By W.T. “Bill” McKibben, Senior Counsel, The Great Lakes Group
It would be hard to find anything gone farther astray from its intended purpose in our society than our capital markets. The New York Stock Exchange and all other such entities in the world of finance as played in the United States have forgotten their purpose, to create a source of capital for Capitalism. Instead they have succumbed to enriching the players. Those who manage the markets have allowed the investment banks and the traders to run the show. The exchanges’ purpose is to support the companies listed, not the bankers and traders.
The investment banks have strayed far from their purpose to aid in the creation of capital and to “make a market” for those “going public.” They have wandered off into the world of legalized gambling, having convinced the Congress that laws against gambling should not apply to them. It was an easy step from there into the toxic derivative instruments that plunged the world into the recession where we little folk still struggle. Traders serve little or no purpose except to generate fees for the markets and their middlemen. This is especially true of the latest breed, those rigging the markets with penny skimming high-speed trading.
These ills are just the latest in the distortions that have increasingly plagued the markets. The whole crazy focus on “Playing the Market” instead of investing has corporate management aiming for short-term goals instead of long-term growth. All it takes to unseat an otherwise great CEO is an unexpected-could-happen-to-any-company event. Take Target’s CEO Gregg Steinhafel, who joined the giant retailer right out of college and worked himself up the ladder. Since moving into the top job he has been walking the razor sharp edge between upscale department stores and grungy discounters.
Steinhafel has moved Target deftly along, playing the quarterly results game and introducing new merchandise lines without losing the chain’s flair for quality and value. His foray into Canada has not gone as well as hoped, but it’s not altogether bad and it’s far from a bad idea. Then came the massive waiting-to-happen-to-someone breech of Target’s credit card systems. While the chain lost volume, it’s a testament to Steinhafel’s solid management style that Target did not lose more. And truth be known, the fault lies more with our banking sector’s refusal to move to a more secure RFID based credit card system a generation ago with the rest of the world.
We understand that in the current climate Gregg Steinhafel had to pay the price for what happened under his watch. But there is a lesson to be learned here, and every publicly held corporate CEO has to be thanking their lucky stars that they aren’t in his shoes. They should take the ethical and moral high ground and use their clout with the Congress to focus on long-term financial health. The Wall Street anything goes Wild West financial world is bad news for everyone, for the people, for investors, for corporate America.