Capitalist Co-ops

Stakeholder financing with 'Capitalist Co-ops'

"Capitalist Co-ops" presents a vision for a superannuation (or pension fund) industry based on “stakeholder investment” principles linking superannuation investments & business governance to the present, daily lives of the people that invest in super, who are also customers and employees of the companies invested in.

This 2007 paper summarised and updated the key concepts in my 1998 papers on:

To my surprise, given the aim was to challenge the problems of modern free-market economies & capitalism, I concluded the answer could simply lie in better, less restrictive governance of sharemarkets and superannuation funds (subject to a sufficiently fair redistribution of wealth through the tax & welfare system).

Besides revealing my journey to the "dark side" of market economics, those original 1998 papers also discuss the key concepts covered in my subsequent papers on "FinancingInnovation" /"Financing Start-ups" and "Supporting Employment & Reforming Welfare", which are referenced in the following summary and in my separate discussion of superannuation and tax reform particularly "Part 2 – Higher-Rate Tax Reform for Flexible Careers" (p.13-14) of my "supertax reform" paper.

Finally, in "Capitalist Co-ops for new Global Governance", I extend the concept to one of competing global networks of economic communities , which may positively challenge the negative aspects of nation states, and thereby more effectively address global challenges.

Customer Stakeholders & Crowd-Funding

Applying the concept to superannuation investors would involve formally recognising that many of these super fund members are already also customers of the businesses they indirectly own shares in, and then allowing these customer shareholders to receive investment returns through ongoing product discounts instead of conventional dividends (or rather, as a minimum return, so ordinary dividends would still be paid if the customer chose to spend little during a particular time period).  This would be conceptually similar to loyalty pricing such as Coles supermarkets' previously popular shareholder discount scheme (but with block-chain technology reducing admin costs), and also to "access pricing" structures commonly applied to utility bills (based on "Ramsey pricing" theory, which is especially useful for industries with relatively high fixed costs and low marginal costs, as is increasingly the case for technology companies).  An advantage of customer shareholding via super funds is that instead of asking people to commit spare cash to shares (rather than on alternative consumption), the choice offered is simply whether to invest in shares with customer discounts or shares with less controllable and risky dividends.  The value of product discounts would need to be tracked by super funds so they could be taxed the same as cash withdrawn for consumption, in order to ensure the system operates for genuine economic benefit, rather than as a tax loophole.

If applied to specific new products, the concept of customer shareholders is similar to internet-based "crowdfunding", which gives price discounts to customers who pre-pay before manufacturing starts most recently and dramatically demonstrated by 232,000 Tesla Model 3 orders & deposits being taken within 24 hours (about double initial estimates) of the car's launch on 31 March 2016 (& a total of over 325,000 within a week, worth potentially US$14bn), almost two years before production and first deliveries planned for late 2017.  One key advantage of this approach over conventional equity financing is that customers who know they want the product face less risk on their "return" than 3rd-party investors (& therefore demand lower returns).  The reduced business risk created by these mass pre-orders also then reduces the cost of any supplementary financing required.  In turn, early-bird customers are rewarded with lower prices in return for supporting the early production risk that will eventually, through economies-of-scale, lead to lower costs and prices for later customers.

By linking investment to consumption, customer share-ownership could make superannuation products more "present" and attractive to ordinary people (a marketing advantage for the super fund), whilst simultaneously reducing investment risk and offering lower-cost finance to businesses (thus supporting economic growth).  The greater long-term loyalty that could be expected from stakeholder investors also offers the prospect of reduced share-price volatility (in addition, & perhaps counter-intuitively, volatility could also be reduced by the expansion of on-line gambling to the stock market).

Community Stakeholders

Extending the concept from customers to "community stakeholders", stakeholder ownership would help to ensure companies operate in the broader interests of society in general, rather than financial investors exploiting people's ignorance to maximise profits.  For example:

Employee Stakeholders

A key difference from traditional co-ops which are typically focussed on a single industry would be that superannuation-based Capitalist Co-ops would be formed from a diverse network of businesses, primarily in order to reduce investment risk, but also to promote synergistic co-operation between businesses within the network.

Superannuation funds that manage these Capitalist Co-ops particularly Australia's union-linked “industry funds” (with associated loyalty shopping programs) could encourage indirect employee share-ownership with investment risk diversified throughout the Co-op network's businesses, and to complement this they could also provide competitive union services, representing employee interests in corporate governance whilst also helping employees with value-enhancing business change through employment-agency services.  As shareholder representatives, these unions would be represented on company boards, subject to exceeding a certain threshold (which would also ensure employee representation is not divided amongst too many unions to make it impractical to have any influence).  Thus, companies would exhibit a kind of "inverted management" (as management would be accountable to the board and ultimately through super funds to employees), because in an age where value increasingly resides in the knowledge & skills of workers, the role of management is to provide these skilled workers with a service to make the most of their employment (as I discuss in my paper on "Supporting Employment & Reforming Welfare").

Besides the improvement in economic productivity, there is also evidence that co-operative management helps to improve employee's mental health (i.e. be less depressed / more happy).

Consistent with this theme, superannuation funds are already showing increased activism to ensure the businesses they invest in treat their employees appropriately (partly to manage financial and legal risks, as well as doing the right thing by workers).

Management accountability & sustainable performance metrics

The concept of Capitalist Co-ops gives greater emphasis to sustainability, especially for member employees.  But oversight of sustainable business performance is already hampered in existing organisations by a tendency to use short-term metrics, such as annual profit (or better though still in practice less than ideal “economic value added”).  Such metrics have widespread negative impacts throughout organisations, by encouraging behaviours that improve the immediate metric, at the expense of the longer term.  Budgets get wasted towards the end of period (“spend it while you’ve got it”) and frenetic, rather than thoughtful activity waves through an organisation in order to meet quarterly and annual reporting deadlines at the top.

Of course accounting systems need to adopt discrete time periods, like a financial year or quarter, but we need to develop better metrics to guide and incentivise management and employees towards more sustainable medium & long-term goals (& perhaps create calmer workplaces), in both private and public sectors (see proposals to address short-termism in public-sector financial management here).

A relatively simple improvement on current practice would be to focus on averages or trends calculated across a number of historic time periods (adjusted for the time value of money), and in the case of senior executive bonuses, to defer payment until a number of periods after they’ve left an organisation.  This could discourage short-termist behaviour that boosted immediate metrics if the consequence would simply be to reduce subsequent measures and the future running average.

International Co-op Networks

In a world of global trade, Capitalist Co-op networks would also be global, and would have loosely-connected & dynamic corporate membership, with the stock market continuing to provide external scrutiny and performance pressure on the value of superannuation funds and their constituent network businesses.  Organisations well-placed to develop in this way could include transformed banks or the likes of the Virgin Group (anchored by Virgin Money), or Google (if it fixes the failures in its recent payments & banking ventures), Facebook (if its efforts to create a global currency weren't stymied by regulators) and Apple (maybe if Elon Musk joined Apple to restore its innovative drive and give it a better social mission, whilst the Apple board restrains his crazier tendencies) thanks to their existing networks and sheer capital scale allowing them to quickly expand into new industries (but maybe not the tax-dodging Amazon which poorly pays & mistreats its workers to the extent of not even seeming to care when they die, as its CEO, Jeff Bezos, despite personal wealth of $US167bn in 2018, has no community/philanthropic spirit and instead spends his fortune on big-boy space toys because he thinks, "there is not enough philanthropic need on earth for him to spend his billions on", even though half the world's population doesn't have a decent toilet).

Conceptually, a strong loyalty pricing scheme operating across a network of businesses has some similarities to a network-specific currency, and in time this may eventuate within Capitalist Co-ops (and perhaps provide the stimulation to economic growth claimed of Modern Monetary Theory).  Such network currencies could potentially replace the struggling Euro, with the Euro becoming a common underlying 'base currency' for multiple competing Co-ops across Europe, & indeed globally - see The Euro & international economic networks post 'Brexit'.  This scenario is not so far-fetched, given the IMF supports planning ahead now for a future with competing, international "crypto currencies", and India is moving aggressively towards a cashless, digital society whilst a number of African countries are already introducing block-chain digital currencies and many others, including China & Singapore, are considering it.

Ultimately people will be able to choose which global economic community network they wish to join, whichever country they live in, and as I argue in the attached document, "Capitalist Co-ops for new Global Governance", which was my entry to the 2017-18 Global Governance Challenge the concept of the nation state will further disappear (which is already outdated as a concept of an integrated, stand-alone economic entity, given the global nature of most supply-chains).

Although this vision is primarily about business strategy, there are undoubtedly various tax and legal/regulatory barriers that need to be addressed (not least the superannuation fund "sole purpose test") to facilitate such an industry transformation (I recommend a detailed review to consider this).

Here's some relevant links within the general 'vibe' of co-ops, mutuals and stakeholder/social/community/ethical investment: