Some people have so much money that they struggle to find things to spend it on. But these people are paupers compared to those who run out of opportunities to invest the money they don’t spend.
Should the rich be allowed to destroy their own wealth?
Yes, I know the heart bleeds – but there really is a global shortage of places for the seriously rich to put their Earthly riches. There just aren’t enough alternatives to the bog standard option of the bank account.
Indeed, interest rates wouldn’t be at record lows around the world if there weren’t a global glut of cash.
Writing for Axios, Dion Rabouin notes that US companies have “record cash holdings of close to $3 trillion”. Wealthy individuals aren’t doing too badly either:
“The top 1% of U.S. households are holding a record $303.9 billion of cash, a quantum leap from the under $15 billion they held just before the financial crisis.”
Of course, most of us would love to have this ‘problem’. And, in a way, we do. Though the non-wealthy have little or no share in the global money glut, our lives are affected by what happens to it.
Those charged with managing extreme wealth are channeling the cash into places where it can do more harm than good – for instance, the property market where it inflates house prices and rental values. Then there’s the practice of share buyback – in which cash-rich companies buy up their own stock:
“Companies made a record $1.1 trillion in stock buybacks in 2018 and are on track to surpass that number this year.”
Buybacks increase demand and reduce supply, thus pushing up share prices – already inflated by the effects of quantitative easing. The executives can say they’ve ‘added value’ and are rewarded accordingly – not least in the form of ‘tax efficient’ stock options.
Admittedly, the company wouldn’t have the cash for the buybacks if it wasn’t profitable in the first place – but that’s not difficult when you can borrow money at rock bottom rates (QE again), buy up the competition and exploit a monopoly position. The company’s soaring market capitalisation means that the banks are happy to keep lending it money… and so on and on it goes, generating further surpluses of cash for the fortunate few.
Why low interest rates poison the economy
Obviously, none of this is good for the long-term health of the economy – and, for most of us, it’s of no short-term benefit either. What, then, can we do about it? Taxation is an obvious weapon, but the thing about enormous piles of cash under professional management in a borderless world is that they don’t sit still waiting to be punitively taxed.
A slightly different approach is to use tax to disincentivise some of the less desirable uses of the money glut. Property-based assets are an obvious target, because it’s not like we’ll end up with less land if we scare away the speculators. Targeting share buybacks is trickier. While we might want to discourage this and other forms of ‘financial engineering’, we also want to encourage equity investment in productive enterprise – and the finance industry is full of people who can disguise the former as the latter.
Ideally, we’d have such an enterprising, innovative economy that there’d be ample opportunities to invest in growth-generating industries. Established companies would be so threatened by new competitors that they’d invest their profits in business development instead of the complacency of share buybacks. It would also be good to have more rich people with the brains, balls and heart to invest their money imaginatively, courageously and philanthropically. That’d mop up the money glut.
Needless to say, these happy scenarios depend on culture change – which, if it happens at all, is a long-term process. So, in the meantime, is there anything that the state can do to attract excess capital into socially-useful investments?
Visionary public funding programmes of the kind that gave the internet its start are great – but, again, it’s a long-term process. Fortunately, there are some quicker wins to be had – areas where strategic state-led investment can unlock avenues for productive private investment.
Consider the decades of under-investment in the economic infrastructure of our cities beyond London. Addressing key weaknesses – like the state of our non-Londoncentric public transport system – does not require futuristic technologies, but tried-and-tested upgrades that more productive local economies already have.
The irrelevant debate over the top rate of tax
The challenge for government – including local government – is to become a credible enabler of private sector investment opportunities. That means an end to the imprudence of politically-driven mega-projects like HS2 and Hinkley point, and a pivot to smaller, less complicated, productivity improvements.
The fact that so much potential has been left locked-up for so long is an indictment of our over-centralised political system and our lopsided national economy. But that can be changed – indeed, it is being changed as local communities are re-empowered and the foundations of a modern industrial policy are put in place.
A new prime minister has an opportunity to shift this work into a higher gear.