Confounding Effects of Cosmogonal Free Markets: A Crisis in National Economy
Global, Borderless, Limitless & Unfettered markets are here referred to as cosmogonal phenomena given that the modern global economy after crossing the oceans and continents has now extended even to the sphere of space. Unrestrained and Unfettered free-markets are espoused to be primarily driven by the investing-principals (be they are individuals, institutions, or governments) and are quite often juxtaposed by several modern thinkers and economists as an economic wonder, engine of growth, and a complete panacea to solving the malaise of inefficiency, crisis of unemployment, and hopeless corruption that hamper many national governments especially the governments of highly populous developing economies. Drawing inspiration from Adam Smith's conception - which propounded that “the self-interest propelled trade and commerce in an unrestrained free-market meets the necessary demand and supply conditions in an efficient manner and furthers more economic growth and wealth creation" - the proponents of modern free-market or laissez-faire capitalism argue that ‘governments’ should not interfere in any of the major economic and commercial activities and must get rid of the shackles such as rules, regulations, taxes, or tariffs and must get away from the subsidies or public goods including essential activities like education and public health.
The free market is presented almost as a synonym to democracy with a sparkling articulation that markets – as it is believed (pun intended!) the popular elections pave the way for electing the most promising leaders and political parties with best action programs to solve the pressing socio-economic problems – will guide the society by allowing citizens to make rational choices of consumption, employment, production, and investment. It is further reasoned that in the absence of bureaucratic hassles, the markets would solve the problems of scarcity and supply most efficiently and offer more choices by forcing suppliers with competitive pressure and encouraging innovations to effectively fulfill the needs and desires of the population.
Such an immoderate and lofty viewpoint suggests that all transactions including social, cultural, healthcare, religious, and educational are merely economic, and the purchasing power derived from demand condition and supply potential of individuals and institutions will guide all affairs of a society seamlessly. Notwithstanding the popularity of this school of thought, there is a score of evidence for the failure of free-market idealism across nations in the past two centuries. Several great thinkers, ...from Plato to Adam Smith, and Aristotle to Amartya Sen... had offered us great many moral, political, and economic frameworks of reference that had underscored the significance of ethics, individual rights, morality, justice, freedom, liberty, quality of life, social harmony and peace to evaluate and critique such normative economic ideas.
I would like to rather present a different viewpoint drawing from systems thinking and juxtaposing the rational, and irrational tendencies and emotional predicaments of the human mind that defeat the lofty claims of free-market idealism. By offering some real evidence that contradicts the presumptions of free-market idealism, I would like to uncover some of its fallacies, inherent contradictions, intolerable inconsistencies concerning promoting economic growth and highlight its failure to sustain the quintessential economic/industrial activities that safeguard the interests of the larger society.
Key Assumptions and Fallacies of Free Market Idealism
Let us discuss a set of key assumptions of free-market idealism and juxtapose the fallacies of such assumptions. First, the central tenets of free-market idealism are that actors in a free market – out of self-interest - make rational choices of allocation, consumption, and investment with complete information/knowledge and without bias about the means and methods of production, the quality of asset/products, and the consequences of the purchase and usage. The two premises – the complete information and rational allocation by the buyers/sellers (demand and supply of assets by a select group of buyers and sellers) - are quite substantial to support the free market idealism.
It has been established in the economics literature that information asymmetry affects systemically almost all business transactions including stocks and assets trading - due to inherent cost, access, and time constraints. That means, both resource allocation, investment, and consumption decisions are often marred by incomplete information and most economic decisions are likely to be boundedly rational if not irrational. Moreover, most actors’ decisions are subject to the surfeit of cognitive biases arising from factors such as grapevine, fashion, fads, short-termism, groupthink, stereotyping, herd behavior, framing effect, and statistical errors.
Also, systemically speaking, agglomeration of economic allocation/consumption decisions of both citizens and firms based on self-interest within society – even with the presumption of full rationality in their choices – may not result in the best outcomes for either citizens or the whole society. As the tragedy of commons, take, for instance, the extent of fossil fuel consumption seeking low cost and efficiency gains in meeting the energy and transportation needs in many developed economies have resulted in unbearable trade imbalance and global warming effect forcing both economic crisis and environmental wreck.
Second, is a well-upheld presumption by the most free-market idealists is that the prices (of goods, stocks, or properties) are most efficiently arrived at based on fair evaluation, that prices reflect the most efficient tradeoff or negotiation between buyers and sellers, and thus prices reflect the inherent cost, real quality, and intrinsic worth (current/future value) of the products or assets. However, the market prices of many products and commodities do not reflect the real cost of production or the quality of the products, for the reason the marketing and pricing strategies in many industries are not tied to the true cost (supply) factors, rather based on political, competitive, global, and long-term strategic interests. In short, prices may be overstated or understated not reflecting the real or intrinsic worth of the labor and other costs of factors of production. For instance, in several critical sectors of the economy like metals, agriculture, manufacturing, and electronics the prices have been declining steadily for the past few decades. And so, the income level of employees and shareholders value of investors associated with these sectors.
Such declining prices/employee wages/profits might be due to over-capacity forcing the price wars, intense competition, currency value fluctuations, or trade wars. Many industries have delivered a tremendous volume of product output despite mounting losses and continual downsizing of employees. Take, for instance, the steel industry in the United States. Out of 80+ million Metric Tons of steel consumed on average per year in the United States, about 70+ million Metric Tons are domestically produced & supplied; about 10% are being imported from other countries and about 4% being exported to other countries. In addition to intense domestic competition, due to the ensuing global competition and trade war for the marginal 5 to 10% of steel exports/imports, the industry experiences serious price wars, perennial loss, and massive downsizing. Despite the critical nature and enormous potential for such manufacturing industries for employment and higher wages, the companies in these industries receive an unfair evaluation, no stock appreciation, and gain low market value.
Third, the free market idealists assume that the demand and supply conditions iron out the problem of scarcity and surplus across industries and markets so that there is an amicable equilibrium of profits/loss, market value, worth, and bargaining power among suppliers and industries at any given point in time. Even when there is an asymmetry or skew in terms of financial attractiveness among the firms and industries – with the business cycles, innovations, and seasonal changes in demand/supply conditions, over time, the equilibrium will shift (dynamically), and the differences/skew will be minimized. The reality is that there are industries such as Agriculture, metals & mining, automobiles, and industrial goods, in which the business cycles come and go, innovations routinely occur, and even demand for their products skyrocket; yet their cost structure or profit bottom-line does not change owing to a variety of factors. To name a few, intense global competition, the sheer size of the firms in these industries, rigid immobile assets lacking agility, and inability to find specialized human resources across new locations. For instance, several consumer durable manufacturers have moved offshores or practiced outsourcing extensively, whereas the steel and metal companies could not move their operations from the mining regions they are tied to; Similarly, in the Agri sector, firms cannot practically outsource their land, crop production, or employees.
Fourth, the assumption that – which sails along with the conception of dynamic equilibrium and changes in demand/supply conditions – the investments, resources, and people can move from one industry to another – that they can move away from the unfavorable industries to best-performing industries seeking better pastures in terms of good wages, rents, and profits is an impractical suggestion. The reality is that while almost all money and liquid assets can move, specialized human resources or assets cannot easily move. The cost of exit from the unfavorable industries with specialized assets and repositioning of human resources can be exorbitantly high.
Fifth, there is an implicit assumption that stock prices reflect the intrinsic economic value of the assets that firms carry. It has been observed in recent times, most large stock markets are at the threshold of inefficiency and the asset/stock prices or market value of most firms do not correspond to their size of sales revenue, technology or intellectual capital, or even profitability. In most cases, the stock prices reflect only the industry/sales growth rate and rate of cash flow than any long-term critical factors of performance or intrinsic worth. Except for a few cases of exception like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, in most cases, the fashions, fads, speculations, herd behavior, and hyper-growth will dictate the asset pricing and market value of firms rather than inherent economic strength, critical nature, trade surplus, or technology advantages associated with firm or industry.
There are about 50000+ publicly-traded stock companies in the world, of which only about 1000+ companies in the United States and about 3000+ companies across the globe occupy most indices that are supposedly representing the strength of the economies, industries, or retirement and institutional mutual funds. Even within most of the mutual funds only about few hundred+ companies carry most of the weight. The implication is that fewer and fewer companies receive most of the allocation from retirement savings accounts on a regular monthly or yearly basis depriving both the funds and shareholders return to critical capital intensive, labor-intensive, technology-driven enterprises. The rising market indices or indexed mutual funds do not correctly represent either the economic or respective industries' health. Often the performance of the Index-Dominant firms is not tied to other domestic firms and economic activities within the respective national economy for the reason their value addition stems primarily from exports and imports, outsourcing, and offshoring.
Sixth, free-market idealists assume that firms and industries within an economy make self-corrections through seamless interchanges of resources, people and investment flows without affecting the overall economy. However, there could be a confounding effect – that is, a crisis in one or a few large industries can trigger a cascading nonlinear effect on the entire economy causing adverse effects on employment, savings, and market value. When the large industries experience fleeting investors owing to low growth rate, low profitability, or when they experience high uncertainty due to market failures and volatility similar to the 2008 mortgage industry financial crisis or 2001 economic recession, not only do they go through massive downsizing but they trigger severe crisis in the whole economy. Due to the cascading effect of the mortgage industry crisis, the $75+ Trillion world economy shrunk by $15 Trillion to $60 Trillion, and the resulting employment loss and income/savings loss resulted in further erosion of investments value in the overall economy. In the U.S. alone, nearly $4 Trillion retirement savings eroded due to the mortgage crisis and the resulting employment and savings loss in critical sectors like automobiles, banking, construction, and real estate. See the figure below to note the extent of value and savings erosion due to the 2008 financial crisis.
“For a civilization to flourish well, its rivers and streams need to flow gradually from one end to the other as far as they can and reach as many people as it could. A Civilization cannot flourish if its rivers continually flood the towns or its waters are locked in a few places without use or let go dry”. With the above simile, let us discuss whether the highways of free markets let the money and resources flow gradually across the economy generating the greatest good possible for the greatest number of people, or they flood a few places and let resources get stagnant causing entropy or depletion across the rest of economy. The idea emphasized here is the intervention; Less costly frictionless interventions are a must for effective distribution of monetary resources to make them more productive.
The proponents of free-market idealism give an impression that markets without borders and restraints act as great mechanisms for wealth creation and distribution reaching the greatest number of people efficiently. As we pointed out in the earlier section, in reality, that is a big fallacy. Neither “trickle-down” nor “periodic dam burst” of resources and money would be an effective intervention given the systemic crises routinely triggered by the limitless free market idealism. Let me summarize the reflections in the previous section and pictorially present the anecdotal evidence for the inefficient allocations by free markets by comparing the select firms and industries over a span of 15 years – relatively high & low growth, high & low profits - and the crisis they generate within national economies. The cases presented are not exceptions, but reflect the general trend.
Let us proceed with the assumption of full rationality guiding the behavior of principals, governments, or corporate agents, and the consumer public in enacting the economic transactions of production, consumption, savings, investment, and so on, and assuming a most favorable condition of a complete laissez-faire model of free-market, and there is unlimited money supply coming from the government, global financial markets, private savings, and reinvestments from industry profits plowing back into markets and so on. Even assuming the most favorable climate, within any national market and within the borderless global investment or factor markets, there is always an intense competition among firms, industries, resources, and agents/managers to attract this money - in terms of - which markets, which manager/agent, what firm/industry, or which resource factor – can fetch the highest return in the least amount of time with the lowest cost or risk.
Free-market thinkers would argue that such a competition among one and all is the manifestation of the most efficient economy in its purest form to deliver the so-called economic results or gains.......meaning consumer surplus, low cost of production, low prices, and its natural corollary of low inflation, high economic growth, low unemployment, more savings, fewer taxes, and more investments…and so on...Although unrestrained free market gives the impression of a level-playing field and the allocation will be driven by the sheer economic efficiency, - given the huge disparity in terms of growth rate and profitability among industries - the harsh reality is that most money will always go to relatively fewer places among all the choices where they can fetch high marginal rents within a short term whether the potential for quick rents are realistic or based out of speculation.
Metaphorically speaking, there is a sprinting competition between Elephants, Camels, Horses, and Rabbits on the same track to occupy and control as much space for their gracing. We know that for sure, the camels and elephants can't beat the horses and rabbits in speed or timing. Horses cannot beat the rabbits either in short bursts. While rabbits can be good pets or meat, horses can carry people long distances relatively faster with breaks, the camels and elephants can carry more people and heavy loads very farther in all kinds of terrains.
The point is that most industries, if not all, require careful nurturing and continued attention even when their growth or profitability is relatively smaller than the hyper-growth high-profit industries especially agriculture, steel, minerals, oil & gas, and energy to name a few. These industries serve as the foundation for any economy employing a large section of the society, and without their healthy functioning, most economies would simply collapse. Nor these industries can afford to punish the majority of customers with exorbitant prices to seek high profitability in alignment with high-speed stock market competition to attract investors and financial resources.
Also, as pointed out earlier there is a confounding effect. Lopsided accumulation of financial resources within a few sectors will impoverish and drain people and resources further away from the relatively low-growth and low-profit industries. Even if we accept that situation as an inevitable predicament; however, not all people, assets, and specialized skills (even if they are of national significance for safety, security, or public good) can find a place or gain respectable value in the portfolio of high growth-high profit corporations and industries. When there is a massive loss of employment or market failure of such industries, not only employees, other critical stakeholders of these industries such as communities, local governments, and related businesses will face starvation and collapse forcing more crisis in the national economy.
Although business cycles, innovations, and dynamic equilibrium are offered as a comforting explanation suggesting there will be changes in demand/supply conditions as well as the financial climate of industries, in reality, such changes over time don't alter the cost and profit parameters drastically in many industries. Of course, innovations can favorably alter the game. In the last 200 years or so after the industrial revolution, firms in traditional industries such as agriculture, mines, metals, railways, minerals & petrochemicals, automobiles, had left no stone unturned. In addition to innovations, they have replaced the cost-intensive labor and machinery with the most efficient automation & robotics. However, the game has not changed given that now the scope of competition in the traditional industries is global with all suppliers brandishing similar advantages.
Finally, some industries are stuck with the natural limits of returns to scale and assets. For instance, farmers cannot supply plastics-laden food in the guise of reducing cost nor we can digest petro-chemicals as nutritious food. In fact, even farmers on their part had attempted to resize their cows to resemble the elephants by feeding them hormones, and cultivated gene-engineered crops to make farming more productive and profitable like all other innovations in other industries. We can carry a lot of plastic cards that can do banking and computing, but we cannot eat them. We now know what led to the rise of mad-cow disease and the health effects of gene-modified food. When the fear of mad-cow disease spread, farmers couldn’t recall the cows nor repair the damage, but simply slashed and burned 4.5 million cattle simply to assuage the fear of customers.
Thus, free markets cannot deliver the envisaged results for society without intervention. All of us are familiar with the government regulations to control the market but they can be costly. More than efficient regulations, effective coordination of market mechanisms is a requisite intervention. The intervention has to be multipronged and must encompass efforts right from guiding the employees through restructuring the governance of firms and industries to rethinking economic institutions.
We would like to highlight a few intervention techniques. For instance, employees and managers working in low growth-low profit industries need to diversify their skills as well as savings & investments. It is kind of presumed that individuals can readily diversify their skills and investments and move on to greener pastures. Often, it does not occur to individuals that they are embedded in an industry climate that would perennially restrict income and savings growth. Even as a Business Professor teaching economic trends, I have failed to notice the emerging new tech & business opportunities for investment, employment, and wealth generation. Although some governments had instituted reeducation, retraining, unemployment insurance, and relocation programs, they are implemented in an ad-hoc manner and are not yet formally institutionalized. And such efforts have to be comprehensive involving not only employees, but all the critical stakeholders including the local communities, universities, benefit & retirement institutions, real estate, and local governments. Effective matching of demand and supply of education, skills, and talent ought to be a comprehensive institutional, community-wide, industry, and union-driven strategy.
Often, we read about firms in low growth-low profit industries seeking mergers and acquisitions to overcome the challenges of growth, global competition, and financial hardship. Such integration strategies have not really paid off in most cases. Although integration efforts result in quick growth outcomes and short bull-runs of the stock, the sheer size of consolidated enterprises is so huge to sustain the financial attractiveness in the stock market in comparison to the fast-growing agile corporations in new-age industries such as information technology. However, the firms in traditional industries can diversify their liquid assets by investing in high-growth firms/industries. Firms also need to formally institute safety-net measures to assuage the long-term shareholders and employees to keep themselves competitive as well as to keep a reservoir of cash resources to meet employee benefits commitment and circumvent market failures and undervaluation of stocks. To emphasize this point; consider for example, despite having $100 billion in sales revenue, in 2008 GM was facing bankruptcy with its stock value at its bottom and had to be bailed out by the U.S. Government.
Finally, to summarize, neither markets can guide themselves, nor can they build industries that are of economic and national significance, rather an intervention is required for planning, governance, maintenance, public goods creation, and effective matching of supply-&-demand, and thus, in turn, to drive them toward strategic goals and public-goods.