Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dual Class shares and free markets

Andrew Gelman weighs in on dual class shares

Now I’m just confused here. Who’s supposed to be “concerned” here? As a New Yorker subscriber, am I supposed to be concerned that dual-class firms underperformed the market? I just don’t get it. Why should I care? If the shares underperform the market, people can buy a piece of Facebook for less. That’s fine too, no?
I think that Andrew would be completely correct in a perfect market (one in which all of Mark Thoma's issues are not present).  If some financial products give a piece of the return while others give ownership plus return then people could choose which ones to purchase. 

However, the modern American economy has fallen in love with the 401(k) as an investment vehicle.  This leads to two problems.  One, investors are generally not free to switch to a different fund because they dislike the investment decisions of the fund that they are in.  Since the individual investor bears all of the losses of bad decisions but the employer has control of the fund (and has an incentive to cut costs) you have a classic principal agent problem.

This problem is made worse by giving a limited group of people control over a group investment.  One can easily imagine the small group making decisions that benefit them at the expense of the majority of shareholders.  Again, not necessarily a problem in an open market.  But with the constraints that individual investors are under this could be problematic as they lack the freedom to enter or exit the market. 

This is why I wax poetic about Social Security (or the Canada Pension Plan): they shift the risk from small investors (who generally can't bear it) to large entities (that can).  I totally get that there are total social resources constraints, but I would rather that they be dealt with openly.  Instead I see the stock market becoming a worse and worse deal just as a large American cohort (the "Baby Boom") is about to retire. 

I am not sure that this is a good thing. 

See also Matt Ygelasis and Felix Salmon.

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