There are many things and people that impress me and a few things that, in the words of a rather dodgy song, ‘don’t impress me much’. This list includes drunkenness (why do some people see that as an achievement?), vanity, selfishness, attendance at public school and gambling (also tattoos but two very dear friends of mine have them and I wouldn’t want to upset them). What links these together is that no skill or effort is required in obtaining them and hence I am not sure which aspect of their procumbent I am meant to find impressive. What has this to do with business you may ask. Well the Guardian today had two interesting articles. One about Buffet and tax (and please note we are not talking about punitive taxes here) and one about bankers and bonuses.
As a business academic I am quite familiar with motivational theory. As a human I am also quite familiar with that concept of course, but it’s good to have theory. The reason I tie Buffet’s views on tax with bank bonuses is probably obvious however I feel it is underexplored. Buffet’s wealth is self-created and linked directly to his actions. In other words his wealth and the company he controls are intrinsically linked. It goes down his wealth goes down and in this way he is the classic businessman (perhaps in another blog I’ll go through my definitions of businessperson, entrepreneur, enterprising). ‘The City’ (banks, fund managers, etc) on the other had are salaried corporate drones. If the bank goes down their bonus may go down or they may even lose their job but their personal wealth remains intact. How does this link to motivation and community? Well I continue to be amazed by the way the City behaves. Money is extracted from pension funds and investment trusts to pay bonuses way beyond any link to effort or ability and we are instructed that any attempt to restrict this will result in these individuals fleeing the country for less oppressive tax regimes.
Let’s just unpick that a bit. Individuals (you and me) invest in various funds and pensions. An employee of the fund takes some or all of that money and gambles it. If they win they take a sizable cut of it for themselves, if they lose they levy a management charge anyway. In other words you lend £100 to a gambler, if they win on the horses they will give you back some of ‘their’ winnings, if they lose they will give you back £90 (or maybe less if they lose overall). That is basically how the model works. Ok that’s the system so where do taxes and bonuses come in? Well in order to make these gambles the individuals involved, not always the brightest sparks, need to be paid salaries in excess of anything a medical Dr could hope to achieve. Failure to pay this or the levying of a higher tax will result in them leaving the country. I would contend that there are three problems with that last statement. First what evidence is there of flight? Can anyone point to an area where this has happened beyond pointing out that people like to exploit tax havens? Secondly if these individuals are motivated by money then taxing them will not hurt; it introduces a stimulus to work harder. The idea of bankers quitting and going on the dole seems a little farfetched. Thirdly, and most important, these individuals are not wealth creators they are wealth takers. A properly functioning market makes funds available for businesses as investment. It matches investors with companies that offer appropriate levels of risk. This is a simple transaction, a process and administrative function. The risks are taken by the providers of capital (the actual person who pays the pension - you and me - not the fund manager) and the full return should be available for them and the full fund available for the business. What we see is a proportion of this money leached off to pay excessive salaries and bonuses to the City. In other words the City ‘taxes’ the transactions.
This may seem a little farfetched, it may not, but I believe that a lack of understanding of what happens in markets allows the City to tax us. There are no models of markets that work, no methods and no plans that ensure results. All evidence shows that funds behave in an almost random manner and are tightly linked to the performance of the overall market. If we go back to Buffet you will recall I described him as a businessman. What I meant by that was he uses his own wealth to generate more, not through speculation but through investment. There is a fine distinction between those two terms. Speculation is buying something in the hope it goes up; investment is buying something because of its cash flows. Buying a taxi is an investment, buying a classic car is speculation. Buffet buys taxis. Investment creates wealth and jobs. I know at times Buffet has laid-off staff – that is part of the ebb and flow of business cycles. The difference lies in the fact that companies are meant to take capital and deploy it to satisfy consumers’ need for a product or service at a profit. They are not so many roulette chips to be thrown around in a Champagne fuelled frenzy of arrogant self importance.
How does this link back to community? The behaviour of excess we see in the City is as far removed from community as we can get. There is no sense of empathy, no sense of belonging to a wider community, no sense of responsibility. The City is unable to benefit society or the economy in its present state. Basically it perpetuates its own myths. It sees itself as a wealth creator but has required billions in subsidy and cost trillions in lost ‘wealth’. The current infatuation of politicians with the city is comic. To take instruction on austerity from institutions unable to curb their own excess and still in denial as to the causes and problems of the downturn will no doubt keep future economic historians in research papers for decades. In the meantime we continue to miss the real wealth creators, the small, medium and large firms that provided products and services, that work with communities and stakeholders, that invest and that pay taxes.