Realist, not conformist analysis of the latest financial, business and political news

If Only He Understood Business Or Economics

A Richard Murphy

So we’ve Richard Murphy – now actually wearing his academic hat – telling us that modern day capitalism is really, no, really, very terrible. And it needs to be reformed by the tender ministrations of Richard Murphy. You couldn’t see that one coming, could you?

The problem here being that he’s not grasped how capitalism actually works. In fact, he’s not grasped how organisations work let alone capitalism. Further, he’s missed that this has been the aim of public policy this past decade.

The error starts here:

we found that maybe 20% of the FTSE 350 companies that were persistently listed on that exchange from 2009 to 2019

This period is the QE period. The point of QE being to lower interest rates. So:

…paid out well over 100% of their earnings…What we found was that this policy was very directly associated with the increase in the level of borrowing in these companies…

Interest rates fall, companies borrow more. The only people who are going to be surprised at this are those who haven;t noted that interest rates have been pushed down as a matter of public policy.

You know, like accountants.

Then there’s the larger error about organisations:

But, that was not where the story stopped. As our research showed, the companies that paid out the most in dividends behaved markedly differently to the rest of the sample of companies. Their growth rates were worse than companies that paid out less. They did not add significant value over the period. Their investment in new capital equipment was weak.

This is true of any organisation, not just capitalist firms. That there’s a lifecycle. A company is optimised to perform a certain – possibly set of – task (s). If that task no longer needs performing then sure, the organisation can thrash around a bit to try and find a new one. Like Oxfam used to feed the hungry now it mithers about inequality because there are far too many cushy jobs for the British upper middle classes to want that gravy train to end. But with capitalist companies a more likely end is to put the organisation into run off.

OK, so the world just doesn’t need that many department stores any more. Debenhams, BHS, they should go. Maybe not right now but that internet shopping thing is going to kill them at some point. Why not sweat those assets for as long as they do produce a margin? There’s certainly no point in investing further – department stores are dead in the near future. But suck up that last salty morsel of profit from those assets before calling it a day.

At any one time in an economy there are sectors where this is true. Where it is just and righteous that more investment not be made. Where there’s still some value to be extracted but no point in funneling more cash in. Hmm, coal producers? Oil? Who would invest in internal combustion engines when new ones will be illegal in 9 years’ time?

To say that an ICE manufacturer should make electric engines is to be an idiot. They’re an entirely different technology using entirely different skills. A company optimised to the one will be entirely shit at doing the other.

At any one time there should be organisations investing heavily in that future production as well as those sweating the last dribbles of cash out of past investments – and sending, resolutely, absolutely no more money down that particular rathole.

He’s trying to analyse business without having the first clue of how business works.

But then this is Richard Murphy, right?

Think about this for a moment. Murphy shouts that oil companies must stop investing in fossil fuels and also that all of us should stop investing in oil companies. Then he complains that some companies don’t invest, they just pay out the profits of the past investments?

Loon.

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Spike
Spike
3 months ago

In other words: The Quantitative Easing “cure” was worse than the disease. As will be retooling the automotive industry to use energy that currently is twice as expensive as hydrocarbons even in places to which you can install power lines! And fighting the racism that never was “systemic” except for the gov’t countermeasures! We may solve all the problems, but wouldn’t it be better if our goals didn’t come from politicians playing pretend?

Daedalus
Daedalus
3 months ago

Nothing to do wth Murphy, but the sort of thing Tim comments on at times.

https://capx.co/nissans-new-gigafactory-will-be-a-monument-to-a-dead-end-technology/

Matt
Matt
3 months ago

The article seems to imply that Germany shouldn’t have built airships in the 1920s/30s because there would be jet liners in the 1950s. We shouldn’t build Lithium-based battery factories now because a better technology will turn up in the future. But what is the lifespan of a battery assembly line? Not the building itself that it’s in, which will probably be refitted many times, but the expensive tooling inside it? I would be most surprised if it was longer than the time required to get the (unspecified) better technology from the drawing board to mass production.

Michael van der Riet
Michael van der Riet
3 months ago
Reply to  Matt

The difference, Matt, being that no Reichsführer got up and stated that airships would be illegal by (date). Labour Lite aka the Conservative Party has employed all the global warming fruitcakes to write its industrial policy and it’s doubtful that Anti Semites R Us would change that for the better if they got in. There is a degree of certainty for the next ten years or so, which matches the planning horizons of most businesses.

Charles
Charles
3 months ago

There might be a problem here – but it’s not mentioned. If a firm is likely to be coming to the end of its life, and it pays higher dividends and borrows more, then it might end up eventually being wound up unable to repay all its loans. That would mean that effectively it had been paying its shareholders with borrowed money. I’m sure there’s rules against that! Trading while insolvent should cover it.

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