, detached from society. They are part of society and have certain responsibilities,” said Moritz Schularick, professor of the Graduate School of North American Studies at the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Free University in Berlin, Germany.
Schularick, who has coined the term “Chimerica” together with Niall Ferguson, pointed out that the root cause of the crisis is governments’ financial aids for those receiving bailouts.
“At the heart of the problem is the too-big-to-fail myth. Banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist. As long as governments have to rescue banks, these perverse incentives will remain in place,” he said.
Fixing the mess
There is little doubt that capitalism will continue to be the key engine of global economic growth down the road. However, in order to prevent the economic system from failing again and ensure a smooth paradigm shift, it is essential to identify the underlying issues and address them.
In his contribution titled “Capitalism for the Long Term” in Harvard Business Review in March 2011, Dominic Barton, managing director of Global consulting firm McKinsey and Company, cites three essential elements of the shift.
“First, business and finance must jettison their short-term orientation and revamp incentives and structures in order to focus their organizations on the long term. Second, executives must infuse their organizations with the perspective that serving the interests of all major stakeholders _ employees, suppliers, customers, creditors, communities, the environment _ is not at odds with the goal of maximizing corporate value.”
He pointed out that few compensation schemes carry consequences for failure _ something that became clear during the financial crisis, when many of the leaders of failed institutions retired extremely wealthy.
“Third, public companies must cure the ills stemming from dispersed and disengaged ownership by bolstering boards’ ability to govern like owners. The board must represent a firm’s owners and serve as the agent of long-term value creation,” he wrote.
Guillen of the Wharton School echoed the view, saying, “This is a lingering problem. Boards have become subject to the CEO. CEOs have too much power. Boards are not doing their job. We need more independent boards.”