Dracula Discovers Investing
Jack Ma, chief executive of Alibaba, one of the world's largest companies and the global competitor of Amazon.com, says he has a plan to keep his company going for a hundred years. It sounds insane, but that's what he wants. It's his baby. He has no idea what the next twenty years will be like – whether some new kind of warfare will rearrange society as we know it, or whether some unforeseen technology will make his style of business completely obsolete, or whether the people who succeed him will run it into the ground. But he has a plan, and God bless him, he's aiming for the stars.
This kind of dreaming happens when a man builds something from the ground into the heavens – not the man who comes after him, and least of all from a shareholder. A finance hotshot, hired out of Harvard, doesn't sit up all night wondering how to hand Pepsi to his grandchildren or how to keep it viable until the Second Coming. He has a heart for it, but only until it quits giving him paychecks, at which point he's out. The shareholder is worse in that he's in it only while his stocks are gaining – or until someone says his stocks are going to take a dive, at which point he sells his share of the company to some other less informed sucker. In truth, he has no emotional attachment to the company. It isn't his baby, and absolutely nothing in the company bears any mark of his genius or hard work. No – he watches a number, and that number is the main reason he's in it, and the moment that number starts getting smaller, he bails. Buy low, sell high is as good as the Gospel.
This profound disconnect between what's going on in a company and whether it's worthy of investment constitutes my main objection to the corporate structure. I understand that going public means that you can get more money faster and that more money means that you can do things you wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. Beyond this, I know that this means that a lot of companies are here today that otherwise wouldn't be. It's a fast ticket to bliss, like cocaine. What we don't hear about are the great companies the corporate structure has killed off.
My father works for what used to be the best company to work for in America. Now it's ranked one of the worst. At some point in their history, the geniuses who ran it began to retire, and some new kids came in. They still had vision, but they lacked heart. Someone found out that coming up with brilliant inventions isn't the only way to make money. So the bean-counters began cutting benefits for their workers – little things here and there that didn't seem like much but meant the world when added together. They began to cut back on payroll, which added stress on the employees. They got rid of little services they used to do in house and began to outsource wildly. All of this made getting things done difficult, impeded the efficiency of the company, and killed the magnet that brought the best employees in. All of this made the stockholders, who had no idea what was actually happening inside the company, turn a profit, and thus happy about their wallets.
Who were the prime owners of said company's stock during this period? We have no idea – they came and they went. We can find the names of the original owners, but the investors are faceless and disappeared into the night. The company's declined, and they all got rich. Another day, another company to loot.
I'm now thirty-four years old and witnessing the same thing happening at my company – a beautiful company, with beautiful, brilliant founders, who are all getting old and starting to retire. The sales are up. The stocks keep climbing. But the insider notices the little changes being made here and there: the struggle to find talent, because entry pay hasn't kept up with inflation; the stressed out leadership, because payroll has been cut and salary means long days; the little perks and treats the minions would brag about around their friends; the longer time it takes to move anywhere up the pay scale and stay there; the ease, now, with which you can terminate a man who gets sick for a while; the prime rib at Christmas parties and inventory. All of this is cut and tossed aside for the sake of those here today and gone tomorrow, allies in fair weather and turncoats not even in foul, but at the slightest hint of a downturn; for a faceless mob that doesn't love any of us or need us here tomorrow, or next week, or twenty years after, because our alliance relies upon a single arrow, and he can take off any time he chooses without looking for a new job.
I cheered the lowering of the corporate tax, and now I'm booing it – not because Americans don't deserve lower taxes, but because they deserve better than the corporate structure.
Investment will be slower under another system; I guarantee it. It will be slower and harder, as going to work will be slower than betting on a winning horse, and as managing employees is harder than managing slaves. But it's the difference between companies run by visionaries and companies run by schemers, or between getting a call girl for a night and getting a wife to give you some children.
The sad truth is that a public corporation is a business in the process of selling its soul. It might hold out for a while, but the end result is clockwork. It's a jet that climbs the heavens faster – and then, because people believed we could turn a profit by selling, mid-flight, the sensors, the flaps, the wheels, and the gasoline, crashes right back into the ground and never flies again.