September 18, 2018

Capital investment

How Huge Companies Are Dragging Down Our Economy

This story is republished from CFOZone, where you’ll find news, analysis and professional networking tools for finance executives.

There are three pieces in the blogosphere today that touch on the fundamental problem with our economic system and why it will remain in a ditch, or just lurch onward to the next crisis, if it isn’t addressed.

And that is monopoly. I’ll leave aside the politics of that, which is addressed well enough by Thomas Franks over at the Wall Street Journal. In a nutshell, he warns of a return to feudalism, which I’ve done as well before.

What struck me as new was this analysis, which made me realize that the macroeconomic problem with monopolies is that they discourage hiring and capital investment.

After all, if you have a market locked up, your profits are so high that it makes no sense to take any risk on new investment. You just keep doing what you’re doing with the resources you have, hoping to maintain your barrier to entry. Oh sure, you expand, but only by acquiring competitors so as to keep your monopoly intact and your margins high.

Capital investment? Hiring? Forget about it. There’s no need. In fact, you want to reduce those things. That’s called synergy.

So where does expansion in GDP come from in that case? It derives more and more from speculation about where your stock price will go. Multiply that to the nth degree, a process known as financialization that’s been taking place for decades, and everything ultimately becomes geared to asset prices, with the bubbles and busts that inevitably ensue.

Yes, this description is woefully simplistic and won’t pass muster in a traditional macroeconomics course. There’s also plenty of room for argument as to what degree monopolies currently dominate the economy.

But it seems to me that this is the sort of analysis that’s required to restore the economy’s health. How else, after all, can one explain the paltry amount of hiring and capital investment we’ve seen since the late 1990s?

The point of such a discussion, of course, would be to come up with a solution to the problem. As cogent but unfashionable as its description of the problem may be, the Marxist view expressed in the Monthly Review article cited above is that it cannot be solved because of the irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of capitalism, and that political instability of the highest order is thus inevitable. Sorry, but no thanks.

The alternative: Vigorous antitrust enforcement, which, as Simon Johnson of MIT points out, is what the progressive Republicans pursued a century ago when financial trusts threatened to put a stranglehold on the entire system.

Indeed, breaking up monopolies, in banking and elsewhere, strikes me as the only viable means of growing the economy without creating a more dangerous asset bubble in short order.

Yes, you could conceivably do it instead through better regulation, and I’m all for that, but the back and forth we’ve seen in Washington over financial reform shows that better regulation is impossible until the economic power of the banks, and the political influence that goes with it, is sharply curtailed. The Federal Reserve and other bank regulators had all the authority they needed to keep banks in check, but failed to do so. Why? It wasn’t because they were dumb.