His after-dinner speech to the CBI on Wednesday night paid lip service, once again, to his view that employers and shareholders need to invest more profit back into their companies; not simply by updating the cogs in the machines, but by upskilling their workers as well.

This is to make a common error.

We don’t want, desire or even care about how much any one company invests in itself. We do care that the system as a whole continues to invest. For investment in doin’ stuff is what makes that future richer.

Often enough it’s the investments in the new stuff that makes that future richer. Further, it’s usually new companies that do the new stuff, or even the old stuff in new ways. Technological change tends not to come from incumbents but from insurgents that is.

So, what we desire within the system as a whole is some manner of channelling profits from old investments that have come good into new investments that might come good. That is, we want flows of cash across companies, not have it simply recycled within the same corporate wrapper.

Companies that make good profits should be paying out dividends, buying back their shares. That puts the money in the hands of investors, who then make the decision of where to reinvest their earnings.

The idea that companies should reinvest their own earnings is simply wrong. Dangerously wrong in fact.

Sure, we want that river of cash coming out of BP to be investing in – say – lithium mines. But it would be absurd to have BP investing in lithium mines. Having individuals – or pensions funds, insurance companies – investing in Cornish Lithium makes sense. But that means that the money has to come out of BP so that it can be spent on lithium.

Reinvestment comes from profits being paid out to investors.

16 thoughts on “No”

  1. The Meissen Bison

    The problem today is that the largest shareholders are obsessed about meeting ESG targets so your lithium mines can whistle for investment from fund managers. “Upskilling” (ugh!) workers beyond what is required for them to perform the functions required is pointless and wasteful quite apart from harming the motivation of workers who as a result will feel over-qualified and under-used.

    The HSBC fund manager who was suspended the other day for talking about climate ‘nutjobs’ shows where the madness is heading.

  2. The HSBC fund manager who was suspended the other day for talking about climate ‘nutjobs’ shows where the madness has gone.

    The boat sailed a while ago.

    We sceptics are a bit like Jeremy Corbyn. We have won the argument but lost everywhere else.

  3. A lot of heartache can be avoided by simply remembering that the business of politicians is politics. Not economics. Not management. Not logistics. Politics. Anything any of the scoundrels have to say can be assumed to be to their benefit and your detriment.

    As Paxo so wisely asked, “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”

  4. Technological change tends not to come from incumbents but from insurgents that is.

    The interesting counter-example is Xerox Parc. The incumbent (Xerox) funded the development of massively disruptive technology (laser printers & digital copiers based on them, along with networked personal computers and WIMP interfaces) and then didn’t make use of any of it because it would have undercut its own established market dominance. And so it funded the insurgents indirectly and lost its market anyway.

  5. Sure, we want that river of cash coming out of BP to be investing in – say – lithium mines. But it would be absurd to have BP investing in lithium mines. Having individuals – or pensions funds, insurance companies – investing in Cornish Lithium makes sense. But that means that the money has to come out of BP so that it can be spent on lithium.

    I get the “usually” and the “tends to” with regards to novel vs established, but saying it’s absurd is going a bit far. Why shouldn’t a profitable “BP” get into lithium mines? Or Di-Lithium crystal mines (cap’n), space warp drives and matter replicators for that matter? If it can do so effectively and profitably in free competition with individuals, pension funds and insurance companies, etc, why is that absurd? Given its long record of getting stuff out of the ground and selling it for a profit, it might be more suited than “Penwith Minnow Lithium” backed by pension fund managers excited by the new thing whilst distracted by the woke thing.

  6. Largely because we’ve tried it. Single issue companies tend to do better than parts of conglomerates….

  7. Hmmm. There is some truth to this, but some large companies do invest successfully in new products, or by acquiring new equipment, resources or other companies, ultimately creating value for their investors. What is fairer to say is that if a company pays dividends or buys back its shares, its managers are tacitly acknowledging that they don’t have any great ideas for what to do with that cash and they should be respected for returning it to investors.

  8. So the good news is that big ole companies that try stuff and fail at it have just unskilled a bunch o folk on how to do the new thing and what the major errors are. The errors can be – that don’t wok as hoped; nobody’s prepared to buy that; or to do that you actually need more money than the colossus feels it’s worth spending; or .. whatever.

    In any case, those doing the new tech may well head for the door with the prototype done and paid for, and do a startup using other money with risks vastly reduced.

  9. Apple is an interesting example. A long established (in their world) PC and laptop maker invested in and revolutionised an already vibrant mobile phone market, knocking out many specialists and disrupting other industries (eg cameras). Worth $3trillion, they’re now also an energy company and are reportedly moving into electric / self-drive cars.

    Nokia started as a paper mill in 1871. Over the years they’ve made gas masks, bog roll, tyres, wellies, tellies, typewriters, telephone exchanges, computers, radios and robots, and that’s before what most of us know them for. Now it’s very successfully into network technologies and has its own venture capital branch.

    Staying with Scandinavia, what is probably the oldest limited liability company in the world started in 1288 as a copper mine. Over the years, Stora (now as Stora Enso) has been into forestry, paper, packaging and hydroelectric power. It is now investing in AI, data and automation research.

    There’s no reason a company can’t keep on its toes and not only stay with the times but change the times. If they can, they should. If they can’t, they’ll go out of business.

  10. One of the problems is that if a company, let’s call it Big Oil (BO) makes money on one area, such as oil production, and it’s clear that that area of business will decline, then the best thing to do according to economic theory is not for BO to try to decide what the next winner will be, but to return money to its shareholders and let them decide. They were the ones that decided that BO was the rightthing to invest in, so they should judge the situation again, having a proven track record. However, any attempt to return money to shareholders falls foul of taxation. If you pay dividends, that’s taxed; if you buy back shares then that causes capital gain, so (apart from an initial amount) gets taxed also. The system is set up to perpetuate the existing companies rather than allow for proper innovation.

  11. Conglomerates can work: Hanson

    @PJF

    Mostly Yes, but with caveats. One being Nokia: selling Mobile arm to MS was a disaster for both

  12. Conglomerates can work

    Survivor bias says they *all* work.

    What I recall, because I have been alive long enough, is just how many very large conglomerates failed, or were forced to divest.

    Nokia is a terrible example, btw. It isn’t remotely the company founded in the 19th Century. It has been bought out, merged with other companies, split into separate divisions, divested, etc.

    Apple still largely do one thing — make decent hardware with integrated software.

    My money is on most of the other divisions losing money.

  13. Yes, we must dismiss the examples of companies that successfully adapt and change by pretending they don’t.

    The Japanese are quite good at keeping big companies going profitably.

  14. Survivor bias says they *all* work

    In no way did I suggest that. Hanson worked as they focussed on aquisation cost, removing staff, profit & cash flow, not self agrandidising “We won, now we’re bigger”

    RBS did too, Nat West takeover was a testament to that. They were sucessful until Godwin hubristically declared war on Barclays when Barclays had already won

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