Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Movers and shakers.

I came across a speech given by an leading executive in the investment community that I found rather compelling. It very much sums up a lot of what is going on in American business today, so here is an excerpt:

"Well, ladies and gentlemen, we're not here to indulge in fantasy, but in political and economic reality. America, America has become a second-rate power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. Now, in the days of the free market, when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today, management has no stake in the company!...You own the company. That's right -- you, the stockholder.
And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their steak lunches, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes."

Rather sobering, isn't it? It is interesting that he uses the term, "In the days of the free market...," suggesting the possibility that those days have past. There has been much interest in that concept today. It has been suggested that the United States is heading away from free market economics that has been the driver of our whole economy since practically the beginning of this country. It is being suggested, that with the government having a large stake in those banks and other industries that have received government bailout money, that we are spiraling towards socialism.

It is an interesting war of words. One is not quite sure who to believe, with everyone shouting out rhetoric on both sides of the political and economic spectrum. The complexities of market economics are such that trying to make sense of it all for the average person is next to impossible. Hell, I have enough problems making sense of my Quicken when I update it. What chance do I have trying to decipher (Federal Reserve Chairman) Bernanke when he is up on Capitol Hill briefing Congress on Federal Reserve policy?

The executive went on to say:

"The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated."

This has been at the heart of one of the biggest arguments regarding whether or not to save the auto industry. I sometimes wonder if applying a little Darwinian theory is not all that bad a thing. Of course, there is the other side of the argument, just as compelling; the ripple effect if you do let them fail. Is it a legitimate argument? Again, I can't tell. Common sense tells me it is. Common sense also tells me that the opposite has merit. Why should we bail out a failing company that can't get its act together?

The executive then went on and stunned his audience with the following proclamation:

"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good.

Greed is right.

Greed works.

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.

And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA."

Teldar Paper? Never heard of it you say? Well, maybe you have heard of it, just as I'm sure you'll recognize the executive who spoke these somewhat prescient words over 20 years ago:

That's right. Gordon Gekko. The model for what has come to be seen as all that is wrong with American business and to perhaps a larger degree, capitalism. In the movie "Wall Street," Gekko is a heartless, cold-blooded reptilian master player on the economic stage. He wrecks a company in the movie because "It was wreckable."

As with most fictional characters, there is a modicum of truth in all of them, and a lot of artistic license. I personally believe in capitalism, in the ability to make money and to be able to do better for one's self-interest. That said, I think think that it also carries a huge amount of personal responsibility as part of that belief, and that self-interest, while important, is not the be all and end all of everything. Self-interest run amok is Enron, it is the housing collapse, it is the bank failures and the auto industry failures.

I don't really believe we are headed towards what would be considered pure socialism, the kind that might be seen in countries in Europe and elsewhere, but I do believe that government is going to play an increasing role in the regulation of business. The trick is going to not interfere so much, that you stifle the very drive and creative fervor that keeps this country afloat. NY State is a perfect micro economic template, with its high tax burden and over-regulatory practices that have been driving businesses away for years. It is not a model that I would want spread to the Federal level, though in so many ways it's already here.

So here's to you Gordon! Is greed good? Probably, in some ways. The unfortunate thing is that greed can become a very slippery slope all too quickly.

Anyone need some more hair gel?


Peter said...

Trust me Mr Nighttime: "socialism" has long died in Europe as an approach to the economy.

Sure, we may have public healthcare and more government involvement in selected areas, but basically European companies are no different from US multinationals: all that counts is the bottom line.

I guess you hit the painful truth about the US economy: ever since the 90s accountability faded, with true far-west "winner takes it all" policies based on stunning corporate and private greed.

Outsourcing half the US economy abroad, focusing on giant shareholder profits only while building a staggering economic and personal debt: no matter how much someone can believe in healthy capitalism, this was a recipe for disaster.

It will take years to clean up the current economic mess, and somehow I hope that Americans will realize that without US government intervention the financial system would have crashed. It's really no 'socialism', it's survival.

Bina said...

I remember this movie, and in fact, I watched that scene (maybe on youtube??) recently.

My husband has been telling me for the past weeks that by the time my six-year old graduates from High School, we will be part of China.

I'm beginning to wonder......

Guyana-Gyal said...

Greed is such a terrible word, the 'g' and the 'd' are hard sounds. I wouldn't ever say 'greed for life.' Even though I KNOW what the person is trying to say. It connotes meanness, hard, uncaring behaviour.

I think words do have an effect on us.

I know my comment sounds trite...but we've gotten so hooked on politics, it's all the media go on and on about...so much so that we no longer stop to examine ourselves, our role in making things go wrong. And that's a huge part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

That scene is spot on for today's economy.

Gekko has it right.