The unowned public corporation

Good column by Will Hutton on why the notion of “shareholder control” is a myth. Sample:

Banks have grown this large, complex and profitable because, like all plcs in our times, they are not owned by a mass of responsible, long-term shareholders who care for their purpose, sustainability of business model or wider economic obligations. Their overriding concern is high returns on equity. Long-term investors such as Standard Life, which voted against Barclays bonus hikes, are now a tiny minority. The majority of shareholders are hedge funds or multitrillion global asset management groups. They don’t own companies: they either trade them like casino chips or use them as temporary ports of call for their money. A bank CEO such as Antony Jenkins at Barclays has to tread a path between appeasing these non-owners and creating a bank that builds long-term value: if he falls, be sure Barclays will be under enormous pressure to replace him with another Bob Diamond, who will go all out for short-term profits and sky-high bonuses come what may.

The emergence of the ownerless corporation seeking to maximise short-term profits is now the key feature of modern capitalism. But “unowned” banks, unlike other PLCs, engage in the unique business of creating money and credit, knowing that governments must ultimately stand behind them if anything goes wrong. This guarantee always meant there would be a bias to increase credit as a share of GDP: between 1950 and 2000, it doubled in the major industrialised countries.

But between 2000 and 2010, as short-term profit maximising banks became the norm, credit doubled again in scale. By the time of the banking crisis, returns on equity had more than doubled as all this lending had been supported with ever less capital – bankers trading on the implicit government guarantee but delivering the returns their shareholders wanted. Moreover, much of this credit has been directed to lend to property in every country, rather than risky new investment.

Modern banking, as Adair Turner pointed out in an important lecture at the Cass Business School last month, has become an engine for credit, leverage and property price inflation. Britain, with its companies uniquely “unowned”, uniquely focused on the share price and its economy uniquely organised to favour finance over industry, was inevitably going to be the most acute example of the trend.