Sunday, March 04, 2007

Market failures: the publicly traded company slips the invisible hand

The market is not making the products I want. The market won't provide books for boys like this one, or a PDA solution as robust and reliable as the Palm III, or a reliable and efficient home solution for bulk scanning of 4x6 prints, or a dozen other products I look for and can't find.

There's always a proximal explanation for each failure. The children's book market money is predominantly female or tied to videos, games and movies. The true PDA market is too small. You can't sell a home scanning solution for more than $100, a reliable photo feeder would cost two to three times that.

That might be the whole story, but what about that "long tail" we keep hearing about? These are not products that require an immense amount of R&D. They all use well understood technologies. What's going on?

I don't know of course, but that won't stop me speculating wildly. (What are blogs for, after all?) My wild guess is that the publicly traded company dominates the solution space for all of these products, and the publicly traded company is evolving to evade the grip of the "invisible hand".

First though, today brought a convenient side note from the New York Times:
Reporting for Duty - New York Times:

... Evidence is mounting that giving what’s called quarterly guidance (for example, “next quarter the company is expected to earn $2.42 to $2.44 per share”) is detrimental to a company’s long-term performance. A survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research of 401 senior financial executives found that 80 percent were willing to forgo spending on research and development to meet their predictions, while 55 percent were willing, for the same reason, to delay projects that promise gains in the long term for their company.

Similarly, an empirical analysis of companies that regularly provide such guidance concluded that even though they are more likely to meet their projections than those that use the practice only occasionally, they are less likely to achieve long-term earnings growth...
Interesting, and perhaps some sort of quarterly guidance hack would help, but I'm betting it wouldn't help for long.

Things evolve. RNA, DNA, algae, universes (?), entities, ecosystems, populations, economies, cells, mitochondria, organelles -- anything that belongs to a system that includes boundaries, resource competition, replication and variation. It's more than a law of physics, it's a law of logic. It makes sense that publicly traded corporations evolve too. Early in their evolution they exist to return value to their owners and the "invisible hand" guided that towards value to employees and customers. Systems complexify however, and now there are many strategies to explore in economics space. Not all provide value to customers or even returns to shareholders. At the same time as evolving corporations explore divergent strategies, they are infested with parasites -- also known as stakeholders. Once these were unions, now they are senior management. The parasites (ok, symbiotes), have their own agenda, and their own need for "appropriate compensation".

Boundaries are emergent. In economic space things look different from the world in which we live. It's a kind of parallel dimension in which humans don't exist as individuals, and in which corporations have their own peculiar kind of independent "thought" [1]. In this world, I imagine, they're at least as "smart" as an amoeba.

The Publicly Traded Corporation isn't going away -- the US Patent Office has made that entity even more powerful than it once was. I'm very much hoping, however, that it's not to late to develop alternative economic instruments for the creation and delivery of value. If our tools get good enough, one day we can make our own home photo scanning solution. Call it, the revenge of the artisan.

[1] Sentient corporations are a recurring theme in modern science fiction, I'm not clever enough to have come up with this on my own.

No comments: