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S1E18: Megacorporations and their addiction to growth

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Espiritualidad y Ciencia
Espiritualidad y Ciencia
S1E18: Megacorporations and their addiction to growth

The era of modern conglomerates began in the 1960s with corporations such as the International Telephone and Telegraph and Textron, which became dominant through the acquisition of companies in industries unrelated to their core business. These early modern conglomerates owned between 30 and 40 companies in businesses so different from each other that eventually some of them decided to rename themselves with generic names. Philip Morris, for example, became the Altria Group (Rozeff 2006).

To understand the phenomenon of megacorporations and their long-term viability, it is important to study conglomerates in the context of the sociocultural changes of the 20th century. World War II turned the United States into the most powerful industrial machine that ever existed. The end of the Second World War brought a boom in economic growth, but it also created in the public consciousness a sense of uncertainty about the future. It was because of this that Americans focused on settling down with families, moving to the suburbs and beginning the baby boom.

In this environment, the U.S. economy grew steadily through the 1950s, a decade without major events except for two waves of inflation: one just after World War II and the second before the start of the war in Korea. While the causes of these periods of inflation are debated, slow economic growth is likely the main culprit (Baines 2016). The growing population and development in multiple areas required a well-oiled industrial and service machine that was productive enough. The Eisenhower doctrine dictated that the government’s duty was to stimulate economic growth to dispel any ghosts of the recession from the past.

This was the background to the longest period of economic expansion in U.S. history. Industry clearly received Eisenhower’s growth message and the market was obsessed with rising valuations, even if such growth had nothing to do with actual profits being produced. The strategy then used was that fast-growing companies with a good valuation would use their own shares to purchase shares of low-growth companies. This way, the earnings of the two companies combined would have the same multiplier as the buying company (Lonsdale 2014).

How the deception works

To understand this, let’s take as an example a traditional company that produces good earnings but does not have much growth. Speculative investors are primarily interested in getting rich in a short time, so they are not so interested in this company and therefore its market value is not so high, so let’s say it is more real. So the company buys a technology company, which produces very little, or nothing at all, but generates a lot of expectation, i.e. it attracts a lot of speculators and is therefore overvalued. So what the first company does is to buy the second and form a conglomerate, which from that moment on, will trade on the stock exchange under a new name. From that moment, the market capitalization of the two companies is combined, the profits they produce are also aggregated and together they seem to be a company with a lot of growth and profits, which attracts even more speculators and the company becomes even more valuable…

This strategy was at the heart of the so-called “conglomerate boom” of the 1960s. There was every possible incentive for unnecessary mergers to occur: inflation and interest rates were low and Wall Street rewarded mergers with irrational valuations.

A JHL Capital Group index shows that 10 conglomerates appreciated five times more than the rest of the S&P 500 index. However, the bubble burst and most of the conglomerates formed in the 1960s had to sell previously acquired companies during the 1970s and 1980s.

Conglomerate Index vs S&P 500 Index. Source:(JHL 2015)

The second conglomerate boom

Just as the conglomerate bubble of the 1960s was the response to the economic stagnation of the 1950s, the economic crisis of 2008 triggered a new conglomerate boom, driven by the same factors as the previous boom: low, stable interest rates and inflation, and increased investor appetite for growth over real profits. This new wave of conglomeration is also known as the “platform boom” and includes companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Horizon Pharma and Liberty Global.

Once again, companies grouped into conglomerates have much higher market performance than S&P 500 companies, 215% better since 2015. The new conglomerates are much more selective in the acquisitions they make, although they also disdain dividends, minimize the taxes they pay with all sorts of gimmicks, and focus on cash flow over net income (JHL 2015).

Nothing lasts forever

This time, however, the boom has lasted longer, but that doesn’t mean it will last forever. The ideal of megacorporations with tentacles across multiple industries is not necessarily the most efficient and advantageous model in the age of cyber business. While today’s conglomerates are more consistent in the acquisitions they make, the primary motivation for them in most cases is still to favor growth at artificial valuations, but that growth cannot be sustained indefinitely and all companies will reach a point where it will be too much, even for greedy Wall Street speculators (Ford 2017).

Christer Gardell, a famous European investor and activist, has recently called for the end of conglomerates and predicts that the new trend will be the downsizing and continued sale of non-core businesses.

According to Gardell, some of Europe’s largest industrial conglomerates, including Siemens and Philips, have already begun this process. Furthermore, he believes that most of the M&A activity in the next decade will be spin-offs (Milne 2017).

This trend will be driven primarily by the need for large corporations to lose weight and become leaner and faster to respond to changes in the modern marketplace. The case study of Kodak serves to illustrate this point. The once mighty photography giant needed to diversify from its profitable analog film market and did so by acquiring more than 24 companies between 1988 and 2011, in industries such as pharmaceuticals, medical imaging, and printing, among others. Although Kodak did its best to adapt and keep up with the turbulent changes in the photography industry in the early 21st century, the conclusion of multiple analysts is that Kodak was too complex, too big, and too bureaucratic to be able to move fast enough (Grant 2016).

Activism, CSR and Impact Investing.

Lack of agility is not the only reason why the future of large conglomerates is in jeopardy. Recently there has been an increase in the number of corporations being targeted by activists. They denounce unethical practices such as monopoly, devastation of natural resources, mistreatment of labor and lack of social responsibility.

These accusations, fair in most cases, have existed since the dawn of large conglomerates in the 1960s, but the massification of social networks in recent years has given new power and reach to those voices that were once very languid, providing them with powerful channels to communicate and spread their protests.

However, it is not just political activism that is coming to large corporations. Shareholder activism is much more effective. It is called investor activism and is exercised by minority shareholders who have social and environmental interests and, since they can participate in shareholders’ meetings, have a direct way to make themselves heard. This type of activism has also gained traction and is causing organizations of all sizes to change some of their policies and back out of controversial acquisitions (Daneshkhu and Nicolaou 2017).

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We live in a time when the public is better informed and more people recognize the importance of sustainability and social responsibility in the corporate world. There are more tools to bring about change in unethical organizations. It is also a time when the most valuable corporations are those with a good image in the eyes of their customers, with values they can identify with and a visible policy of social responsibility.

In these conditions, the outlook is not good for obscure megacorporations with names that nobody knows and policies that are totally oriented towards profit and stock price growth. This is no longer the time for traditional mega-conglomerates.

The end of misleading conglomerates

As I explained at the beginning of this episode, a frequent motivation behind early conglomerates was to artificially increase the organization’s valuation by acquiring high-growth companies. This also showed market power and a position of control. In a way, creating the image of being “too big to fail”.

This ploy proved effective in the short term and useful for speculation, but in the long run, the haphazard acquisition of unrelated businesses became an effort that only served to add complexity, bureaucracy and weight to corporations that were often not so healthy to begin with.

In the modern world, companies, including conglomerates, want to be associated with a brand that generates trust, respect and loyalty. Thanks to social media, organizations are also closer than ever to their customers, who have gained enormous bargaining power. In the past, a corporate public relations division only had to worry about negative news that transcended to the media and use its influence to do damage control through press releases and positive news in newspapers and television (often paid for).

Today, a single customer with their phone can record footage of a bad product or poor customer service, post it on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and bring a Fortune 500 company to its knees in a matter of days. Take, for example, the famous incident in which a Kentucky doctor was kicked off a United Airlines plane for refusing to give up his seat to a partner airline employee. In this case, the company had to endure weeks of negative press and ultimately settle a lawsuit for an undisclosed sum of money (Mindock 2017).

Investors have also learned to read the signs of unnecessary acquisitions and are wary of such transactions when there is no clear upside to the deal. Serious investors are increasingly turning away from investing in such companies and those who do invest in them are mostly speculators looking for an immediate profit derived from the potential increase in share price, only to sell shortly thereafter (Rozeff 2006).

This has led large conglomerates to divest from companies that do not provide a direct benefit to their primary target, just as General Electric did over the last 20 years.

However, given that today’s market is even more addicted to growth than ever before, the unfortunate result of this “deconglomeration” is not necessarily that environmentally and socially responsible corporations are emerging, but that they are adapting to other artificial growth strategies that are potentially even more dangerous and unethical than the previous ones. This is the era of digital megacorporations.

The new gold rush

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Digital giants of the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Tesla and Uber belong to a new breed of digital conglomerates. Their goal is not to acquire weak companies to show growth potential, but to compete with each other to be first in the game for various disruptive technologies that are in development or have yet to be found. They compete in a sort of “digital gold rush” where the golden lode is any patentable technology with current or future potential commercial applications and the mines are the brains of increasingly scarce technology professionals and entrepreneurs.

However, the difference with gold is that, unlike the precious metal, there is no way of telling if a new find is gold or tinsel. New technologies take a long time to develop, test and adapt to the market before they become a groundbreaking commercial technology. Some promising developments, such as Google Glass or smart watches, praised at the time as the best option, ended up being a failure or, at least, much less adopted than expected.

This fixation on endless innovation goes beyond natural human inventiveness and responds mainly to the same greed for economic growth that has haunted markets since the 1950s. The result of this irrational pursuit is a new wave of sometimes futile acquisition of overvalued companies to capture innovations that may or may not become commercial products in the future (Krause 2016).

Some of these acquisitions are strategic and make total business sense. For example, Apple acquired Beats Electronics in 2014, this was a move to gain a stronger advantage in the digital music business (Apple 2014). However, most M&A transactions never result in direct commercial value and end up being an expensive way to acquire skilled professionals or prevent competitors from getting their hands on technology that could give them a competitive edge.

The other objective of the digital conglomerate is to send “signals” to the market that the company is acquiring innovative technology and strengthening its patent portfolio. This often results in these digital conglomerates obtaining absurdly high market valuations based solely on the potential of the technologies they own. This is the case with Uber or WeWork, which have yet to figure out a business model to stop wasting money, but are still valued at millions of dollars.

Amazon’s case is more complex because it actually generates profits, but based on the same market bias that privileges technological R&D over profits, it has decided to invest all its profits in expanding and growing its tentacles as much as possible.

Planned obsolescence

The second characteristic of the new wave of cyberconglomerates also stems from the market’s addiction to growth: digital corporations that actually create a business model and make a profit not only have to generate significant earnings but also have to achieve steady growth from quarter to quarter.

This is why consumer technology giants Apple, Google, Intel and Microsoft have prospered not only through continuous innovation but also by systematically shortening the life cycle of their products. In the case of Google’s ad-based business model, this means more ads, better targeted and more ubiquitous. All software companies seek to generate more frequent software updates to their operating systems to keep hardware running at peak performance and release new hardware more frequently, with just a few cosmetic updates and minor functionality enhancements designed to entice buyers to replace devices barely a year old with the latest models.

Planned Obsolescence: phenomenon description

Everything is new but nothing has changed.

The conclusion of this analysis is that Michael Rozeff’s judgment of the Conglomerates in 2006 was unfortunately too early (Rozeff 2006). The cause of the unethical conglomeration trend of the 1960s and early 2010s remains intact: the market’s addiction to growth. Today’s economic conditions are quite different, but digital conglomerates leverage the described tactics and an M&A-centric approach to achieve steady growth amid fierce competition and a market near saturation.

I said earlier that the new boom of digital conglomerates is even more immoral and dangerous than the previous ones. The reason is that in the past, the cost of the disorderly conglomerate was mainly the unrealistic valuation of these corporations, which caused their eventual market correction. The demand for unlimited growth for modern conglomerates not only causes the same phenomenon, but also a severe impact on the environment due to the pressure on the ecosystem to provide the necessary resources and maintain the processes involved in the more frequent and intense manufacturing cycles.

This begs the question of how long this new digital conglomerate boom will last and whether there will be further iterations of the artificially growing conglomerate model. No one knows the answer, but I’m going to venture some predictions based on the lessons of the past and the risks of the future.

The future of megaconglomerates

This is a personal exercise in forecasting the most likely changes in the corporate conglomerate landscape, based on academic research I conducted a couple of years ago and observation of current trends.

2020-2025: the bursting of the new bubble

Based on the behavior of previous conglomerate booms, it is almost certain to predict that many of the old conglomerates that have not taken the necessary steps to adapt to the new market conditions will lose value. This will be the consequence of new entrants and established players better suited to compete in the digital age. Some financial corporations will see the rise of financial technology companies challenge their dominant position and take away millions of young users who will naturally prefer to give their money to entities that better fit their lifestyle and values as they enter the workforce.

Manufacturing conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble, Monsanto, Nestlé, Halliburton and BP will see the need to reinvent themselves, downsize and adopt more environmentally and socially responsible practices to gain public trust and avoid losing value and competitive advantage due to their current strong negative image (Alex et al. 2014).

The digital conglomerates mentioned in the previous sections will also suffer from the saturation of their expansion possibilities. In a world on the verge of full Internet penetration, with the majority of the high-income population already served by the tech giants, it will be harder to find room for horizontal expansion.

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Some of today’s most overvalued technology companies will have to start showing real earnings growth or they will be part of a new bursting of technology bubbles. Companies threatened by this risk are those that have based their growth on the number of users and the promise of future revenue, including WeWork, Uber or Snapchat (Egan 2015).

Tech giants Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft will continue to grow but at a slower pace. Microsoft is in a better position as its main source of revenue is the corporate market, but consumer-focused companies will be forced to introduce significant innovations to avoid saturation of their markets. They will also face the possibility of being dethroned by breeding companies such as Xiaomi Huawei and Nintendo, or being beaten by each other, reducing the exclusive group of technology megacorporations.

2025-2030: the explosion of AI, IoT and VR

The continued increase in computing power and connectivity speed, plus the enhancement of disruptive AI, Internet of Things and Virtual Reality technologies will create entirely new ecosystems for developing high-tech products and services. This will be excellent news for companies launching the first mass applications of these technologies.

A new market for consumer products and services driven by disruptive technologies will be a new battleground where today’s tech giants will likely have a place, but dominant firms will include companies that don’t even exist today or are currently quietly developing these technologies.

Artificial Intelligence will reach a level of maturity that will make it much more useful for end-user applications than what we see today. The inclusion of deep learning techniques for voice recognition will allow for the creation of enhanced voice assistants such as Siri or Google Assitant, which will be able to understand complex context and understand language in a way that is not possible with current technology. At the same time, virtual reality will be brought into the personal computing experience through augmented reality devices that will integrate contextual data into users’ daily lives.

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These developments will also change the workplace, increasing the spectrum of tasks that will no longer require humans, reducing the manual workforce and thereby deepening the gap between the growing highly skilled and well-paid population and the shrinking pool of blue-collar workers. In other words, the next 10 years will probably see a deepening of the gap between rich and poor, although the percentage of the population living in poverty will probably continue to decline.

At the environmental level, unfortunately, we are not doing enough to slow the rate of climate change, so environmental catastrophes and the adverse effects of global warming will become more noticeable, raising global awareness of the need for urgent solutions and weakening the arguments of climate change deniers. At that point, many governments will step in to impose the waste and emissions elimination measures that most corporations have not adopted, but public pressure will cause most large conglomerates to take definitive action, leading to the first year of climate change contraction towards the end of this decade.

2030 – 2035: The end of the unlimited growth paradigm

It is possible that even the most stringent measures to reduce the effects of global warming are not going to be enough. So I think there will be no alternative but to stop ignoring the main cause of greedy capitalism and environmental depredation: the addiction to growth. This awareness is obviously not going to come from Wall Street, because the capitalist governments of the world will do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo, including skyrocketing public debt and, as we saw in the episode on the collapse of the economy, continuing to print paper money to sustain unlimited profit growth. The wake-up call will necessarily come from those who suffer the consequences of savage capitalism: nature and society.

Several large conglomerates will fall when all their stratagems to generate artificial growth (as opposed to the natural growth of market needs), no longer work. The lower classes will not be able to consume at the rate required by the mega-corporations to maintain their growth and the higher and more educated classes will become more environmentally conscious and pragmatic and will question whether it is really necessary to maintain excessive consumption.

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This will be accompanied by increasingly frequent news of severe damage to the ecosystem caused by all kinds of polluting waste. Real continents of plastic garbage floating in the oceans near beaches around the world, mountains of electronic waste in third world countries and shortages of water, oil, natural gas and some elements necessary for the manufacture of electronic equipment will be the news every week. (Ruz 2011).

Finally, humanity will face one of its toughest tests: despite increasing life expectancy worldwide, and advanced therapies or cures for most prevalent diseases, an unbearable rate of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior will be the norm in industrialized countries (Han et al. nd). The most prosperous time in history will show that economic growth and technological advancement without sustainability are not synonymous with well-being.

Governments around the world will continue to legislate to protect natural resources and decrease unethical and anti-ecological behaviors of corporations and citizens, but there may be civil unrest in many countries due to the nature and extent of the ongoing problem.

2035-2040: the beginning of a sustainable economy

All the preceding turmoil will create a corporate landscape very different from the one we know today. Only ethical, socially and ecologically responsible companies will make it to the new era of sustainable industrialization. Technological development will adapt from the previously resource-intensive resource-based development to a sustainable green technology paradigm where innovation must be subordinated to controlling the ecological footprint it produces.

Jason Hickel, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, proposes that GDP is an irresponsible measure of development because it increases when natural resources are depleted, when forests are decimated, when natural disasters occur or when hospital visits increase. GDP ignores environmental and social costs.

He proposes a more sensible metric called the “Genuine Progress Indicator” – GPI. It consists of GDP minus negative growth outcomes. An indicator that considers the cost of growth that motivates nations to develop sustainable growth laws, regulations and policies (Hickel 2017).

A new economy based on sustainability and not growth will be beneficial for all humans on Earth, but also for all businesses and industries, because it will remove the pressure on the shoulders of CEOs to generate revenues that grow unlimitedly. In this way, their efforts will be focused on innovating, creating more efficient ways to generate value, and generating sustainable profits with the smallest possible footprint on the ecosystem (Prádanos 2015).

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This vision may sound quixotic to today’s capitalists, but the truth is that no company can grow indefinitely (Fisher, Gaur, and Kleinberger 2017). Most countries have examples of companies that have thrived for decades generating well-being for their employees and profits for their shareholders, growing organically at the pace of their natural expansion and valued based on their actual earnings. Unfortunately, companies like this cannot succeed when faced with competition that is willing to do whatever it takes to grow beyond their real value and destroy their competitors.

The body of knowledge of this alternative path already exists and is called Ecological Economics. It is maintained by the International Society for Ecological Economics, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the understanding of the relationship between ecological, social and economic systems for the well-being of nature and people (ISEE 2017).

It’s just the beginning, but when humanity is ready to move out of the predatory capitalist economy that is destroying the planet and the mental health of the population, green economics, sustainable growth, corporate social responsibility, sustainable impact investing and ethical capitalism will not just be buzzwords, but the foundation of a more just, egalitarian, healthy and prosperous society. Either that or we self-destruct as a civilization.


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