Do we really need stock markets?

11 February 2016

Last week’s TWOG on family business included some comments on sustaining the spirit of the enterprise by staying off the stock market. This week’s TWOG opens that discussion up more widely.

You have an idea and lots of energy. So you create a company. It works. Your customers are delighted, your employees are engaged, you feel great, even the economy benefits. Everybody wins.

But as the company grows, you become concerned.  What if you get hit by a truck, and your kids are still playboys and playgirls?  Or you wish to retire in the manner to which you have become accustomed. Or you want to grow faster than your own resources will allow. Your financial friends tell you to do an IPO—an Initial Public Offering: cash out, or get the cash in. So you do, and it becomes a turning point. Was it a mistake?

Companies are usually formed in the fire of entrepreneurship. Someone is driven by a compelling idea to create an enterprise. He or she may wish to make a lot of money, or become celebrated, or avoid having a boss. But often, especially in the best of cases, there is something more: a sense of building something exciting, by serving people in some new way. And that can result in a truly engaging enterprise. There’s a sense of purpose, of community, of breaking new ground together that engages everyone involved.

Then comes that IPO, often with the realization that you have cashed out spiritually. There’s a different feeling in the place, not quite the same sense of engagement. The market analysts are hovering, the day traders are manoeuvring, and those reports have to be issued every quarter. Now you are supposed to see the world—customers, employees, suppliers, everybody and everything—through $-colored glasses. Was that IPO worth it? Even for you, let alone for your employees and customers? And how about your community, the economy, and society?

Carcinogenic Growth   Some entrepreneurs push too hard for growth and bankrupt their companies. Others are in less of a rush, perhaps because they want to work things out carefully, or just savour the growth.  But the stock markets may have none of that. They are about more, more, more—now, now, now. Relentless growth is the game, one-dimensional, to drive up the share price. Publicly traded companies have to keep feeding the beast.

In March of 2015, a deranged pilot flew a Germanwings airplane into the face of a mountain, murdering 150 people. Just over a month later, a New York Times article reported from a shareholders’ meeting that “at a time when Lufthansa faces urgent commercial challenges…many shareholders expressed concern...that the Germanwings tragedy risks detracting management from its turnaround efforts.” One portfolio manager claimed that Lufthansa management “will have to come back to reality.” The murder of 150 people was apparently a distraction; reality is getting back to managing value for the shareholders.

One-dimensional corporations, like one-dimensional people, are pathological: they are an invasive species that have no business in a healthy society. Why build compelling enterprises and then jettison their engagement? What kind of a society, let alone economy, does that render? Look around. Someone once likened this kind of growth to that of the cancer cell. Have we created a malignant world for ourselves?

Stock markets could help themselves. They could discourage the nonsense of reporting quarterly earnings. Can anyone really believe that a sizable enterprise exhibits perceptible change every three months? And they could support the taxing of trades to dampen the wild swings of short-term investing. Somehow we now find ourselves with day traders technically owning the companies while employees who have dedicated their lives to these companies count for nothing at all. There are other ways to own and finance enterprises, quite a variety in fact.

Finding Patient Capital   One is to find investors who are not in a hurry, but are willing to go with the natural pace of the enterprise. Sure they want to make money, but not by turning it over quickly, or pressuring an entity that needs time to develop. Warren Buffett has taught us a thing or two about patient capital.

Establishing a Trust  How about being on the stock market but keeping the analysts at bay by issuing a different class of voting shares? Tata in India and Novo Nordisk in Denmark have created family trusts to hold the voting shares.

Converting to a Cooperative   If you are feeling generous, you can pass the ownership on to the employees: turn the company into a cooperative. If this sounds funny, think of it this way: preserving your fortune will do you no good after you die, but how about preserving your legacy? Spedan Lewis, son of the founder of a major retail business in the U.K., did this in a remarkable way. In 1950, he turned it into The John Lewis Partnership. Now almost 90,000 employees own the chain of highly successful department stores and supermarkets. 

Being a Benefit Corporation   My own publisher announced in October: “Now Berrett-Koehler is the first book publisher in the world to go beyond B Corp certification to also become a Benefit Corporation. Whereas B Corp certification is a voluntary process, becoming a Benefit Corporation puts the force of law behind Berrett-Koehler’s longstanding social mission values, practices, and objectives. A Benefit Corporation is a new class of for-profit corporation based on laws recently enacted in 30 states, including California.” The company has not done an IPO. When it wished to raise money it turned to its own authors, as well as customers, employees, and other stakeholders. Over 200 bought shares, including nearly 70 of us authors.

Using crowdfunding   What Berrett-Koehler did resembles crowdfunding. Initially the idea was to use the Internet to invite many people to help fund good causes. But it has also become a way to offer shares in an enterprise without going to the stock market. When many people each buy a little bit of ownership, a company can raise a good deal of capital.

How about bartering?   Here you get your customers or suppliers to invest money that you would otherwise have to spend to start or grow the enterprise. We have a company called that enables groups of managers to develop themselves in their own workplaces. Needless to say, we have done no IPO, nor do we have any investment capital. We have used a good deal of what is called “sweat capital”—the time of the owners—especially that of Phil LeNir, who runs the company. But he has done something else too: avoided some investment spending by using willing customers to do what we would have had to do instead. When a client wanted to use our material in French, Phil said: Sure, you can have it for free, if you do the translation, which we can then sell to other clients.

Beginning as a cooperative or social enterprise   Social entrepreneurs create businesses that are owned by members or by no-one. Members of cooperatives can be customers (as in mutual banks), suppliers (as in farm coops), or employees (75,000 of them in the Basque Mondragon Federation, with 260 cooperative enterprises and total sales of €12 billion). The United States alone has more cooperative memberships—about 350 million—than people! Social enterprises are businesses that are owned by no-one. In fact, many well-known NGOs have business activities alongside their more prominent social activities. The Red Cross does, after all, sell swimming lessons, and in Kenya has built commercial hotels to support its beneficial activities.

A healthy society is sustained by a robust, responsible, and diverse economy, not one driven by the mercenary forces of one-dimensional growth. Its enterprises enhance the democratic nature of the society by balancing social needs with economic ones, and helping to ensure a reasonable distribution of wealth. Stock markets are not about to disappear but, as currently conceived, they have done enough damage. The developed societies have created immense wealth. When do we get to cash that in for healthier and more decent lives?

© Henry Mintzberg 2016 Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here.