Wealth capture

Great Observer column by Simon Caulkin.

What's been lost over the last three decades is only now becoming clear. Some of the warning signs were already visible in the succession of increasingly frequent panics and scandals of the last decade and a half – Enron, the dotcom boom, LTCM. Less obviously, the last 30 years have seen a steady erosion of balance between stakeholders. While layoffs of staff – "the most important asset" – were once a last resort for employers, they are now the first option. Outsourcing is so prevalent that it needs no justification. And the company's welfare role is now so attenuated that it barely exists. First to go was the notion of career; more recently, the tearing-up of company pension obligations is another unilateral recasting of the conditions of work – a historic step backwards – that has aroused barely a ripple of objection.

The justification for this behaviour is, of course, the pressure of the market. But this is to disguise a betrayal. As a class, ever since the separation of ownership and management in the 19th century, managers have always occupied a neutral position at the heart of the enterprise – neither labour nor capital, but charged with combining the two for the benefit of both the company and society itself.

Everything changed in the 1980s, however, with the advent of Reagan, Thatcher and Chicago School economists who preached the alignment of management with shareholders in the name of "efficiency". In effect, "efficiency" came to mean short-term earnings to the detriment of long-term organisation-building; what was touted as "wealth creation" was actually "wealth capture", from suppliers, clients and employees as well as competitors, on the grandest scale since the robber barons. Its purest expression was private equity.

Managers never looked back. As late as the 1980s, a multiple of 20 times the earnings of the average worker was perfectly adequate CEO pay. But under the compliant gaze of shareholders and remuneration committees, performance-pay contracts boosted the ratio to 275 times by 2007.

As we now know, "performance pay" was a misnomer, an incentive for financial engineering that has destroyed value on a heroic scale. But it's not just shareholder value that has suffered. By severing any common interest between top managers and the rest of the workforce, fake performance pay has fatally undermined the internal compact that makes organisations thrive in the long term.