Some companies are too powerful to fail

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Few things corrode business efficiency and effective markets more insidiously than the discovery that it is more profitable to win the favour of politicians than to win the approval of customers.

Great banks are “too big to fail”. The predictable consequence of governments accepting this argument is a queue of other companies “too big to fail” lining up at the front door of treasuries. Insurers were next. This week, the car manufacturers secured their subsidy.

The failure of any business has ripple effects on suppliers, employees, distributors and customers. If the business is General Motors such effects are larger. But since GM is many times larger than most companies, the subsidy needed to keep going is correspondingly larger. There is no reason to think that the ripple effects are larger, relative to the size of GM, than the consequences of the failure of a smaller business relative to its size.

So the return on the taxpayers’ dollar is not likely to be larger if their largesse goes to a big company. Indeed, since the large company has readier access to a range of alternative funding options, a need for government support is more likely the result of deep-seated competitive weakness than temporary shortage of funds which can so easily cripple a smaller business.

That is true of the carmakers, whose problems are of much longer standing than the current downturn. In automobiles as in many industries, economies of scale are technological, the diseconomies of scale human. Human factors in business are generally more influential than technological ones in determining the long run fate of a company.

The memory of a meeting in one of Britain’s largest companies – now no longer so large – is engraved in my memory. We discussed how best to persuade the regulatory authorities of the cost advantages arising from the company’s size. But the room was crowded with people who had nothing substantive to contribute. They were there to defend and advance their political position in the corporate hierarchy. The meeting itself demonstrated that the arguments we were presenting were false. Politics overrode productivity.

As has been true in Detroit. Arrogant, complacent and only belatedly sensitive to competitive pressures and changing customer needs, the big three have been in relative decline for half a century.

But there really are economies of scale in political lobbying. The cost of presenting your case is independent of the size of the benefit you seek. The larger the business, the more likely that legislators will see constituency interest or political advantage in being helpful. Big companies have government affairs departments but for small groups the cost of access is prohibitive. Only large companies have access to the sharpest shooters.

Too big to fail, but big enough to exert political influence. The malign consequences are evident in many areas of public policy. Large media and software companies write intellectual property rules, while the interests of users go unrepresented. Big pharmaceutical and defence companies employ thousands of lobbyists. Consumer interests come a distant second to producer interests in the formulation of trade policy. In the past two decades the financial services industry has become the most powerful and effective lobby of all. The cash contributed to political campaigns has now been repaid many times over from the public purse.

But few things corrode business efficiency and effective markets more insidiously than the discovery that it is more profitable to win the favour of politicians than to win the approval of customers. In Italy, and in some other European states, an inefficient large-business sector is parasitic on the vibrant small- and medium-sized enterprises, which are the mainstay of the economy.

The problems are worse in Russia and in many potentially emerging economies. In these countries, the nexus between the political and business elite undermines both democracy and business efficiency.

The populist trustbusters who framed anti-monopoly legislation more than a century ago feared that the cost and technical advantages of large companies would be more than offset by damage to economic efficiency and pluralist institutions from the political power they might acquire. These early trustbusters were right.

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