Markets are ruthlessly efficient – just what a company should avoid

Why do companies die? Some, like Peregrine, which used to be Hong Kong’s largest investment bank (and the delightfully named Safe and Steady taxi firm to which it lent Dollars 260 million), are just gamblers – their business model assumes the chips will fall one way up when they don’t they are, by definition, sunk.

But others, like the shrinking albeit extant Laura Ashley, are killed off by varying combinations of poor strategy, misreading of the market and bad appointments. Personal greed, corruption and hubris are other regular killers of companies.

Less attention, however, is generally paid to companies that manage themselves to death – like a smoker insisting that cigarettes are good for the health, such companies destroy themselves by clinging to a lethally misconceived idea of what corporate wellbeing is.

After Hanson last year, the latest in this line is Westinghouse. Extensive obituaries of the 111-year-old firm, one of the US’s most famous engineering names, cited bad management as the cause of death.

This is in one sense true, but the culprit was not a mistake but a doctrine, a doctrine still held remarkably dear by consultants (and imposed with particular regularity on their public-sector clients struggling to make sense of private-sector disciplines).

The fallacy is this: companies operate in markets, so the more they organise themselves internally to operate as markets, the more effective they will be. Wrong: companies and markets are different, each with its own distinct operating logic.

Why companies exist at all is the subject of a large and impressively abstruse branch of economic debate. To simplify grossly, the traditional line is that in the beginning there were markets, and companies are merely a necessity for those economic parts markets cannot reach – restraining human opportunism and carrying out complex co-ordinating tasks, for example.

But more recent thinking gives firms a more positive role. A vibrant economy, the theory goes, is an ecology in which both companies and markets play different, and complementary, parts. Briefly, markets wring the maximum value out of existing resources by allocating them to the most efficient uses. Markets are about static efficiencies.

Companies, on the other hand, create dynamic efficiencies – pushing economies to new levels of size and sophistication by creating fresh resources for markets to operate on. In a word, companies innovate – something markets can’t do.

In constant interaction, the company proposes, the market disposes. Company innovation and market competition combine to power the engine of economic growth.

To innovate, companies need to provide a refuge or shelter from market forces within which their employees have the time and space in which to dream up new products or new ways of making existing ones they need to create space in which people can think about the future.

To understand the point, consider 3M, a notably innovative company. From a strictly market point of view, 3M’s ’15 per cent rule’, under which employees can spend that amount of time on their own pet projects, is wilfully inefficient and robs shareholders of 15 per cent of their immediate returns.

From a dynamic point of view, however, this ‘inefficiency’ is crucial – it gives employees leeway in which they can create the new products on which the company’s future growth depends. And 3M commits itself to gaining at least 30 per cent of its revenue from products introduced in the past three years.

Now back to Westinghouse. The difference between it and 3M – or one-time rival GE – was not inferior technology, less intelligent people or old-fashioned management. It was that, at least latterly, Westinghouse thought of itself as a market.

Westinghouse managers, according to Sumantra Ghoshal and Christopher Bartlett in The Individualized Corporation, ‘bought and sold businesses, created internal markets wherever they could, and dealt with their people with market rules.’ By doing so, however, they destroyed their own uniqueness – the company’s ability to create value in a way that markets cannot.

‘All they could do was strive for squeezing more efficiencies out of everything they did. Their strategy focused entirely on productivity improvement and cost-cutting. They were unable to innovate… because the logic of the market they adopted internally did not allow for creation beyond the efficiency of existing activities.’ Markets always operate more cheaply than companies, because they don’t have to invest in the future or a vision, and can root out inefficiencies by reallocating resources among available options. But this is precisely why companies which attempt to compete on these terms, such as Westinghouse, are bound to lose in the long run.

Paradoxically, it is only by sacrificing some immediate efficiences – allocating resources to uses which do not yield the maximum instant return – that companies can secure their, and the economy’s, future.

Companies that act like markets don’t – can’t – last. In the effort to beat the market at its own game, firms like Hanson , Scott Paper and Westinghouse end up outsourcing, hiving off and rationalising until there is nothing left.

Shareholder gains from this process (the invariable justification) are strictly short term: the company’s former shareholders then have to go and find a company that does believe in the future, such as 3M or GE.

Indirect support for the view of the company as something more than a pale shadow of the market can be found in a timely compendium of research recently published by the Centre for Tomorrow’s Company*.

Among other sources it cites a well-known study by Stanford University which compares some of the US’s outstandingly successful companies of the past 50 years (3M, Boeing, Merck, Motorola and GE, among others) with their corresponding also-rans (Norton, McDonnell Douglas, Pfizer, Zenith and, yes, Westinghouse).

The outstanding companies scored highly on such features as historical continuity of values and management, investment in people, purposeful progress and evolution, and investment for the long term – none of them characteristic of markets.

The most significant finding, however, is that despite also ranking highly for ‘objectives beyond profit’, over a period of 50 years, these companies financially outperformed their rivals almost sevenfold, and the stock market by a massive 15 times.

The moral: you can beat the market – but only by doing what a company does, not by trying to ape the market.