Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The E.U. Goes After Google: Where Was the U.S.?

In fining Google a record 2.4 billion euros (2.7 billion dollars) in June, 2017, for unfairly favoring its advertisers in its online shopping service, E.U. officials went “significantly further than their American counterparts.”[1] At the time, Google held more than 90 percent of the online search market in the E.U. Why would the E.U. go further than the U.S. in pressing anti-trust violations against a technology company that could be expected to gain monopoly profits? Presumably Google was favoring its advertisers on searches in the U.S. as well. Americans would mind too when an advertiser’s higher-price product comes up rather than a comparable product at a better deal. Was the E.U. more interested in protecting consumers and less concerned about pleasing a large company? The company’s sordid, self-serving practice nullifies any contending claim that the government’s motive was to go after a foreign company. I submit that the E.U. government’s action unwittingly points to a pro-business bias in the corresponding American government.

With the demand that Apple repay $14.5 billion in back taxes in the E.U. state of Ireland, an investigation into Amazon’s tax practices in the E.U., and “concerns about Facebook’s gathering and handling of data,” the E.U.’s anti-trust division was “laying down a marker for more hands-on control of how the digital world operates.”[2] Why no such marker in the U.S.’s anti-trust division? Clearly, concerns about Facebook were not uncommon there. The E.U. “is setting the agenda,” Nicolas Petit said at a European university.[3] Suddenly America looks like the Old World.

Especially after the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 allowing unlimited spending by companies on political campaigns, the question of the power of large companies in the halls of Congress as well as in the White House at the expense of consumers became more important even if the media kept the issue largely off the public’s radar screen. Is what is good for GM good for America? The fallacy that what is good for a part is necessarily good for the whole is enough to settle that question. The problem, therefore, lies in certain parts having inordinate influence over the whole—more specifically, on the rules by which the whole operates. Insufficient regard for the public good by public officials who don’t want to risk offending corporate chieftains is like the captain of a ship steering according to the desires of certain wealthy passengers instead of looking out ahead.

So it is telling, I submit, that the E.U.’s anti-trust division essentially shamed its American counterpart in being willing to stand up to very powerful private interests. The “proof in the pudding” lies, I suppose, in the dearth of cases in which the U.S.’s government (and those of the member states) has spoken truth to the powers behind the throne and gone on to act on that truth in enacting laws and regulations that protect the public. All too often, American regulatory agencies are captured by the very companies that are to be regulated. Beyond the agencies’ reliance on their respective regulatees for market information and the regulatees’ ability to hire former regulators for lucrative jobs, a company’s monetary influence in electoral campaigns gives elected representatives a powerful incentive to pressure the regulatory agencies to go easy on even an entire industry. From a company’s standpoint, unwanted regulations can be softened or averted outright, or new regulations can be used strategically at the expense of typically smaller competitors that are less able monetarily to comply with stiffer mandates. So it is not simply more regulations that attest to a willingness to “speak truth to power.” Government officials with the courage (and fortitude) to protect the public cannot simply enact laws and regulations that are in a dominant company’s interest. Clearly, the E.U. passed this test in being willing to stand up to Google.

[i] Mark Scott, “Google Fined Record $2.7 Billion in E.U. Antitrust Ruling,” The New York Times, June 27, 2017.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Hedge Fund Set to Hack Nestlé Up: A Case of Sensationalistic Over-Kill

Does the fact that an earnings-per-share figure has not meaningfully improved over, say, five years justify an overhaul pushed by a hedge-fund activist investor?  Put another way, is a steady earnings-per-share tantamount to failure? Especially for an established company, steady numbers do not evince bad performance. An airline would only foolishly fire a pilot for not climbing once having attained a cruising altitude. Maintaining such an altitude during a flight is hardly a reason to turn a plane around or set it in a radically different direction.

With 40 million shares, which amounts to about $3.5 billion, in Nestlé, Third Point hedge fund urged the company’s management in June of 2017 to “sell its stake on L’Oréal and sell off nonessential operations as part of a broad shake-up.”[1] The conglomerate’s shares had appreciated nearly 15% over the preceding 12 months—behind Unilever but better than Mondelez and Kraft Heinz. So why a shake-up? 

Dan Loeb of Third Point.  Relax, Dan, Nestle is not on a nose-dive. 

To be sure, the conglomerate structure is itself arguably too much of a strain on the extant science of management, especially in the United States given the penchant for specialization over “big-picture” management. Selling L’Oréal thus may make sense so the management can concentrate on food. It was not as if such a focus would leave corporate managers with nothing to do.

In May, Nestlé announced a joint-operation with Amazon to offer a cooking companion with recipe instructions and other help for customers. At the same time, Nestlé set to work eliminating unpopular ingredients to its Maggi line. The company had been working to remove preservatives from its ice creams. Lastly, the company announced in June that it was the lead investor in a $77 million in Freshly, a subscription meal service. Such adaption to changing consumer tastes and changes in the industry is a solid means by which an established company improves its profitability. Slogans like “a bold strategy” and a “broad shake-up” make for good press, but they do not fit with a company that has achieved cruising altitude. In other words, severing arms and legs should only be attempted in the more dire of cases, rather than as business as usual.

[1] Michael Merced, “Third Point, a Hedge Fund, Sets Its Activist Sights on Nestlé,” The New York Times, June 26, 2017.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Apparent Gains in Corporate Governance Accountability as the U.S. Economy Shifts

In 2016, Sacred Heart University purchased G.E.’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut for $31.5 million. Gone were the Persian rugs and lavish artwork. The property acquired included the “Guest House,” the company’s 28-room hotel “to serve visiting executives and others, with no expense spared on the parquet floors, wood-burning fireplaces and a Steinway piano.”[1] Jack Welsh oversaw the ornate construction, leading to the obvious question of just what his sense of fiduciary duty to the company’s stockholders was. An artificial distinction between managers—only some being styled “executives”—was doubtless behind the luxuriant excess only for those certain employees “in the club.” From the standpoints of a board and its stockholders, “executives,” managers, and other employees are all employees. Why then should some of them be associated with luxury while they are at work? Historically, the aristocratic luxuriated precisely because those people didn’t have to work, and more importantly, they viewed work (and even their own money) as not worthy of much attention—there being finer things in life. “Executive” employees are not aristocratic, for they labor even when they could live off their accumulated wealth and pursue loftier aims, such as aiding humanity, furthering knowledge, or engaging in the arts with an eye toward advancing civilization. Bill Gates got this memo; Warren Buffett did not.

The presence of extremely rich people in the executive ranks of large corporations interferes, I submit, with the accountability that corporate governance is designed to deliver for stockholders. Lavish business expenses run counter to such governance and the very notion of a corporation as the stockholders’ combined wealth.  In the era of American industrialization, the huge profits in the industrial sector gave cover to managers such as Jack Welsh, who felt free to exploit the obvious conflict of interest in spending lavishly for the upper-echelon managers themselves, as if the company were their own country club rather than a business. Doubtless managers themselves assumed that paid country-club memberships were necessary to get and even retain (well qualified?) fellow “executives.” The underlying conflict of interest was somehow invisible to sycophantic boards and even large stockholders who looked the other way. In the succeeding high-tech era, the same obliviousness has surely existed in that sector in spite of the rise of activist stockholders.

To be sure, indications can be found that suggest more activist pressure. Even as stockholder activists’ assets were increasing from 1997 to 2015, the number of publically traded U.S. companies decreased from 7,507 to 3,766.[2] Meanwhile, the activists were getting more, well, active, and they were finding it easier to win board seats as fewer companies staggered their elections over three-year cycles. More than 300 U.S. companies were targeted in 2015, up from about 100 in 2010.[3] Boards were better positioned, at least formally, to hold C.E.O.s accountable as the percentage of joint C.E.O.-Chair positions decreased. “In 2001, more than half of new C.E.O.s also assumed the position of chairman when they took over. By 2016, only 10 percent occupied both roles.”[4]

Yet the actual impact from activist stockholders may have only been in decreasing the average tenure of the C.E.O’s. Boards were “still willing to dole out huge golden parachutes to C.E.O.’s, even if they fail.”[5] Furthermore, even though G.E.’s swanky executive suites went from 44,000 square feet in Fairfield to 7,800 square feet in Boston, C.E.O.s of high-tech companies were under less activist scrutiny in spending from soaring profits and stock prices.[6] A study looking at shareholder proposals from 2003 through 2015 concludes that “managers often seek to avoid the implementation of legitimate shareholder interests.”[7] In 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Financial Choice Act, a deregulatory bill that would require a shareholder to own at least 1% of a company’s shares for three years to get a proposal on a proxy ballot. At the time, a stockholder needed to own only $2,000 worth of stock for at least a year. Clearly, the power of activist stockholders was quite far away from Congress, whereas that of corporate managements was very close by.

Even the increased power of activists to pressure the firing of a C.E.O. of an underperforming blue chip company may actually be a manifestation of frustration over stagnant revenue and profits in the sagging industrial sector; the real question, still unanswered in 2017, is whether activist stockholders would ever go after the lavish spending of “executives” of profitable companies. Even those managements, such as of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook were obliged even in their hay-day by the legal doctrine of fiduciary duty to not be profligate, and to authorize spending for legitimate business reasons because cost management is in the stockowners’ financial interest. This interest, rather than those of “executives,” is legally hegemonic, rather than to be dismissed or even rebuffed. Luxury, in other words, does not go with the work inside a corporation, but, rather, with the ownership of wealth, even if some of the employees are themselves extremely rich. Their independence and association of themselves with luxury does not fit with the corporate model, especially as concerned the ability of corporate governance to exert accountability in the interests of stockholders. As for the apparent strengthening of corporate governance in the industrial sector, the alleged improvement may actually have been a function of a major sectoral shift within the American economy. It is only natural that the old guard would be frustrated at the shift, so what looks like better accountability may only be infighting. To gauge real accountability, we would need to look at the newly hegemonic sector: Are the “executives” in it taking liberties at their stockholders’ expense?  

[1] Nelson D. Schwartz, “The Decline of the Baronial C.E.O.,” The New York Times, June 17, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Gretchen Morgenson, “Meet the Legislation Designed to Stifle Shareholders,” The New York Times, June 16, 2017.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

ECB Poised to Approve Italian Bailout of Monte dei Paschi Bank: An Instance of Federal-State Collusion?

Under the E.U.’s banking law enacted after the 2008 financial crisis, the state governments “are not supposed to inject fresh taxpayer money into a bank if it is deemed insolvent. When a bank gets into financial trouble, shareholders and bondholders, assumed to be sophisticated investors aware of the risks, are supposed to take the hit and bear the losses.” Much of the banking reforms were intended, moreover, “to prevent banks from becoming so big and so risky that they could hold the global economy hostage. Politicians and policy makers didn’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for the banks’ mistakes.” What about a mid-sized bank whose financial plight puts a state’s economy and reigning political elite in jeopardy? Should the E.U.’s central bankers look the other way and allow the state’s government to finance a bail-out so stockholders and bondholders need not feel the brunt?

The full essay is at "Essays on the E.U. Political Economy," available at Amazon.