Monday, March 13, 2017
As you may know, I have had an abiding curiosity about the line between the U.S private and public securities markets in large part because of my work on crowdfunding. Almost three years ago, I published a post on the topic here at the BLPB. I posted on the referenced paper here. That paper recently was republished in a slightly updated form by The Texas Journal of Business Law, the official publication of the Business Law Section of the State Bar of Texas (available here).
As a result of this work, my interest was (perhaps unsurprisingly) piqued by a this paper by Amy and Bert Westbrook. Enticingly titled "Unicorns, Guardians, and the Concentration of the U.S. Equity Markets," the article documents concentrations in both private and public equity markets in the United States and makes a number of interesting observations. I was especially intrigued by the article's identification of a potential resulting peril of this market concentration: the aggregation of both corporate management and ownership in the hands of the few.
[W]ealth has concentrated and private equity markets have emerged that serve as alternatives to the public equity market. At the same time, the public equity market has become dominated by highly concentrated shareholding, in the form of institutional investors, especially index funds, and the occasional founder. Both developments have resulted in concentrations of capital that mirror the concentration of management that concerned Berle and Means. For Berle and Means, the concern was concentrated management and dispersed ownership. The concern now is that both management and ownership are concentrated in the hands of very few people.
Very interesting . . . . And this is only one of the conclusions that the authors draw. As a foundation for its assertions, the article documents the concentration of ownership in both private and public markets, tying current participation in both markets back to salient economic and social data and trends. The full abstract from SSRN is set forth below, for your convenience.
Developments in the private and public equity markets are changing the role equity investment plays in the United States, and therefore what "stock market" means as a matter of political economy. During the 20th century, securities and other laws did much to tame the "animal spirits" of industrial capitalism, epitomized by the "Robber Barons." In order to raise large sums, businesses offered stock to the public, thereby subjecting themselves to the securities laws. Compliance required not only disclosure, transparency, but more subtly, that the firms themselves undergo a process of Weberian rationalization. A relatively broad middle class was comfortable investing in such corporations, and the governance of firms and thus much of the economy was understood to be answerable to this class. Citizens understood such arrangements as theirs, part of "the American way."
In recent years, in conjunction with rising inequality in the United States, there has been a decisive shift from broad-based ownership of firms to much more concentrated forms of ownership in both private and public markets. Private equity markets are concentrated by legal definition: relatively few people are qualified to participate directly. Yet private equity has become the preferred method of capital formation, epitomized by "unicorns," firms valued at over $1 billion without being publicly traded. Public equity markets are dominated by funds with trillions of dollars under management, and small staffs, who are in effect "guardians" for the portfolios that ensure long-term stability for individuals and institutions, notably through retirement and endowments. The governance of the U.S. economy has to a surprising degree become a matter of grace: the nation now relies on a small elite to make good decisions on its behalf about the allocation of capital, the governance of firms, and the preservation of portfolio value. This consolidation of ownership rivals that of the late 19th century, and may challenge the law to address the equity markets in new ways.
I think you'll enjoy this one. At the very least, it's a great read for those of you who, like me, are interested in analyses of the U.S securities markets. But perhaps more broadly, with contentious changes in federal business regulation in the offing under the current administration in Washington, this work should contribute meaningfully to the debate.