There are not many wholly new areas to open up in economic policy. But in recent months there has been a wave of innovative proposals directed at improving economic performance in general, and middle-class incomes in particular — not through government actions but through mandates or incentives to change business decision-making. The goal is for companies and shareholders to operate with longer horizons and to more generously share the fruits of their corporate success with their workers, customers and other stakeholders.
Such proposals for corporate reform are responding to legitimate policy imperatives, but they also tap into the zeitgeist in another way. At the same time as there is widespread unhappiness with market outcomes, confidence in government has reached a low ebb. So the idea of achieving reform through altered business behaviour, rather than government programmes, is appealing.
And most importantly,
Corporations hoarding cash that is earning zero in the bank or in Treasury bills would be cheered not jeered by the market if they could be convinced that the companies were putting it to productive use. Many corporations are in this situation of having cash piles but often do not have productive uses for the money. Either that or they cannot convince investors of their projects’ validity. Pushing corporations without good projects to invest is wasteful. Stopping or discouraging them from distributing funds to shareholders is dangerous if it encourages mindless takeovers as an alternative.
The real need is for a cadre of trusted, tough-minded investors in any given company who can credibly commit to support strong management teams and to provide assurances to a broader investment community so that productive investments are made. Accomplishing that, while maintaining market discipline, is the crucial challenge.
Writing in the FT, by Lawrence Summers. More here.