Two Capitalists Worry About Capitalism’s Future

James Dimon and Ray Dalio are among the most successful capitalists in the U.S. today. So when they worry aloud about the future of capitalism, it’s worth listening.

I believe that all good things taken to an extreme become self-destructive and that everything must evolve or die. This is now true for capitalism,” Mr. Dalio, founder of hedge-fund manager Bridgewater Associates, writes on LinkedIn.

Mr. Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., writes in his annual letter to shareholders: “In many ways and without ill intent, many companies were able to avoid—almost literally drive by—many of society’s problems.

Captains of industry have always opined on the issues of the day. Still, these latest missives are noteworthy for three reasons.

  1. First, the authors: Mr. Dalio anticipated the financial crisis; his systematic management and investment style has made Bridgewater the world’s largest hedge-fund manager. Mr. Dimon is arguably the country’s most successful banker, having steered J.P. Morgan clear of the subprime mortgage disaster to become the country’s most valuable financial institution.
  2. Second, the timing: They are speaking out at a time when the free-market capitalism that has served them so well is questioned by many Americans, including prominent Democrats.
  3. Third, the content. Mr. Dalio and Mr. Dimon love capitalism and aren’t apologizing for it. But they recognize the system isn’t working for everyone, and they have ideas for fixing it, some of which might require rich people like themselves to pay more tax. Yet they fear the federal government is hamstrung by intensifying partisanship. So they are putting their money and reputations where their mouths are by speaking out, backing local initiatives and hoping like-minded business leaders join them. In effect, they are breathing life into the shrinking nonpartisan center.

In an interview, Mr. Dalio says many business leaders “don’t want to get into the argument. I can understand that. I say to myself, Should I get in? I do think if everyone keeps quiet, we’re going to continue to behave as we’re behaving, and it’s going to tear us apart.”

Mr. Dalio’s essay was inspired by a longstanding interest in the parallels between the 1930s and the present:

  1. the growth of debt and
  2. the relative impotence of central banks, the
  3. widening of inequality and the
  4. rise of populism.

Capitalism, he says, is now in a “self-reinforcing feedback loop”:

  • companies develop labor-saving technologies that enrich their owners while displacing workers.
  • The haves spend more on child care and education, widening their lead over the have-nots,
  • whose predicament is compounded by underperforming schools,
  • the decline of two-parent families, and
  • rising incarceration.

Mr. Dalio thinks inequality has fueled populism and ideological extremism, which he fears means capitalism will be either abandoned or left unreformed.

His solutions start with taking partisanship out of the mix. He would like government to join with business and philanthropic leaders with proven track records to find, fund and evaluate projects with high potential social returns, such as early childhood education and dropout prevention. The rich might have to pay more taxes, provided the money is used to raise the productivity and incomes of the bottom 60%, or establish a minimum safety net.

Mr. Dimon is less introspective about the flaws of capitalism than Mr. Dalio and more impatient with the recent fascination so many Americans are showing with socialism. His letter, written in the blunt, combative style in which he speaks (it should be read aloud in a Queens accent for full effect), reiterates familiar complaints about excessive postcrisis regulation.

But, like Mr. Dalio, he worries partisanship has crippled the country’s ability to enact basic reforms that elevate economic growth and strengthen the safety net, such as

  • improving high schools and community colleges’ provision of useful skills,
  • more cost-effective health care,
  • faster infrastructure approval,
  • more skilled immigrants coupled with legalizing illegal immigrants, and
  • requiring fewer licenses to start a small businesses.

“Can you imagine me saying, I can do a better job for the Chase customer if I don’t get involved in details, the products, the services, the prices, how we treat people, how call centers work?” Mr. Dimon asks in an interview. “Policy has too often become disconnected from the analytics; we got slogans instead. It’s driving people apart.”

There’s a chicken-and-egg problem with these well-intentioned calls for nonpartisan problem solving: It requires a level of nonpartisanship that doesn’t exist; otherwise the problems would, presumably, have been solved.

If business leaders can’t persuade with words, they may by example. Mr. Dalio and his wife, Barbara, have donated $100 million to the state of Connecticut, to be matched by the state and other philanthropists, to create a $300 million partnership devoted to reducing dropout rates and promoting entrepreneurship in underserved schools and communities.

For its part, J.P. Morgan has under Mr. Dimon combined commercial and philanthropic resources to finance affordable housing, small business and infrastructure and job training in Detroit, announced $600 million in workforce development grants since 2013, and boosted salaries for lower-end employees. Mr. Dimon, in his shareholder letter, called on fellow CEOs to “take positions on public policy that they think are good for the country.”

It doesn’t always work. The Business Roundtable, which Mr. Dimon chairs, successfully pressed Congress and President Trump for lower business taxes, but unsuccessfully for more infrastructure and legalizing illegal immigrants. Says Mr. Dimon: “We should give it the best shot we’ve got.”

From Wall Street to K Street, Companies Gauge the Risks of Doing Business With Saudi Arabia

One of the roughly 10 lobbying firms that represent the Saudi government, the Harbour Group, has dropped it as a client, and others are considering following suit, according to people familiar with discussions, as Saudi Arabia struggles with a backlash over allegations that it murdered the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

The lobbying firms are privately discussing how to proceed, these people said. But some have already decided that the prospect of continued paychecks from Saudi Arabia — once a prized and profitable client — is not worth the risk to their reputations.

But for financial and technology companies, several of which have multibillion-dollar ties to Saudi Arabia, the calculus is more complicated. Few executives have backed out of the conference, which is called the Future Investment Initiative but is known colloquially as Davos in the Desert.

Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, was one of the few to announce that they would back out.

.. The Public Investment Fund, a large Saudi sovereign wealth fund, invested $3.5 billion for a 5.6 percent share in Uber in June 2016.

The fund’s managing director, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, took a seat on Uber’s board. Prince Mohammed is the chairman of the Public Investment Fund.

.. Blackstone’s chief executive, Stephen A. Schwarzman, remains an advisory board member and is expected to speak at the conference, which is held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where Prince Mohammed locked up hundreds of wealthy Saudis last year in what he called an anti-corruption campaign but critics said was an effort to crush dissent.

.. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, is also still planning to attend

.. Peter Thiel, the technology venture capitalist who was once an ally of President Trump and is known for his independent streak, is still a member of the event’s advisory board but had never planned to attend the gathering, according to a person close to Mr. Thiel.

.. Richard Branson, the billionaire British entrepreneur, said that he had suspended his directorship at two tourism projects near the Red Sea and that his space ventures would halt their discussions over proposed investments from the Public Investment Fund.

.. Saudi Arabia has been a coveted client, thanks to its reputation for paying above-market rates and its status as one of the United States’ most reliable allies in an unstable region, which seemed cemented by the ties between Prince Mohammed and the Trump administration.
.. The debates about dropping the Saudi account also reflect the skittishness of the lobbying industry at a time when it has faced mounting scrutiny from federal investigators, including the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, about how foreign interests try to shape American politics and policy.
.. The highest-paid firms representing the Saudis in Washington are the international public affairs consultancy
  • Qorvis MSLGroup, which is being paid $279,500 a month, and the
  • Glover Park Group, which was started by former Clinton administration officials and is being paid $150,000 a month
.. Another two firms are being paid $125,000 a month —
  • Hogan Lovells, which has Norm Coleman, a former senator of Minnesota, as its point person for Saudi work, and
  • Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which has a bipartisan team composed of Marc S. Lampkin, a former aide to the former House speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, and Alfred E. Mottur, a top fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

.. Not all of these firms will drop the Saudis. Some are leaning toward maintaining their contracts, in part because they predict that if they were to abandon the country en masse, it could lead to reduced cooperation from the Saudi government.

Buffett Won’t Boycott Gun Makers, ‘That Would Be Ridiculous’

Warren Buffett said it would be “ridiculous” for the conglomerate not to do business with gun makers, noting that he doesn’t want to impose his political views on Berkshire’s investment decisions or business operations.

.. “I think what the kids are doing is very admirable, but I don’t think Berkshire should say we’re not going to do business with people who own guns,” Mr. Buffet said on CNBC. “I think that would be ridiculous.”

.. The companies could pare health-care expenses 3% to 4% through negotiating power alone, but the initiative intends to go further. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and JPM CEO Jamie Dimon are perfect partners, he said, because “we can make things happen. Our companies are big, yet we can still make things happen. We don’t have the bureaucratic problems or the constituency problems” that other large companies have.

Bitcoin’s Wild Ride Shows The Truth: It Is Probably Worth Zero

The digital currency’s value depends on it becoming digital gold—or on criminals

There is no chance whatsoever that bitcoin can displace the dollar, for the simple reason that it is badly designed. Bitcoin can handle a pathetically small number of transactions, and uses an inordinate amount of electricity to do so, making it entirely unsuitable to replace ordinary money.

.. Even if bitcoin worked better, it is in a Catch-22 because of Gresham’s law, the nostrum that bad money drives out good. Given the choice of spending inflationary government-issued money or something which holds its value, everyone would spend the bad paper stuff and hoard the bitcoin. You wouldn’t want to be the person who spent 10,000 bitcoins on two pizzas in 2010, when a bitcoin was worth a fraction of a cent. Those bitcoins are now worth $40 million. But if no one spends bitcoin, it will never get established as a currency.

.. There are two somewhat less ambitious claims for bitcoin that could give it value.

  1. The first is that it is a limited form of money because of its usefulness for dealing illegal drugs and dodging capital controls.
  2. The second is that it is a form of digital gold: an insurance that will keep its value even if governments confiscate or inflate away the buying power of the currencies they issue.

In any currency, the money supply multiplied by how often it circulates equals

  • the price level times
  • the number of transactions.

For bitcoin we can estimate three of the four variables

.. Assume that all drug dealing moves online, that bitcoins circulate as rapidly as ordinary currencies and estimate a $120 billion-a-year market for illegal drugs, and the formula spits out an ultimate value of $571 for a single bitcoin. The more drugs traded, the higher the value, and the more bitcoin hoarded rather than spent, the higher the value.

.. On this basis the recent price of $3,950 is mostly speculation, and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive James Dimon’s comparison to the 17th-century Dutch tulip mania is apt.
.. the potential to replace gold gives us some figures to work with. Thomson Reuters GFMS estimates there were 2,155 metric tons of gold held in exchange-traded funds. Switch all of that into bitcoin and it would justify a price of about $5,500 for the 17 million bitcoins currently outstanding.