Why the stock market is increasingly irrelevant

February 14, 2011
NYT op-ed on the decline of stock exchanges went to press too late to include the bonkers rhetoric emanating from Chuck Schumer:

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I’m sad that my NYT op-ed on the decline of stock exchanges went to press too late to include the bonkers rhetoric emanating from Chuck Schumer:

The New York Stock Exchange is the cradle of American capitalism. It is a national treasure. In America, we start each day in our Congress and in our classrooms with the Pledge of Allegiance, and we also start it with the ringing of the bell on the floor of the stock exchange.

The NYSE is in no sense the cradle of anything. A cradle is a safe place for the young to develop until they grow up and become more self-sufficient. Y Combinator is a cradle. The NYSE is place for algorithms and speculators to make bets on financial assets. It last funneled real amounts of money into the broader economy during the dot-com boom, leaving behind a lot of Aeron chairs and little else. Since then, I get the feeling that the big capital raises on U.S. exchanges have been by financial institutions, rather than the real economy; maybe someone can find a breakdown for me of which sectors raised the most money in primary and secondary offerings over the past ten years.

As for the idea that the NYSE is a national treasure akin to the Pledge of Allegiance, well, yes. Which is to say, its value is symbolic, and rooted in the days of old, when “allegiance” meant something more than who you’re friends with on Facebook, and when institutions were judged on the size and weight of their Corinthian columns.

There’s one other point I would have liked to make in my piece, which is that the tax code is a large part of the reason why the stock market is bad at capital formation. Look at the trillions of dollars cash on corporate balance sheets: why aren’t those companies paying it out as dividends to their shareholders? In an efficient capital market, they would do just that, and then raise new equity capital as and when they needed it in future. After all, sitting on billions of dollars in cash is hardly a core competency of most exchange-listed corporations.

But companies don’t do that. It’s partly because they fear that the money might not be there when they need it. But it’s also because the cost to shareholders of dividending out money now and then getting it back again in future is enormous. For one thing, the underwriters of the secondary offering are likely to require a hefty seven-figure fee when you ask them to raise that money for you. And more importantly than that, the shareholders you send the dividend to are going to have to pay income tax on it, at rates in the region of 35% to 40%. There’s no way that can be efficient.

I’m not saying that we should abolish the income tax on dividends. But it does help to explain why U.S. capitalism can be very inefficient, and why the stock market, broadly speaking isn’t working very well these days when it comes to its core function of capital allocation.


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