This blog post is part of a larger series on “Stock-Market Short-Termism” (see also my entry on share-buybacks). I will be assessing one proposed cure, corporate governance reforms, and will argue that it is likely to be iatrogenic.
On August 15, 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren formally introduced her “Accountable Capitalism Act”, that would, inter alia, require of all firms generating $1 billion or more in revenue that “no fewer than 40% of its directors are selected by the corporation’s employees.” In mandating that corporations include employees qua stakeholders in the firm’s major decisions, government would be putting its thumb on the scale in shifting the balance of power away from the corporate governance outcome that has emerged in the free-market: shareholders today exclusively determine the composition of the board of directors. Moreover, progressive politicians and academics would be putting a thumb in the eye of their long-standing bete-noir, the “shareholder value paradigm”.
Employee representation on the board is known as “co-determination”, part of a larger constellation of corporate governance institutions that comprise the “Rhenish model” of capitalism. Its primary exemplar, Germany, is trumpeted as the prepossessing poster child of this alternative to shareholder über alles “Anglo-capitalism”. In her press release, Senator Warren makes this inspiration explicit, claiming that she is “borrowing from the successful approach in Germany and other developed economies”. Germany’s co-determination is praised by its progressive proponents not just for its greater “economic justice”, but because it has “held back the forces of short-termism”. In a policy brief for the Roosevelt Institute titled “Fighting Short-Termism with Worker Power”, economist Susan Holmberg argues that co-determination will create “resilience against the pressures of short-termism”. Senator Warren penned an op-ed in the Wall St. Journal to accompany her formal press release, in which she argued that her bill would be a corrective against corporate executives being overly focused on “producing short-term share-price increases”.
How, exactly, would greater employee influence over corporate governance combat short-termism? Proponents argue that employee representatives would prevent both exorbitant CEO pay and excessive share buybacks. Because the typical employee has a longer tenure at the firm than the typical shareholder, employees are therefore better custodians of the firm’s revenues, with an eye toward long-term viability, not the maximization of the next earnings report.
The first of many red flags that appears as we proceed along this train of reasoning is that the Germanic model did not evolve organically as the result of firms realizing that increasing employee representation was in their own self-interest. As Holmberg herself notes, the 1976 Employee Co-Determination Act and related legislation impose this corporate governance paradigm on German firms, requiring that 50% of the supervisory board represent employees rather than shareholders. Conversely, in the United States, it remains perfectly legal for a firm to so structure its charter. The fact that few firms avail themselves of this eminently superior option should give one pause. The fact that German capitalism is so-characterized speaks less to the economic merits of co-determination and more to the political adroitness of its advocates.
When considering the likely effects Warren’s plan would have on U.S. firms, the lessons of the U.S. experience with unions will be instructive. In fact, it’s hard not to view mandatory employee board representation as a rearguard action by a labor movement that has seen private sector union membership decline from a post-war high of 34% in 1954 to just under 7% today. In many respects, employee board quotas are the functional analogue of a union granted a legal monopoly to represent the employees of a given firm. While board quotas may be more efficient than unions insofar as they avoid the bargaining costs associated with bilateral monopoly, they nonetheless serve to tilt the balance-of-power over major firm decisions toward employee interests.
The first devil lurking in the details of Warren’s plan is: who counts as an employee for the purposes of allocating director votes? All employees, including management below the C-suite? Or only non-managerial employees? However the definition is generated (and gerrymandered), an insuperable problem arises, one that similarly confronted unions. A firm’s employees do not have homogeneous preferences. More senior employees on the brink of retirement have a different time-horizon than do younger employees. Employees who intend to snag a few years of experience before moving to another firm or another industry differ from employees who are dreaming of a company watch on their 20th anniversary. These varying constituencies will have starkly different preferences as to how the firm’s free cash flow is allocated: higher wages now, more long-term capital investment that will pay off in decades, or shoring up the solvency of the employee pension plan? Similarly, skilled employees will be far less averse to R&D that leads to technology - complementary to their human capital - than will the unskilled employees with whom it competes. Thus, the category error baked into co-determination is the conceptualization of “employees” as an undifferentiated bloc. Whoever the median employee voter places on the board will inevitably take actions that result in intra-employee redistribution.
When considering the preferences that employees broadly do share, it is naïve to think that they will always redound to the long-term benefit of the firm. First, employees of all shapes and sizes uniformly prefer that less cash flow be allocated to share buybacks and dividends. Indeed, champions of co-determination celebrate the extent to which it will serve as a brake on such equity outlays. But, again, we must keep in mind the fallacy of composition: when all firms reduce outlays, the cost of capital for firms with profitable investment opportunities rises and these firms are then unable to grow (read: hire new workers) as quickly.
Moreover, employees won’t necessarily want to reinvest earnings into long-term investments like CAPEX and R&D. And forget returning this surplus to the consumer in the form of lower prices. Instead, they will be inclined to leverage their legislatively-conferred bargaining power to divert profits into wages and benefits in excess of the marginal product of their labor. Despite the romance and sloganeering, this is as much an instance of rent-seeking as corporate Ferraris and “excessive” stock buybacks. On top of higher compensation in the present, employee representatives will attempt to commit a greater percentage of the firm’s future cashflow into retirement and pension plans, rather than R&D projects with an uncertain future payoff that will anyhow make half of them redundant.
Employee representatives will have an interest in other measures that similarly reduce the long-term flexibility of the firm. Other than pre-committing future cashflows to non-productive investments such as pension plans, employees will also prefer greater job security. In raising the costs of replacing an unproductive worker, they are thereby raising the ex-ante costs of hiring generally. Greater employee protections mean that the firm faces higher costs when restructuring the skillset and human capital composition of its workforce to meet the always-evolving market landscape. The relative prices of the highly heterogeneous labor pool are constantly in flux, and firms must be able to nimbly rebalance their personnel to adapt and stay competitive. Moreover, overly rigid job protection reduces a firm’s ability to temporarily downsize its workforce in response to exigent circumstances. Co-determination advocates might claim that buybacks, dividends, and executive bonuses should be jettisoned before employees when times get tough. But the fact of the matter remains: reducing the degrees of freedom by which a firm might respond to a given short-term adversity compromises its long-term viability. Employee representatives on the board are trading economic efficiency and adaptability for the sake of incumbent employees today. But who can blame them? They are merely responding to their constituency.
These ossifying effects are not armchair speculation. Far from sagely stewarding tax revenues for the benefit of posterity, public sector unions have managed to rack up $4.4 trillion in unfunded liabilities, darkening the long-run fiscal outlook for many states and municipalities. The much-lamented decline in manufacturing employment in the U.S. is a story first of firms escaping the unionized Midwest to the South, and then the radical restructuring and downsizing of a less protected workforce to a small coterie of highly skilled employees intensively utilizing technology. This explains why U.S. manufacturing output has risen over the past several decades despite the precipitous drop-off in employment: to the immense benefit of U.S consumers. This process would have been seriously stymied if employees were dealt an artificially strong hand at the table via legislative fiat.
Building on a considerable theoretical literature that predicts greater employee bargaining power will reduce research into R&D and other productivity-enhancing investments, subsequent meta-analyses of the empirical effects of unions confirm that they are associated with lower productivity growth, lower profits, and lower stock market valuations. It’s worth noting that, particularly since 1980, Western European total factor productivity (TFP) growth has dramatically lagged behind that of the United States. Insofar as unions do correlate with productivity increases, the mechanism appears to be via increased communication between workers and management. This is a goal that any half-competent management will attempt voluntarily, but that is impeded by Section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relation Act’s prohibition on employer-sponsored unions.