Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

MIA – U.S. shareholders who care

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 23, 2011 17:54 UTC

Who knew Swedish finance could be so sexy? The late, great Stieg Larsson’s best-selling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — the Hollywood version hit North American theaters this week — was the first to tap into a hitherto undiscovered global fascination with Nordic number crunching.

Following gingerly in his footsteps, I’d like to report on a fascinating discussion at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington this month, where the Scandinavian story was center stage.

The conference, where I moderated a panel, was organized by the European Corporate Governance Institute and Columbia Law School. The theme was the involvement of shareholders in the companies they own.

Americans like to think of themselves as the world’s archcapitalists, especially compared to Europeans, whose fondness for a social safety net often earns the label, applied on this side of the Atlantic as an insult, of ”socialist.” That’s why the message from many of the speakers at the SEC discussion, particularly the visitors from Europe, would come as a surprise on Main Street, USA.

The United States, they argued, has created a system of capitalism without capitalists, of private sector companies whose owners have abdicated responsibility for the companies that belong to them.

Revolutions are all about jobs

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 4, 2011 16:33 UTC

There’s nothing like a few revolutions to focus the mind. The lesson the world’s smartest authoritarians are drawing from Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and its neighborhood copycats is simple: It’s all about jobs.

“The leadership in China is always worried about how do you stay ahead of the growth to create enough jobs,” says Dominic Barton, the global managing director of consulting firm McKinsey, who has lived in Asia for much of the past decade. “They have to create over 30 million jobs a year. … They know that if they don’t and there are disruptions and the people don’t have jobs, there will be revolution.”

To illustrate how focused China’s Communist rulers are on jobs, Barton described work he had done helping the Chinese government structure its economic stimulus in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The Chinese authorities came to him with a very specific question: What sort of discount should you put on TVs in Tier 3 cities? “It was a very focused question. And the reason was, they were trying to create consumer demand in a very sophisticated manner.”

Barton and Kleinfeld’s tips for Uncle Sam

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:21 UTC

During the depths of the financial crisis, Alcoa announced that it would lay off 13% of its global workforce, or about 13,500 people. Since then, they have built up their presence in China and Russia, finalized a new mine in Brazil, and started construction of the world’s largest aluminum facilities in Saudi Arabia. Alcoa’s rate of job creation in its home country of the United States, however, has been rather tepid in comparison.

Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld acknowledged that prospects for his business today were better abroad than they were at home, but he did note that in the past year Alcoa hired 1,500 people in the U.S. in the automotive and aerospace industries and so long as the United States retained its sense of entrepreneurship, creativity and excellence in higher education, jobs will come.

Dominic Barton was similarly sober about the current state of the U.S. labor market, saying that it’s currently undergoing an acute phase of creative destruction. However, he urged the audience to focus on long-term job growth, citing the example of Samsung in the wake of Korea’s financial crisis in 1997:

The revolutionary significance of job growth

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:18 UTC

It was striking to hear how encouraged both Klaus Kleinfeld and Dominic Barton sounded when Chrystia asked them about the effects of the recent turmoil in the Middle East on the business environment there. Barton believed the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt were “the dawn of a new good thing that’s occurring” and noted that it is likely that new capital will come into these countries as a new leadership emerges. Kleinfeld, whose company is in the process of building the world’s largest integrated aluminum system in Saudi Arabia, said that Alcoa is still very comfortable in the region and that the only surprises with their Saudi partners have been positive surprises. For Kleinfeld, the most assured way to bring about stability in a region plagued by unrest is to have businesses come in and create jobs:

If there’s one thing that the Middle East needs particularly for the young — as well as well-educated people — it’s jobs. And it does it in a region which typically has not had much of an economic growth around Ras Azzour. So that’s all very, very good. And not just for us as a company but also for the region. And it’s gonna have a stabilizing as well as a kind of uplifting, positive element

Like Saudi Arabia, China has a large population that accepts a level of repression so long as the leadership can deliver economic growth. Barton, a China expert who headed McKinsey’s Asia operations before ascending to the consultancy’s top spot, said that he did not think that dissent in China would spillover and create a Middle-East-style uprising because the Chinese Communist Party has been able to stay on top of job growth. He had an interesting anecdote about McKinsey’s study on the effectiveness of China’s stimulus plan that illustrated the leadership’s obsession with maintaining growth:

The view from Alcoa and McKinsey

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:12 UTC

At this morning’s Newsmaker “Thriving in the New Global Economy,” Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld and McKinsey Global Managing Director Dominic Barton told Chrystia their outlook for the world economy. From his perch atop one of the world’s leading aluminum producers, Kleinfeld was “really positive” about global growth prospects. Coming off a strong year in which aluminum demand rose 13 percent, the Alcoa chief forecast that aluminum demand will grow at a slightly slower rate of 12 percent this year thanks to China’s efforts to slow down its economy:

While also bullish on global growth, Barton noted that there was a sense of fragility in the world economy that concerned him. Specifically, the McKinsey head was worried about the government’s response to looming inflation, which he predicted would rise to the range of 6 to 7 percent. Mounting government debts and the rising cost of capital, which Barton believes will be “up fairly significantly” as savings rates in the emerging markets decline, will exacerbate the inflation problem:

“We’re in a slack period if you just look at what the cost of money is. It’s an incredibly unique period. I think that’s going to go away, and that’s going to make it challenging.”

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