Making Sense of Business and Policy

Sobering thoughts from the Chairman of Sears Holdings:

I just finished Thomas Sowell's most recent book, Intellectuals and Society. For those not familiar with his writings, Thomas Sowell is one of the clearest and most insightful writers of our era. I look forward to every book and column he publishes. In this book, he discusses the “vision of the anointed” and how their views shape society regardless of their merit. He describes how often these views conflict with reality without altering these views and, paradoxically, sometimes strengthening them. I couldn’t help noticing the parallels between his comments and the “vision of the anointed” in the financial and business world over the past few years.

Business leaders, regulators, public officials, and journalists have become an echo chamber of self-support and self-congratulation, whether on TV, in print or at numerous conferences. Their words and their actions are often self-serving (whether right or wrong), and they are typically regarded and reported on as if they were obvious and selfless. They get repeated as if there were no alternative views or possibility of error in their thinking. Dominant narratives develop and get defended primarily by repetition and secondarily by attacks on those who disagree with those narratives. When these favored people and views become endorsed in laws and regulations, some may benefit, but many get harmed.

There are several examples of issues that have been smothered by dominant narratives. Accepting these narratives without critical evaluation can be a contributing factor to some of the negative unexpected consequences they produce. Did the seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the largest nationalization in our country and likely in history) calm or ignite fear in the financial markets and did those urging or supporting the seizure profit from it? Has raising minimum wage rates helped or harmed the individuals that those advocating such policy intended to help? Is there any link between a higher minimum wage and high unemployment? Has the consolidation in financial services helped or hurt depositors and borrowers? Why were some institutions saved and others seized, merged or left to fail? How does regulatory and policy uncertainty impact investment and risk-taking in society?

I fear that Americans have been provided a false choice between a little more and a lot more regulation and taxes. We keep hearing more ideas to create jobs and generate growth that almost exclusively require more government spending. Jobs can come from government, but those jobs get paid for by taking money from the private sector, reducing the private sector’s ability to provide jobs. On the other hand, there are many who believe that less regulation, less government interference, less arbitrary regulation when it does exist, and lower government spending will generate more growth and more jobs. I agree with those views.

As one of the largest private sector employers in the United States, Sears Holdings recognizes the challenges of finding good talent, developing good talent and keeping good talent. We have created not just new jobs, but new job categories and job descriptions as our industry changes and as new technology provides both new opportunities and new challenges.

Some contend that there is an inherent conflict between labor and capital, yet they fail to appreciate that without investment there will be no growth and no jobs. For there to be investment there needs to be an expectation of profit, and, for there to be an expectation of profit, there needs to be hope and belief in the future and confidence in the rules of the game.

The straw man frequently used to justify more regulation and to criticize free markets is to assert that the proponents of free markets blindly believe that they always work and that they always produce good results. Most free market advocates don’t actually make this claim, and they know that it is not true. Free markets respect individual rights and freedom, preserve choice and accountability, and produce superior results compared with non-free markets. When free markets experience problems and produce poor results, critics are fast to proclaim that things would have been better if only there was more, but better regulation. However, in most industries and societies where there is more regulation, there is typically lower growth, lower employment, and less innovation.

Self-regulation is a better idea and it is a better choice, whether for an individual or a corporation. Any corporation can choose to limit or make investments, increase or decrease compensation, and manage risk at different levels. Companies can compete by promoting their “safety and soundness” or by their “willingness to take risks.” Investors, customers, and workers can choose which companies and their associated behaviors and philosophies appeal to them. Let the media and politicians explain, compare, criticize, and contrast the various policies, so there will be little doubt that success or failure is determined by choice and not by ignorance. Then, make sure that government doesn’t reward failure and punish success by interfering with outcomes based upon political contributions, undue influence, or the personal beliefs of the policymakers.

Read the entire shareholder letter.