Obtaining The Returns To Capital

Felix Salmon is worried about the ongoing trend for firms to avoid going public:

There are a few different reasons for this, but they basically boil down to the idea that it’s a good idea for stock ownership to be as broad as possible. What we don’t want is a world where most companies are owned by a small group of global plutocrats, living off the labor of the rest of us. Much better that as many Americans as possible share in the prosperity of the country as a whole by being able to invest in the stock market. I’m not saying that individual investors should go out and start picking individual stocks. But I am saying that equities provide bigger returns, over the long term, than other asset classes. And that therefore it’s not good public policy for the ability to invest in an increasingly large part of the equity universe to be restricted to an ever-shrinking pool of well-connected global plutocrats.

I think this flirts with the view of the populist democratic possibilities of stock market investing that were ably critiqued in Tom Frank’s classic “The God That Sucked”. But Salmon doesn’t ultimately embrace the view that Frank rightly deplored, which leaves him “not putting forward any policy prescriptions at all.”

To me, though, it seems like the right thing to do is to just directly think about the issue of how best to ensure that everyone obtains the financial benefits of equity investments. And the answer, I think, is sovereign wealth funds. That’s how they do it in Singapore and conceptually it’s the right way to do it. An American version of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund would be much too large for any market to absorb, but the US share of world GDP should shrink over time and it’s conceivable that there would be some way to work this out on the state level to create smaller units. A fund like that would render the public listing issue irrelevant, since it would clearly have the scale to get in on the private equity game. This would, needless to say, entail injecting a hefty element of socialism into American public policy but I’m always hearing from smart conservatives how much they admire Singapore.