Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

Posts Tagged ‘South Africa

Do CEOs deserve their high salaries?

leave a comment »

Whitey Basson

Late last year, Bloomberg reported that South African Chief Executive Officers earn the 7th most of any country in the world – a whopping R102 million per person per annum. This was equivalent to 541 times the income of an average South Africa. The study, understandably, caused some outrage.

These numbers have been disputed, mostly because they include CEOs who earn in foreign currency. A study by 21st Century Consultants found that the CEO salary of the median large cap South African firm in 2016 was less than R6 million, roughly 5% of the Bloomberg average. PwC found the median between R3.1 and R7.7 million.

But even at these lower levels, many ask whether CEOs deserve what they earn. Do the value that they add outweigh the millions spent on salaries and bonuses? This, of course, is an incredibly complex question. Economists have no laboratory where they can randomly assign CEOs their salaries, and see what the likely outcome might be. Instead, we have CEOs that respond to the firm’s internal and external demands in various ways, planning, strategizing, meeting and organizing. Which of these activities adds more value seems impossible to determine.

That is, until now. A new study by four economists – Oriana Bandiera (LSE), Stephen Hansen (Oxford), Andrea Prat (Columbia Business School) and Raffeala Sadun (Harvard Business School) – measure the behaviour of CEOs in Brazil, France, Germany, India, the UK and the US, and compare these measurements to their firm’s performance. They do this using a two-stage method: first, they collect the weekly diaries of 1114 CEOs in the six countries. These diaries include detailed information about the hourly activities of each CEO: with whom they met, the number and duration of plant/shop-floor visits, business lunches, how many people joined, and the functions of these participants (whether they were in finance or marketing, for example, or clients or suppliers).

Their finding is that CEO activities differ remarkably across firms. While CEOs spend most of their time in meetings, they ‘differ in the extent to which their focus is on firms’ employees vs outsiders, and within the former, whether they mostly interact with high-level executives vs. production employees’.

The authors then use a machine learning algorithm to create an index of CEO behaviour. At low values of the index, CEOs spend more time with production and in one-on-one meetings with employees and suppliers, and at high values CEOs spend more time with executives and in meetings with more participants.

The authors note that there is no theoretical reason for one type of behaviour to lead to better outcomes. That such different types of behaviour exist may just be a consequence of the fact that firms require different types of CEOs, i.e. some firms will do better with a low-index CEO while others would do better with a high-index CEO. When CEOs are perfectly matched – or ‘assigned’ – to the type of firm that suit their style, there should be no correlation between the index-value of a CEO and the firm’s performance. In other words, a low-index CEO matched to a firm that will benefit from a low-index CEO style would perform just as well as a high-index CEO matched to a firm that will benefit from this CEO style type.

The results, however, shows the opposite. High values on the CEO index are strongly correlated with higher firm productivity, a measure of firm performance. CEOs who spend most of their time in meetings with senior executives, engage in communication (phone calls, videoconferences, etc.), bring together inside and outside functions, and bring together more than one function of a kind are also more likely to lead more productive firms.

Their results also show that CEOs are often not matched to the right firm: “Our estimates indicate that, while low-index CEOs are optimal for some of the sample firms, their supply generally overstrips demand, such that 17% of the firms end up with the ‘wrong’ CEO.”

More importantly, it is in the two developing countries in their sample – Brazil and India – where this matching is especially bad: 36% of firms in those countries end up with the ‘wrong’ CEO compared to the only 5% in the four developed countries. “The productivity loss generated by the misallocation of CEOs to firms equals 13% of the labour productivity gap between high and low income countries”.

The authors do not speculate on why this difference exists. One likely reason is weaker competition for top jobs within a thinner talent pool owing to the unequal levels of education in these countries. Another may be that appointments happen for reasons other than merit.

What the study does show, though, is that the choice of CEO is critical for firm success. Appoint the wrong type of CEO, and productivity is likely to decline. Although some firms benefit from a CEO who frequently has one-on-one conversations and visits the production floor, most firms benefit from a CEO who spend their days leading large meetings with top executives from different fields.

That helps to explain the high salaries for CEOs in South Africa too. A mismatch between CEO and firm is costly and seems to happen quite frequently. The small talent pool means that most firms are willing to pay exceptional salaries to those rare individuals with a high CEO index-value. If they don’t, the firm is likely to suffer far more costly productivity losses.

It also points to the dangers of policies that hope to place an upper-bound on managerial remuneration. Lower levels of remuneration will likely lead to fewer CEOs with high index-value, and to higher levels of mismatch between CEOs and firms. That, as the authors show, will be devastating for firm-level productivity, and economic development. Beware the unintended consequences of policies made with good intentions.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 6 April.

Written by Johan Fourie

May 1, 2017 at 05:57

Here we go again

leave a comment »

Gigaba (1 of 1)

Late last night, South African president Jacob Zuma fired Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas as Minister and Deputy Minister of Finance, and appointed Malusi Gigaba (pictured) and Sifiso Buthelezi in their place. With this move, he has gained the keys to Treasury. Aside from Finance ministry, Zuma appointed 18 new ministers and deputy ministers, including Fikile Mbalula, the former Minister of Sport, as Minister of Police. Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development, whose incompetence was recently exposed when her actions risked the well-being of 17 million South Africans, remains in her portfolio.

It all sounds so familiar. In December 2015, Zuma fired then Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene and replaced him with Desmond van Rooyen. After the rand plummeted more than 5%, Zuma was forced to reverse his decision and appoint Pravin Gordhan in the position three days later.

I wrote a post immediately after the appointment of Van Rooyen. Most of the points I raised there are now valid again. Zuma has captured Treasury – with a Zuma-loyalist in charge, he can now sign off on projects that benefit him and his backers, the Guptas.

The question, again, is what to do. And again I have to say, I don’t know. I see calls on social media for mass action, but I am not too sure Zuma and his cronies would pay much attention. Blog posts, I fear, will also not have much of an impact. What I will do, however, is to encourage Treasury employees, many who are brilliant economists and also good friends, to remain in office, despite the obvious challenges that they will face with a Zuma-loyalist at the helm. How long, though, can one remain honourable and incorruptible in an environment where you might become complicit in whatever shady nuclear or other deals Zuma has up his sleeve?

What this reminds me of is a tweet by veteran Zimbabwean businessman Trevor Ncube:

If something doesn’t happen soon to reverse this process of decline – and this can only happen when Zuma is gone, although that will only be a start – we risk destroying the progress we’ve made since 1994. The irresponsible actions of last night will hurt the economy badly, from a weakening currency (which has already fallen by more than 3%) to almost definite downgrade, which means more money spent on paying loans than building roads, houses and clinics. And if Zuma’s pet projects, like a nuclear deal with Russia, is signed, the cost for South African taxpayers – and the opportunity costs for South Africa’s poor – will be horrific.

Prepare for a bumpy ride.

How to get good politicians

leave a comment »

South African President Jacob Zuma visit Berlin

Politicians can shape the fortunes of countries. Presidents, in particular, set the tone: balancing many stakeholder interests, their job is to create a unifying vision that should guide policy-making. Members of parliament act upon this vision, designing and implementing policies that affect the lives of millions of people. One would imagine, then, that those with the best aptitude for leadership get elected.

That is the theory. But in practice politics is a messy business. For many reasons, it is often not the smartest candidate who gets elected, or the most effective member who gets selected for higher honours. Some economic models even explain why it is not the most capable that move up: Someone without a proper education (but a charismatic personality) has a much higher chance to see greater returns in politics than in the private sector. (In technical terms, lower opportunity costs give the less able a comparative advantage at entering public life.) These selection effects are compounded by the free-rider problem in politics, where work effort is not directly correlated to political outcomes. In other words, according to this model, it is society’s ‘chancers’ that are more likely to end up in politics – and the hard-working, smart ones will tend to end up in the private sector.

Competency in public office is, of course, is not the only goal of a parliamentary system. Representation – having politicians that reflect the demographic and geographic make-up of society-at-large – is also a key concern. But competency and representation, at least theoretically, do not always correlate. Take the following example: a proportional representation system, like we have in South Africa, would require members of all districts to be represented. But what if one region – let’s call it Farmville – has few university-trained citizens, whereas another region – Science City – has many citizens with university degrees? A proportional representation system will necessitate some Farmville politicians also be elected to parliament, even though the Science City politicians will probably be best qualified for the job. In contrast, in a plurality rule system – where the candidate with the most votes gets the job – competency often trumps representation.

A new NBER Working paper – Who Becomes a Politician? – by five Swedish social scientists, casts doubt on this trade-off. Using an extraordinarily rich dataset on the social background and competence levels of Swedish politicians and the general public, they show that an ‘inclusive meritocracy’ is an achievable goal, i.e. a society where competency and representation correlate in public office. They find that Swedish politicians are, on average, significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. This, they find, is not because Swedish politicians are only drawn from the elite of society; in fact, the representation of politicians in Swedish municipalities, as measured by parental income or occupational class, is remarkably even. They conclude that there is at best a weak trade-off between competency and representation, mostly because there is ‘strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status.

These results are valid for Sweden, of course, which is a country unlike South Africa. Yet there are lessons that we can learn. First, what seems to matter is a combination of ‘well-paid full-time positions and a strong intrinsic motivation to serve in uncompensated ones’. In other words, a political party in South Africa that rewards hard work for those who serve in uncompensated positions, are likely to see the best leaders rise to the top, where they should be rewarded with market-related salaries. Second, an electoral system which allows parties to ‘represent various segments of society’. Political competition is good. Third, the ‘availability of talent across social classes’. This, they argue, is perhaps unique to Sweden, known for its universal high-quality education.

This reminded me of our State of the Nation red carpet event, where the cameras fixated on the gowns and glamour of South Africa’s political elite. How do the levels of competency in our parliament, I wondered, compare to Sweden and other countries?

Let’s just look at the top of the pyramid. The president of Brazil, Michel Temer, completed a doctorate in public law in 1974. He has published four major books in constitutional law. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, also has a PhD in Law, although his initial field of study was chemical engineering. Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, has a Master’s degree in Political Science. Former US president Barack Obama graduated with a Doctor of Jurisprudence-degree magna cum laude from Harvard University. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Most of these widely respected leaders gave up a top job in the private sector or academe to pursue a political career.

Politics is messy, but given the right conditions, it can still attract high-quality leaders. For that to happen, though, aspiring politicians must put in the hard yards, even if initially uncompensated, supported by a competitive political party system and broad access to quality education. South Africa, unfortunately, is still a long way from meeting these criteria.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 9 March.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 24, 2017 at 07:35

High-skilled migrants matter – and we’re not winning

with one comment

elon-musk-is-making-history

One of the baffling things in explaining the Industrial Revolution is that education, that pillar most economists believe to be critical for economic growth, seems to have played a relatively minor role. Universal public education was a consequence rather than a cause of the Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth-century England did not first have a skilled population before they had an economic transformation; the uncomfortable truth is that it was the other way round.

This uncomfortable truth does not suggest that formal education was completely unimportant. It suggests, instead, that much of what caused the Industrial Revolution was the scientific knowledge obtained by an elite group of highly skilled artisans, inventors and entrepreneurs. It was not the average level of education of every Brit that mattered. Most of the breakthrough technologies of the era – the Spinning Jenny, the steam engine – came instead from upper-tail tinkerers who had hoped to make a profit from their innovations.

A wonderful new research paper by economists Mara Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer in the Quarterly Journal of Economics confirm this. They use the subscriber list to the mid-eighteenth century French magazine Encyclopédie to show that knowledge elites mattered in explaining the first Industrial Revolution: in those French towns and cities where subscriber density to the magazine was high, cities grew much faster in the following century, even when controlling for a variety of other things, like wealth and general levels of literacy. Their explanation? Knowledge elites (engineers, scientists, inventors) raise the productivity at the local level through their piecemeal innovations, with large positive spill-overs for everyone around them.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. High-skilled workers are the stars of today’s knowledge economy. Their innovations and scientific discoveries spur productivity gains and economic growth. Think, for example, of the immense contributions of Sergey Brin’s Google, or Elon Musk’s Tesla, or even Jan Koum’s WhatsApp. It is for this reason that the mobility of such highly talented individuals has become such an important topic – consider that all three individuals mentioned above are immigrants to the United States. There is little doubt that the most prosperous economies of the future will be the ones to attract the most skilled talent.

Which is why understanding the push-and-pull factors of current global talent flows are so important, and the subject of an important new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The four authors begin with the facts.  High-skilled elites are more mobile: between 1990 and 2010, the number of migrants with a tertiary degree increased by 130%; those with only primary education increased by only 40%. More of these high-skilled migrants depart from a broader range of countries and head to a narrower range. While OECD countries constitute less than a fifth of the world’s population, they host two-thirds of high-skilled migrants. 70% of these are located in only four countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

The United States, unsurprisingly, dominates all rankings. Since the 1980s, of all the Nobel Prizes awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics, academics associated with American institutions have won over 65%, yet only 46% of this group was born in the United States.

emigration-rate

One fascinating and underappreciated fact of global migrant flows is the role of highly educated women. Between 1990 and 2010, high-skilled women immigrants to OECD countries increased from 5.7 to 14.4 million; in fact, by 2010, the stock of highly skilled women migrants exceeded male migrants! As the authors note, ‘Africa and Asia experienced the largest growth of high-skilled female emigration, indicating the potential role of gender inequalities and labour market challenges in origin countries as push factors.’

And what about South Africa? The authors calculate the emigration rates of high-skilled individuals by country for 2010, and plot these on a graph. South Africa is a clear outlier: emigration of high-skilled individuals is the sixth highest of the countries included, and by far the highest for countries with more than 10 million people. This is worrisome. True, some of this emigration is made up by high-skilled immigrants from our African neighbours, like Zambia and Zimbabwe, who also have high emigration rates. But the fact remains: our economic outlook will remain precarious if we continue to shed high-skilled individuals at these exorbitant rates.

Is there something to do? The authors mention various push and pull factors that affect the decision to migrate, from gatekeepers that pull the best talent by giving citizenship based on a points system to repressive political systems that suppress freedom of speech and scientific discovery and push the best and brightest to emigrate. If South Africa is to prosper, high-skilled individuals should be recruited and retained – not pushed to find opportunities elsewhere. Protests at universities do not help; providing residency to graduates, as the South African government has proposed, will.

In the knowledge economy, knowledge elites are the bedrock of success. If we are to learn from history, cultivating them should be our number one priority.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 3 November.

Voice Day

with one comment

Voting opens at Stellenbosch Town Hall on 3 Aug 2016 in the local municipal elections.

Voting opened at 7h00 at Stellenbosch Town Hall in the local municipal elections.

In Afrikaans, the same word is used for ‘vote’ and ‘voice’ – stem. Today South Africans vote in the local government elections. But it is more than that: it is a day that they will voice their hopes, frustrations, and visions for a better South Africa.

Because, 22 years into democracy, there is now more than ever a need to signal to the ruling alliance that they cannot take their tenure for granted. There is no doubt that those in power have become too emboldened by their own success; weak political competition has provided fertile ground for corruption and mismanagement. As always, the squandering of public funds has hurt the poorest the most.

Although this won’t be an election about macro policy, the failure of the ANC (since Zuma) to stimulate growth (and its incompetence to root out corruption) will deliver more votes for the two opposition parties, the DA and the EFF. The two central questions are: which opposition party will voters prefer, and how many will make the switch? The two parties are run by young men with very different visions of a future South Africa.

In this election, the question should be which of the two can provide the services that constituents deserve. But a careful consideration of this question, unfortunately, is probably not how most of us make decisions. This is not unique to South Africa, of course. As this John Oliver excerpt shows, feelings, nowadays, trump facts. Also: see Brexit.

Today’s municipal elections will be especially heavily contested in three metropolitan areas: Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg. If an opposition party (or a coalition of opposition parties) secures a win in these major cities, especially in Tshwane and Johannesburg, it will signal a fundamental shift in politics in South Africa. But don’t underestimate the resolve of the ruling ANC: the liberation movement continue to be a powerful brand for most South Africans, despite the actions of the man in charge.

Today is stemdag in South Africa. It is a day to vote, yes, but, most importantly, it is a day to make our voices heard.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 3, 2016 at 08:14

How to boost South Africa’s tourism

leave a comment »

cape-town-bus

South Africa’s tourism industry has had a tough time of late. The optimism after the 2010 World Cup has given way to pessimism following the visa regulations saga that did nothing but hurt the local tourism industry. A rough calculation on recently released tourism numbers suggests that the additional rise in tourism numbers from the World Cup (on which South Africa spent billions) was completely nullified by the new visa regulations. Thankfully that blow has now been softened by changes to the regulations.

Tourism is vital to South Africa’s economy, often more so than other industries, for at least two reasons: It is labour-intensive, and this labour is often female and unskilled; for roughly every 9 tourists that visit South Africa, one job is created. More importantly, its impact is spatially dispersed. Whereas labour-intensive manufacturing is almost always concentrated in large metropolitan areas, tourists travel not only to Cape Town but also to Clarence, Clanwilliam, or Coffee Bay. In a research paper published in Local Economy, Gareth Butler and Christian Rogerson reports the results of interviews with black employees of tourism establishments in Dullstroom, a Mpumalanga retreat known for its fly-fishing and agribusiness. The authors find that most employees are recruited with little more than a high school certificate, but then gain valuable skills through on-the-job training (mostly improving their computer literacy) or, for some, more formal tertiary qualifications, including university degrees paid for by the employers. In short, the tourism sector provides opportunities in areas where there are few alternative income sources.

So what can be done to increase the numbers of tourists visiting South Africa? The most obvious answer is: make it as easy as possible for foreigners to temporarily enter our country. Enough has been written about the absurd visa regulations and their harmful effects. Let me just add this: in an attempt to prevent child trafficking, the regulations has hurt far more South African children by reducing the income (possibilities) of their mothers, women who would have found work in the tourism industry had more tourists been allowed to enter. TS Eliot’s ‘most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions’ comes to mind.

Making it easy for tourists also includes better and affordable transport to the country. More flights might require competitive airport landing slots. So, too, would efficient and safe border posts. And once they are here, allow them to use services that they trust, like Uber taxis and Airbnb accommodation (with the upshot of even more dispersed beneficiaries).

Advertising can help. Many countries try to boost their international image, for example, by hosting events. South Africa did this in 2010 with the FIFA World Cup and will do so again in 2022 with the Commonwealth Games. The tourism increases from the World Cup, as María Santana-Gallego and I show in a Journal of Sports Economics paper, was large and continued for a few years after the event. But a new paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by two gurus of sports economics, Robert Baade and Victor Matheson, warns against hosting mega-events. They find that ‘in most cases the Olympics are a money-losing proposition for host cities; they result in positive net benefits only under very specific and unusual circumstances’. Moreover, ‘the cost-benefit proposition is worse for cities in developing countries than for those in the industrialized world’. Ouch. Those who dream of a Durban or Johannesburg or Cape Town Olympics better take note.

Industry support, as with other economic sectors, seems to be of little help; often, the best governments can do for exports (tourism is formally: travel service exports) is to ensure a safe and open business environment. One of the first reactions to the Paris attacks in November last year, for example, was the fear that terrorism will harm France’s massive tourism industry. Paris was the world’s third most visited city in 2015. France remains, by a large margin, the world’s most visited country. Travel and tourism services contribute 9.1% to its GDP (South Africa is slightly higher at 9.4%, but significantly below New Zealand, for example, at 17.4%).

The fear seems justified: of course tourists would prefer to travel to places where they are less likely to be killed, or mugged, or even required to pay a bribe. And in a recent working paper, I (with María Santana-Gallego and Jaume Roselló-Nadal) find exactly that: a 1% increase in the ratio of terrorist attacks per 10 000 inhabitants reduce tourist arrivals by 2.3 %. We also measure the link between crime, corruption and tourism. We find that the effects of terrorism and crime are greater for leisure tourism than for business tourism but that corruption affects only business tourism.

Safety and security remains a central concern when traveling to South Africa. And even though the statistics show that tourists are safe, the perception of safety is what matters most. (Consider the actual versus perceived threat of Ebola. Trevor Noah did his best to dispel those misconceptions.) But the good news is that we also find that tourists from more unstable countries are more tolerant of terrorism, crime and corruption in the destination country. The rapidly expanding middle classes of China and especially India (cricket!) offer excellent opportunities for the South African tourism industry; on aggregate, the perception of crime and corruption, the statistics show, will have less of an effect on their decision to travel.

South Africa has many wonders to delight leisure and business tourists. Let’s welcome them with open borders and convenient regulations. And if you’re in the tourism industry, perhaps it’s good to shift focus to new markets where perceptions of safety and security are less likely to play a deciding role.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 16 June.

Written by Johan Fourie

July 15, 2016 at 05:58

Is our financial sector too big?

with 3 comments

Roads to prosperity? Sandton is the hub of South Africa's financial industry

Roads to prosperity? Sandton is the hub of South Africa’s financial industry

Most economists would agree that a growing economy requires a well-functioning financial system that is able to move capital between its owners and those who need it. The larger the financial sector, the argument goes, the more likely it is that capital will be efficiently allocated, and the better for the economy. Of course, the same is true for other intermediate services, from law and consulting to auditing and marketing, which performs intermediate services that helps firms to specialise, and flourish.

But a new working paper by economists Stephen Cecchitti and Enisse Kharroubi at the Bank for International Settlements questions this logic. They argue instead that a too-large intermediate sector (they specifically refer to finance) can actually hurt growth. Neoclassical theory argues that mergers and acquisitions (M&As) create value through the takeover of undervalued products, as typically recognized through stock market valuations. The larger the financial sector, the more resources are available for these transactions to take place.

There are two caveats to this. First, instead of focusing on the long term value of a firm, executives often embark on M&As to further their own short term gain, e.g. prestige and increased compensation of managing a large firm. Second, and independent of M&A activity, the larger the financial sector, often the more complex it becomes and the more resources must be spent to analyse and understand it. And sometimes, despite these resources, it still spins out of control, as in 2008.

Cecchitti and Kharroubi finds that there is a threshold beyond which growth of the finance industry actually reduces total factor productivity growth. All developed economies are already beyond this threshold, they find, and provide evidence of a clear negative correlation between financial sector growth and R&D-intensive industries. One mechanism through which this happens is that finance consumes resources that could have been utilised more productively in other sectors. A complex financial system needs highly-qualified engineers, for example, clever people that could have been employed in research industries that would have had a bigger impact on society.

This is worrying for a country like South Africa where financial and other intermediate services are, like the US, a large part of the economy. The more finance and other intermediate service firms employ our smartest students (a precious resource), the fewer there are of them to start their own businesses producing stuff that we can export, or doing research that can invent new things. I’ve seen this myself: the largest consulting firms pilfer our best graduates (promising the incomes and status that come with these jobs – and the luxurious Sandton offices) at the expense of far less appealing jobs in industries that our economy desperately need. Who wants to work in a factory anyway?

In their book Concrete Economics, Brad Delong and Stephen Cohen explain why the finance industry grew so rapidly, from roughly 3% in 1950 to almost 9% of US GDP today. It happened as a result of the deregulation that already began in the 1970s but intensified in the 1990s. Some of this was good, like the innovation of low-cost brokerages and low-cost investment funds, just like the deregulators had hoped. Unfortunately, these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Financial intermediaries soon realised that it is much easier to promise clients that ‘they could beat the market and become rich’ than provide value to their clients by ‘soberly matching risks to risk-bearing capacity’. And so, instead of charging lower fees which would benefit investors, a freer market made financial intermediaries move into fancy office blocks, recruiting the smartest minds, and charging higher fees as a signal that their portfolios are the ones with the best returns.

In South Africa, I would venture that this also happened in other intermediate sectors, like auditing and consulting. Between 1981 and 2006, our service sector increased by 42%. Finance may have benefited from deregulation, but the tightening of accounting standards and other types of well-intentioned regulation to safeguard businesses from fraudulent practices meant that these highly concentrated industries had a captured market for their services.  High prices – and Sandton office towers – followed.

But, as DeLong and Cohen aptly summarise, ‘nobody eats the advice of M&A strategists’ (or the audits of accountants, or the powerpoints of consultants). Our large intermediate services sector means that we have fewer innovative firms that can produce products and services to sell to a global audience. Our best minds should be developing new genetically-modified crops or mobile apps, not more complex financial instruments.

How we fix this is a more difficult question. It is unlikely that change will come from within these firms; in fact, expect lobbying for more rules and higher standards which require bigger teams of experts selling better advice. Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? A concerted effort by government is instead necessary to reduce the demand for and market power of these intermediate services firms. Reducing excessive bureaucratic red tape can help with the former. Competition policy can help with the latter.

Perhaps the emphasis should instead be on growing other sectors, specifically manufacturing. But what regulators should realise is that, unlike fancy office towers, bigger is not always better when it comes to finance and other intermediate service industries.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 5 May.

Written by Johan Fourie

May 26, 2016 at 07:22