Too many boardrooms display a ‘conspiracy against the public’

On a cool May morning in 2006 a group of garishly dressed people preceded by a small camel paraded across London’s Clapham Common. They carried placards bearing a quotation from Matthew 19:24: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

These were members of the GMB trade union making their way to Holy Trinity Church, where a leading private equity boss worshipped. They were protesting the methods used by private equity and their small procession was part of an imaginative campaign that attracted attention but achieved little reform in the rip-roaring days of 2006.

The financial crisis that erupted two years later might have prompted a rethink. Evidently not. This week’s collapse of the retailer BHS suggests that the methods identified by the GMB 10 years ago — tax-efficient dividend-stripping leaving employees and pensioners vulnerable — persisted. That they did so is symptomatic of a largely unreconstructed model of capitalism.

BHS is not even the most egregious example of the disequilibrium between business owners and managers, and other stakeholders. Indeed, current events suggest that 21st capitalism still has an under-developed sense of responsibility to the world it serves. Examples can be found in many areas, but the focus here is where the chain between irresponsible behaviour and money is the shortest, namely tax avoidance, customer deception and excessive pay.

Tax issues include corporations operating in high-tax countries and booking profits in low-tax regimes, and avoidance on a breathtaking scale as revealed by the Panama Papers. A whole industry exists to advise wealthy individuals and businesses how to minimise their tax bills, overwhelming the resources of the authorities and lobbying governments to keep legislation loose.

The line between legitimate advertising and customer deception has been crossed often. In many industries, such as banking, customers have become regarded as a means to an end. Traditional values of service as a decent act, as the right thing to do, have been lost amid fraudulent emissions tests and the sale of expensive, unnecessary insurance policies.

Executive pay has detached itself from the value created by the recipient and the earnings of ordinary people. Certain chief executives brazenly expect increased reward irrespective of performance, while paying employees the minimum wage on flimsy contracts.

Some progress has been made. Amazon, which at one time paid only £12m of UK tax on over £5bn sales to British shoppers, now books its sales in the country of the buyer’s address and pays tax accordingly. Starbucks paid nearly as much corporation tax in 2015 as it did in its first 14 years in the UK. Banks such as Barclays have wound up aggressive tax avoidance units; the big accounting firms have toned down their tax advice.

The word “transparency” now appears in most annual reports. Finance and energy companies supply their customers with explanations of tariffs and charges. Following pressure from health advocates, Mars Food plans to tell customers to eat some of its products only once a week to maintain a balanced diet. Heavy sanctions, such as fines for banks that mis-sold payment protection insurance, have forced managements to treat customers more fairly.

Board remuneration committees have become more forensic in assessing executive pay. Deferred payments and bonus clawbacks are becoming standard features, while dissident shareholders in the US and UK have voted against executive pay packages. The head of the Co-op group has asked for a 60 per cent cut to his total pay package to reflect the fact that his job had become simpler.

Superficial changes or a reflection of a deep-seated change in business culture? The weight of evidence suggests that for all the progress, responsible capitalism is not yet stitched into the corporate fabric and nor will it be until the business paradigm changes.

Business people, as Adam Smith observed in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, have a tendency towards “a conspiracy against the public” but the age of irresponsible capitalism really began with the shareholder value movement 200 years later. The ideas of the American academic Alfred Rappaport were seized by consultants and investment bankers, and brutalised into the notion that everything was justified in the interests of shareholders.

At the same time, fund management moved from the long-term business of serving the needs of pensioners and savers into a results-driven game of quarterly performance. Institutions egged on companies to deliver short-term results. The response was ruthless cost-cutting, financial engineering and aggressive acquisitions. Regulators and governments encouraged the rising tide of economic liberalisation and backed off in the belief that business worked best if it was left to its own devices.

The result was the spate of irresponsible behaviour we have been witnessing, but despite the modest progress described above, no new paradigm has replaced shareholder value.

Enlightened managements now speak of shareholder value being a consequence of good business, not a prior objective, but the interests of other stakeholders have little traction. Until that changes, there are no grounds to believe that it will be possible to reverse a deeply entrenched culture in which selfishness is endemic.

Meanwhile, over on Clapham Common, the camel is 10 years older, the rich are richer still and the eye of the needle remains exactly the same size.



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