Guest post: Stockholders are Fungible, Employees are Not

by J Tzimiskes (who is currently juggling a job in the private sector while studying for a Wayne State MBA, getting a blog post or two in when he can. Previously, he worked for New York State and  holds a Masters in Political Science from University at Albany and a biology degree from University of Toronto.  He blogs at Tsimiskes)

Stockholders are Fungible, Employees are Not

This has been on my mind after reading some review’s of Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” (which I really need to make time to read). Paul Krugman’s recent post on it made a major point gel for me when he observes that:

How relevant is this story to what has happened so far? In the United States, as Piketty himself stresses, soaring inequality has to date been largely been driven by labor income – by “supermanagers” (I prefer superexecutives.)

Something that I’ve been considering as I take management classes is that it seems that a well managed firm should end up developing a strong espirit de corps and a great deal of management loyalty in the company. Companies should end up with long term employees and management that will oppose stockholder efforts to extract revenue from the company instead of using it to serve employees. Psychological characteristics and organizational behavior should be leading companies to have an in group of employees opposed to the out group of stockholders.

Yet, instead, we’ve seen labor share of income decline and record breaking profits. Despite the performance advantages of developing strong employee morale and loyalty companies seem prone to emphasizing staffing cuts and biased towards hiring more aggressive, less loyal employees to the expense of a strong corporate culture.
A possible explanation is that stockholders recognize that strong employee cultures can be against their interests. This forces them to compensate top management extravagantly in order to encourage them to identify with stockholders instead of the corporation they run and to engage in business practices which weaken the corporation in the long run in favor of higher profits now.

This tension ultimately results from the fact that there is no reason why the corporate entity should have any preference for what sort of capital funds it or who is providing it while there is a strong mutual identification amongst the employees of an organization. In turn, providers of capital have no reason to have a preference over which corporate entity receives their funds, with only some minor restrictions they can quickly and easily trade their stock for that of other corporations. Overcoming this difference in commitment requires capital to pay large bribes if it wants to extract wealth from companies. This also helps explain how common restructurings are despite a poor record of giving expected returns as well as a tendency for boards to hire in outsiders despite insiders with better knowledge of the company.

Examples of this would be a number of managers that have been hired to break strong, successful corporate cultures which led to market dominance and stable performance but relatively weak returns to shareholders. HP and Carly Fiorina being the textbook example from my classes.