The Ownership Disconnect – Managers, Shareholders, Risk and Markets

Or a case of: Absent owners,  managers that act as if they own and get paid as if they take all the risks

Since the banking crisis that became a sovereign debt crisis, the world has begun to focus on the huge salaries and bonuses that are paid to bankers and top business people. In the last week, Barclays Bank announced that over 400 of their staff earned over £1 million in the last financial year.

Whereas those who place their financial lives on the line by building their own businesses and then, if successful, reap the financial rewards – but, if not successful, may lose everything – remain in high esteem amongst most people, those that risk no financial penalties whatsoever (but take massive salaries) have slipped further and further down in the public’s esteem quotient.

Senior managers and directors of major companies (including banks) and sales staff that take home huge bonuses (especially in banking and finance) are no longer lauded for any value they bring amidst a view that their rewards are far too high bearing in mind the lack of risk that they have. This has resulted in the EU plans to limit the bonus payments to bankers – an extraordinary intervention in the marketplace.

Does the marketplace work?

Stock markets are deemed to be the best place to see demand and supply at work. There is more data collected on stock prices than anything else and it goes back hundreds of years. Constant pressure on transparency and liquidity means that markets like the US (DOW, S&P, Nasdaq) and the London Stock Exchange (and others of similar size and liquidity) ensure that supply and demand usually results in a price that means something.

While this has changed markedly with the intervention of computer-driven buying and selling as well as the fact that around 70% of stock is owned by institutions, nevertheless stock markets appear to be mainly market driven. That never means the price is “right” – markets provide a price on any day that may be driven by a myriad of reasons. However, the market price is the price and buyers and sellers are able to take legitimate decisions whether to buy or sell.

Secondary markets

The owners of stocks and shares have, in the vast majority of cases, bought those stocks and shares in a secondary market – long after the IPO. While the majority of today’s owners of Facebook may be IPO buyers, this is only because the company had its IPO just months ago. For the rest of the publicly traded corporate sector, buying shares has little to do with the company involved.

Ownership of a share means potential increase in capital value and dividends growth – and some ownership rights which are rarely used by the individual buyer (although Martin Sorrell is facing some pressure from recently voluble fund holders). Shareholders are primarily interested in the value of the stock – almost unrelated to the company.

Robert Beckman, a well-known business writer from the 1990’s, estimated that 70% of a share’s value related to the way the market was going, 20% related to the industry and only 10% related to the individual stock. If true, this means that ownership of shares in the quoted sector is almost unrelated to the individual stock and owner responsibilities are negligible and rarely used.

In addition, the development of the joint stock company limits the risk to just the loss of the investment and no more (unless buying stocks through leveraged schemes or option trading).

Ownership means almost nothing these days when that ownership is in a publicly traded company.

Staff acting as owners

Lack of ownership in publicly traded companies (the understandable move away from the 19th Century where owners were managers), means that senior managers now act as owners. While it is absolutely true that managers spend considerable time talking to representatives of shareholders (pension funds and similar) and to others who write on their stocks (such as journalists), this is to keep the price up in the market relative to other stocks in the secondary market. It is part of the process of market transparency. Today, that is the main connection between management and owners (at least in terms of the value placed on the stock).

The Board  (with non-execs here to represent the shareholders) carries out primarily a governance role and has, usually, a compensation committee. Their job is to see that senior staff are paid a salary commensurate with the market or whatever and to secure senior staff in their jobs. This crucial role has, of course, been shown to be spurious in recent years.

The banking crisis has shown that there is no such thing as market rates for top staff in major corporations. Has it been just a way of jockeying for position that seeks to provide pay at the highest levels possible? CEO’s claim that they need to be paid international salaries to stay in their UK jobs no matter how poorly their companies’ share price performs.

Recent comments from those involved in the industry show how few CEO’s move abroad or from abroad to the UK. This basic tenet is mistaken, let alone the requirement to pay huge commissions to banking staff when their risk – like those of CEO’s – is no more than to keep their basic pay (already substantial) or in the worst case lose their job. This is completely unlike the entrepreneur, who has both management and ownership, and the heaviest of financial risks – the potential to lose his / her financial assets as well as their job. Both get potentially great rewards, but their risks are completely different.

Market rates of pay are notoriously difficult to derive. Where there is a vast statistical database, then it is possible – although here the markets are driven in different directions by groups of people getting together in unions to drive up market rates (and other forms of benefits).

The shareholder / manager dilemma

 

This can be stated for modern corporate life (in publicly traded companies) as:

Owners that stand back too far leaving managers that act as if they own companies and get paid as if they take all the risks

The issue is important for many reasons. We now have huge and dominant multinational corporations. We have shareholders that seek high and constant returns but have no affinity to the companies they “own”. We have managers that are (too?) highly paid and have wrestled a much higher share of the companies’ income to themselves than ever could have been envisaged and (in the UK and the USA at least) with over-dominant banking and financial centres which have tended to suck the life out of the entrepreneurial sectors rather than giving it life.

Can Shareholder Activism be Re-ignited?

As the West sinks dismally into austerity and behind the newly developing economies of China and India, where corporate ownership is complicated by government (intervention or direct ownership), we need a rebalancing away not just from banking and finance to areas of real value creation. We also need incentives for owners to own and managers to understand and accept real risk before they can access the type of returns that real entrepreneurs can access.

This will (if it is possible) drive any massive returns to the holders of real risk – those who can lose everything or gain massively. This is not the lot of managers – whose risk profile is slanted to the positive and whose manipulative skills are far greater than the quasi-shareowners buying their ownership in secondary marketplace.

Entrepreneurship is at the heart of business and growth of any economy. But, it is stifled by the rise of the manager in publicly traded companies where that rise absorbs far too much of the value created.

Shareholders are slow to act as they are, in the main, too far from the action, unknowing or a manager themselves – as in pension funds.

Now, the UK coalition government will be giving shareholders the right in annual general meetings to reject senior Directors’ pay proposals. The EU is considering the same thing. So, the pendulum is swinging in the direction of shareholder activism after many years of drift and decay. On both sides of the Atlantic, it is necessary for shareholders – who actually, in law, own companies, to assert themselves in pay and other issues. Economies in the West are dividing between those who are in control of an unrealistic share of corporate income (and in 2011, FTSE Directors pay rose 49% while average pay in the UK rose just 2%) and others. The others are shareholders and other employees.

A true market can only operate where monopolies fear to exist. It is apparent that quoted company directors have been able to set their salaries within a close market situation. In a long recession that we have seen in the West since 2008, it would be remarkable for there not to be a kick-back against the ability of one sector of society to benefit so much. Asking for constraint is insufficient. Markets have to be enabled and the recent moves to encourage shareholders to be more active and to give some powers that actually work are in the right direction.

Now it is up to the shareholders (basically, the senior staff of fund-holders like pension funds) to bare their teeth – like they are doing at WPP – and show that just because they go to the same clubs and come from the same schools, shareholders can be properly represented and the market for top directors’ pay can be made efficient.

A Proposal or Three

With stocks bought in a secondary market where ultimate owners have little or no real understanding of the business or ownership responsibilities, it seems reasonable to require large owners of shares to take their responsibilities more seriously – how should secondary market shareholder activism become real? Some suggestions:

Proposal 1: all owners of more than 1% of shares of any traded company should be required to nominate a non-executive director or actively support the nomination of one proposed by another such organization.

Proposal 2: such organizations, who normally buy shares on behalf of others (pension funds, hedge funds or similar) should ask their own investors (mainly those who put their savings into those companies – not just their own shareholders) to vote on their proposals.

Proposal 3: all such organizations have to register as “major shareholders” when they accrue over 1% of stock in a company and the FSA / Stock Exchanges should monitor the job they individually do to actively monitor companies – in the same way that organizations monitor MP’s voting.

All the above relies on making this easy – e.g. online only voting within pension funds and similar (i.e. no computer access, no vote) but, in an age of digitization and where companies and owners are so disconnected, secondary markets need to become activated.

 

Institutionalized!

Will Self’s excellent new book “Umbrella” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Umbrella-Will-Self/dp/1408820145/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348396331&sr=8-1) brilliantly describes the torture of individuals put into “mental institutions” and how (until very recently in the UK) they were appallingly treated.

 

Old people in Care Homes have similarly been shown (one example had a miniature camera secured in the room of a care home) to have been malnourished, beaten and generally abused.

 

Maybe it is improper to use these examples of Institutions that have become uncaring and out of control to symbolize the problems faced regularly by all of us, but it is no coincidence. We have all become “Institutionalized” by the edifices that society has created to carry out the basic functions of society. This is not new. Ossification of institutions is a regular occurrence in society. The reason that monarchs are overthrown, for example, is because the institution of monarchy – the rule of society by one person or clique – becomes, eventually, intolerable to society in general.

 

Cracks in the Institutional Wall

 

We are all confronted by Institutions throughout our lives. From hospitals to school, from government departments to businesses, individuals live their lives working in and being confronted by Institutions.

 

Institutions have been defined as: “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms and organizations that together generate a regularity of (social) behavior” (Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade).

 

They provide “equilibria” to society as a method or ordering our behavior. Greif also developed notions of dynamic institutions to show how institutions change through time.

 

Common Threads’ focus is that the institutions developed in the 19th Century for politics, economics, education and other key areas of society don’t work well in the 21st Century. The aim has been to generate some discussion of where the problems may be and look at some potential solutions rather than try to develop a theoretical analysis (when this is being done elsewhere – for example, in the area of economics at ESNIE (European School on New Institutional Economics – http://esnie.org/).

 

Major economic dislocations as we have seen since 2007 in the West – the banking disasters leading to huge debt problems leading to depression in Greece and the potential for this throughout Europe – could presage major changes in the way institutions develop. Often, the cracks in the wall have to be very large before we either build a new wall or try to fill in the cracks – which is what is being done now.

 

The changes in our institutions that are being made – small changes in banking (mainly in terms of individuals) are akin to deck chairs being moved around on the Titanic. Whether in our political institutions or our economic ones (or wherever large organizations have been set up to provide societal equilibrium) the danger is that they do not change enough to enable society to prosper – rather, built on the foundations of the 19th Century, they fail to deal with the issues that face them (and us) today.

 

Building Order out of Chaos – Challenging Entropy?

 

Just like the walls of Jericho were built to keep out intruders (subject to the odd trumpet) and we build firewalls in our computer systems to keep our systems secure, society builds our Institutions also to have effective walls against change and to build ourselves a cover against the outside world. Maybe we are genetically primed – our cells work within walls that allow us to withstand the chaos that would otherwise ensue. The Second Law of Thermodynamics essentially describes entropy – the natural tendency for good energy to dissipate into bad (useless) energy. Our life on this planet is a constant grind against the power of entropy and, maybe, our desire to build this equilibrium is a natural and instinctive drive for order within chaos.

 

This natural tendency to build order exists throughout civilization and can produce stability and contentment. But, as Darwin wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” (Origin of Species).

 

The key is that Institutions cannot be left to ossify but have to change to meet the changes in environment that exist externally. New order has to be developed constantly.

 

In business, in relatively free markets, businesses come and go on a regular basis. The FTSE 100 started in 1984 and today only three companies from those 100 remain in the FTSE 100 – GKN, Rolls Royce and Imperial Tobacco. This is because the FTSE 100 reconstitutes itself every three months. The Dow Jones started in 1896 – who remembers American Cotton Oil or National Lead or United States Rubber? That is not to belittle business – there is a tough economic law that works hard to reward success and punish failure. Companies that don’t work hard to change to meet the needs of the external environment simply fail. Apple is a great example of a company that was close to collapse in the 1980’s but (under Jobs) completely redirected itself so that it is now the highest valued company in the world. But, for how long? Most companies fail (70% in the first three years).

 

Taking Down the Walls

 

Within the rest of society, change is harder. In our fight against the ravages of chaos, we allow pressure to build up, often learning the wrong lessons. This so often leads to an explosion as pressure gets too much. Society is not very good at understanding where the pressure is building. We defend the status quo for too long and then find ourselves unable to contain the whirlwind that attacks us.

 

In the UK, we have prided ourselves on our ability to change gradually so as to release the pressure before it gets too much. Not since the middle of the 17th Century has England fought a Civil War. This is held up to be the result of the changing democratic scene – from Magna Carta through rule by nobles to rule by the Commons (elected nobles); constant enlargement of the vote from 1832 onwards to women in 1918 (as long as they were over 30 and lived in a decent house) to 18 year-olds in 1969.

 

The walls have been dismantled brick by brick and most democracies follow a similar path.

 

The challenge now is that, in an age where developed societies have reached a decent level of economic wealth, politicians are losing any connection with those they are supposed to represent. Only around 50% of the voting population bothers to vote in general elections. More are now linking up with one-issue groups who they believe will push agendas on their behalf rather than hope that a political party will (by the mere casting of a vote every five years) carry out a manifesto that cannot meet most aspirations.

 

This means that the one issue lobbyists are getting greater powers to influence. Their techniques and ability to make change happen is developing constantly. Originally, such groups were primarily labour organizations (Trades Unions) and, in the UK, this developed into the Labour Party. Now, there are groups within the Third Sector that campaign on any range of issues from the environment to health, from taxation to education, from peace campaigners and human rights to fox-hunting (both sides). Organized campaign groups now operate as a key part of society so that individuals are now useful only at elections.

 

This means that more Institutions have been developed to challenge the political parties (it happens throughout the world). This is not a challenge to the political process – it may even solidify it by shoring up the political process within a wall of campaigning institutions.

 

What role for Society?

 

It is in this context that several have questioned the future in which we grow Institutions to work with other Institutions to govern (or run other aspects of our lives). This response to the walls around politics and government may be a natural one but is questionable as the new Institutions (of the campaigners and lobbyers) are run by a small number of people and funded in many ways. They are not accountable in the same way as political parties are supposed to be (and continue as long as they are funded). Their funds come from a variety of sources and confusion exists amongst society in separating out charitable work from campaigning and lobbying. In the UK, there is no register of lobbying so there is no transparency that is at least attempted in the US (which has its own problems owing to funding regulations that allow companies to fund to whatever level).

 

There is a real danger that the way we are evolving the democratic process is anti-democratic. Democracy is supposed to be government by the people. We have a three-tier system now whereby professional politicians are influenced by a small number (relative to the population) of professionally-run organizations throughout a term of office – remembering the individual citizens only when elections loom.

 

Is this the best we can do?

 

Building the Walls from the Bottom Up

 

In Australia (as I have mentioned in an earlier post), The Centre for Civil Society (under Vern Hughes) – http://www.civilsociety.org.au/ – has developed some new insights and a challenge to the norm in http://www.civilsociety.org.au/CivilSocietyPolitics.htm.

 

This is worthy of investigation as one means of providing greater involvement in our own future.

 

Also critical is the use of technology. Changes in the means of communication have always brought with them the means to radically change society. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the TV, the computer and the internet, the mobile phone, wireless comms – all lead to more and faster information and an enabling of the individual.

 

This is a critical cause of concern for leaders of legalist states such as in China but also offers challenges (and opportunities) to so-called democracies.

 

Individuals are now empowered by technology by dis-empowered by institutions. This means that empowerment is taken up by online shopping or social networking rather much more than for social change or betterment. It means that civil society will continue to be badly served by national and international institutions that meet lobbyists in the corridors of power but are insufficiently grappling with society itself (rather the funneling through funded organizations).

 

Yet, power exists. Libya is a exciting example. Just recently, armed militia groups (a powerful central non-government organization) were ousted by people – civil society coming together to say, “thanks for toppling Gaddafi, your work is done!” In Egypt, Tahrir Square was the centre of civil society’s success to overthrow a dictator. Here, the Military Institutions delayed the correct response and we will have to wait to see if the elected President, Morsi, will serve his citizens or other Institutions (including religious).

 

Civil society (we, the people) should see the 21st Century as one where we are allowed to deliver. The forces for 19th Century equilibria often stand in the way of progress – and are standing in the way of serious climate change policies on an international scale. Institutions set up to effect change may be set up for the right reasons but we are now institutionalized and should seriously re-evaluate our reaction to the new Institutions just as we challenge the old ones. If we need a wall, then we should be blowing that trumpet to unsettle the existing ones.