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Episode 2. From pigs to prices: a Chicago story



How did Chicago’s stockhouses lead to one of the greatest financial markets on earth? This episode explores how commerce and technology shaped the founding of the Chicago Board of Trade and gave birth to financial derivatives. It tells how the telegraph transformed trading, how the pits functioned as human computers turning pigs into prices, and how when we come to build our stock exchange we’ll have to get a building to fit.

Transcript

‘They went into a room from which there is no returning for hogs. It was a long, narrow room, with a gallery along it for visitors. At the head there was a great iron wheel, about twenty feet in circumference, with rings here and there along its edge…it began slowly to revolve, and then the men upon each side of it sprang to work. They had chains which they fastened about the leg of the nearest hog, and the other end of the chain they hooked into one of the rings upon the wheel. So, as the wheel turned, a hog was suddenly jerked off his feet and borne aloft.’

This, I should say, comes from Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’, published in 1906. He continues:

‘At the top of the wheel he was shunted off upon a trolley, and went sailing down the room. And meantime another was swung up, and then another, and another, until there was a double line of them, each dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy—and squealing.

…Heedless of all these things, the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats. There was a long line of hogs, with squeals and lifeblood ebbing away together; until at last each started again, and vanished with a splash into a huge vat of boiling water.

It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics…[1]

Hello, and welcome to How to Build a Stock Exchange. My name is Philip Roscoe, and I teach and research at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. I am a sociologist interested in the world of finance and I want to build a stock exchange. Why? Because, when it comes to finance, what we have just isn’t good enough.

To build something – to make something better – you need to understand how it works. Sometimes that means taking it to pieces, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this podcast. In the last episode, I spent some time explaining why finance matters, and why we should take stock markets seriously, both as engines for inequality – which they surely are – and visions of possibility, which I hope they might be. Over the coming episodes I’ll be asking: what makes financial markets work? What is in a price, and why does it matter? How did finance become so important? And who invented unicorns?

Well, from one happy animal to another less so…

You may be wondering why I began this episode with a graphic bit of hog slaughter. My apologies if you found that a little strong, and I hope you are not listening over your bacon and eggs. I said before that markets – not just stock markets – have places, histories and politics and are shaped by the customs and beliefs of their participants. In the last episode, for example, we saw how “agency theory”, a little bit of academic vogue from the 1980s has come to dominate the relationship between companies and their stakeholders. But bricks and mortar – or chips and bits – also matter.[2] The material architecture of a market has a great deal to do with the way it works. That is what I will be focusing on today.  Think about it: Ebay and a car boot sale are both full of householders selling second-hand items to other householders, but inhabit different spatial structures. Those structures cause them to work in different ways. Ebay works out prices through an automated bidding system built into the site, while the car boot uses trestle tables and empty car parks to help buyers and sellers see the market and work out prices. Politics, history, and place are written into eBay as a textbook economic market; into the car boot as, well, just that…

Which takes us back to those poor piggies. Upton Sinclair’s muckraking expose of industrial pork production and exploited labour takes us to the beginnings of a new kind of market, a distinctively modern, technological, Chicago affair. The hogs are going to their doom in the stockyards. By the early twentieth century, Chicago was the biggest railway hub in the United States and the gateway to the agrarian West and. At its peak this heartless pork-making by applied mathematics chewed its way through 13 million animals every year. Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist who has studied the growth of Chicago’s financial markets, writes that the ‘disassembly line’ was ‘an important inspiration for a later industrialist, Henry Ford, who mimicked this orderly model of death and dismemberment in his automobile plants. His admiration focused particularly on the meatpacking industry’s refined division of labour, the intricate order behind the foaming rivers of blood that ran through the slaughterhouses.’[3] (I should say, by the way, that full references for all of these works are footnoted in the transcript which is available on the podcast website.) The stockyards supplied canned products across the continent and gave rise to appalling environmental conditions closer to home:

…the residents’ – and this is Sinclair again – ‘would explain, quietly, that all this was “made” land, and that it had been “made” by using it as a dumping ground for the city garbage. After a few years the unpleasant effect of this would pass away, it was said; but meantime, in hot weather—and especially when it rained—the flies were apt to be annoying. Was it not unhealthful? the stranger would ask, and the residents would answer, “Perhaps; but there is no telling.”’

The stockyards created immense wealth. So much money, so much energy, so much stench. All called for civic action, and 1848 saw the foundation of the Chicago Board of Trade. Of course, Chicago has always been Chicago and the Board of trade was hardly a grassroots, democratic organisation. Its members were prominent businessmen and politicians and it was set up as a platform to enhance the city’s stature, cementing Chicago’s position as a national centre for trade. They built a headquarters in the centre of the city and sought to shape the urban architecture in such a way that products could flow in and out more easily; one still cannot visit Chicago without the sense that it was not built as a city for people. Nonetheless, as the Board’s influence spread, and with it the volume of trade, members encountered a problem. America is big, the Midwest vast. Even with modern communications it takes a while to get around, and in the late 19th century things travelled much more slowly. Agricultural goods are heavy, bulky and perishable, not easily taken in the sweltering summer heat to a market hundreds of miles away, thence to be sent off to a new buyer. To deal with this problem, a new kind of contract appeared. In 1857 members began trading ‘to arrive’ contracts, settled in cash.

The point of these contracts was that, despite their name, goods never actually had to arrive. These new contracts – or securities – could be traded in the absence of the physical commodities to which they referred. They were  therefore ‘derivatives’ – a kind of security derived, or based, on something else. As soon as the financial contracts were unhitched from the commodities that they represented, a speculative market could begin to develop. What do I mean? Well, alongside those who need to buy and sell pork bellies, are those who have no interest in supplying the commodity or consuming it but are seeking to make a living purely from the fluctuating price of the goods. They might seek to turn a profit by purchasing next year’s harvest from a farmer seeking to secure a reasonable price, gambling that the summer will be wet and prices will be high; while the farmer is protecting himself against a change in the weather, the speculator is chancing on risk itself.

Speculation is tricky if you have actual commodities to deal with, and almost impossible if those commodities are heavy, perishable or in need of feed and water. The new security, made up of legal contracts rather than bristle and oink, could be passed around much more easily. It is the same with any kind of financial abstraction, the company shares we talked about in the last episode, or the derivative products that underpinned the credit crisis and which will be revisiting soon enough. The market can bring a thousand bushels of wheat into Chicago without moving them from Kansas, can sell them to a man in New York, to another in Baltimore, and to a third back in Kansas who actually intends to use the grain. Markets bend space by transacting in the simulacra of commodities. They compress time, too, selling the summer’s harvest while it is still under the snow of the plains.

The Board flourished and speculators, unconcerned with the hard business of raising pigs or growing wheat, soon come to dominate the market, their capital making them far more influential than simple buyers and sellers. Frank Norris’ classic Chicago novel The Pit, published in 1902, concerns one such and his attempt to corner the wheat market – that is, to own every bushel of wheat in the entire nation. I will not spoil the ending, but Norris portrays the battle of man versus market as an elemental affair, the swashbuckling trader against the forces of nature herself.

—–

These derivatives required regulations of quality and standardised weights, so that one bushel of grade A winter wheat could easily replace another, and in 1851 a rule made the provision of misleading information an offence worthy of expulsion from the Board. The new market also required a material infrastructure that spilled out throughout the western plains, and this took the form of the telegraph, its cables laid alongside the spreading railways and corralling a whole nation’s agriculture into a single trading room. Chicago became a national market not just because goods arrived on railways. Information followed the same tracks.

In fact, it was the new technology of the telegraph that made the market possible, just one of many market transformations driven by technological progress. This new technology gives a market something previously missing: time. And time makes all sorts of things possible.

Alex Preda has investigated how developing methods of communication shaped and then reshaped markets.[4] You see, 19th century markets were all jumbled up. Preda quotes a letter, from a Richard Irvine, of New York, to J. A. Wiggins, in London, 1872. The author slips a few choice stock quotations into a communication concerning equally choice apples, peaches and oysters:

We have shipped to you care of Messrs Lampard and Holt, by this steamer, the apples you ordered in your favour of the 20th September last. We are assured that peaches and oysters are of the best quality, and trust they will prove so. Below we give you memo of their cost to your debit.’ – so, here’s some fruit, some fish, here’s the bill…

‘We think it is well to mention that First Mortgage 6% Gold Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad bonds can now be bought here to a limited amount at 86% and accrued interest. They are well thought of by investors, and were originally marketed by the company’s agents as high as 14% and interest. We enclose today’s stock quotations’.

The letter, and many like it, holds the market together and at the same time tangles it up with all sorts of extraneous material. Our apples and peaches are good, says the merchant, so try our railroad bonds.

The jumble didn’t stop there. Irvine would have purchased the bonds at the New York Stock Exchange, an institution that ran two different markets simultaneously, one formal and one informal, one regular and the other chaotic. Traders of the formal market – called the Regular Board – sat in inside the exchange, wearing top hats and tail coats, and called out prices in a prescribed order. Those in the informal market – the Open Board – stood in the street, where they mingled with the general public. Most of the business was done in the street. Messenger boys carried news on paper slips, marking a time that was full of holes, disrupted and discontinuous. As Preda makes clear, letters and chaos worked surprisingly well, or at least were fit for purpose, if that purpose was hanging on to clients and keeping business going.

—– Ticker sound[5] —–

But time – regular, ordered, bounded time – is something we associate with stock-markets, and for this we have to thank the tickertape. Invented by an engineer named Edward Callahan who had himself started out as a market messenger boy, the tickertape used the telegraph network to transmit prices, tapping them out on a long roll of paper, those same paper streamers thrown onto returning astronauts and sporting heroes in the heydays of the twentieth century. Despite technological difficulties – jammed wheels and batteries comprising large jars of sulphuric acid, the ticker quickly caught on. By 1905 23,000 brokers’ offices subscribed to the ticker. These brokers provided a space for investors to gather, and to consult the code books necessary to decipher the orders transmitted across the tape: Preda gives one example, ‘army event bandit calmly’, which somehow translates as ‘Cannot sell Canada Southern at your limit, reduce limit to 23.’ Brokers rooms became part of the market’s place and remained a feature of stockbrokers’ offices until relatively recently – my colleague Yu-Hsiang Chen visited Taiwanese brokers rooms just a few years ago, a social technology slowly being displaced by electronic messenger services and the Internet. Back in 1902, Norris gives a sharp, unflattering description of one such room. It is a place of ruin, filled with nondescript, shabbily dressed men with tired eyes and unhealthy complexions, as the telegraph key clicks unsteady and incessant in the background.

The ticker brings the market to life in a completely new way. It chatters as the market buzzes and falls silent as trading slows. It moves relationships away from people and into machines. We no longer need to trust that our apple and peach seller is giving us good investment information when we can simply read the tape. It provides a new space for market thinking and market action. The stock market classic Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre talks at length about learning to read the tape, a task Lefevre regards as being the necessary basis for any success. Often, the tape is Lefevre’s metaphor for the market as a whole. The tape does not care why, he says, or the business of the tape is today not tomorrow.

The stock-picking strategy of technical analysis, or ‘charting’, still popular today, has its roots in the regularly-timed series of prices emerging from the tape. The ticker controls – no, imposes – time. It brings speed and direction into the market. It is suddenly possible to say that a stock is going up or down, even if the stock is traded in New York and the broker’s office is in San Francisco. It transcends space, turning a chaotic, confused cluster of marketplaces into a single, orderly, measured market. Its regular patterns live on in the scrolling horizontal stock price displays that one sees outside buildings, or rolling across the bottom of television screens. In our present time, when market trades are completed in microseconds, the gently rolling ticker is an epistemological absurdity but it has become a universal representation of the stock market.

—-

So in those miserable hogs, and the (almost) equally miserable workforce that hacked and scraped in a systematised division of labour that would have horrified Adam Smith’s impartial spectator, we see the beginnings of the Chicago Board of Trade, then and now one of the mightiest financial markets on the globe. We have seen how new rules, measures and contracts have made possible a speculative trade in financial instruments only indirectly related to the underlying commodities. We have seen how advances in technology, the new telegraph system and the automated, chattering tickertape brought the economic world into Chicago. It is not without coincidence that the telegraph ran alongside the same railway system that brought the pigs to market. The ticker made time regular and became a new site for market action; speed and direction are suddenly visible, and with them profit. So connected, the market becomes a single, homogenous entity, the tendrils of its network running out from the great metropolitan centre like spokes from a wheel. It was, wrote Norris, a global affair,

‘A great whirlpool, a pit of roaring waters spun and thundered, sucking in the life tides of the city, sucking them in as into the mouth of some tremendous cloaca, the maw of some colossal sewer; then vomiting them forth again, spewing them up and out, only to catch them in the return eddy and suck them in afresh… Because of some sudden eddy spinning outwards from the middle of its turmoil, a dozen bourses of continental Europe clamoured with panic, a dozen old world banks firm as the established hills trembled and vibrated…’[6]

At the centre of this whirlpool there lay the pit, the monstrous, gaping creature that gave Norris’ book its name. I prefer a more prosaic metaphor: the pit was the processing unit of the humming human computer that made the market work. Its signals were pure information: orders went into the pit, and prices came out.

The pit was a simple structure, an octagonal, stepped ring in which traders could stand. At first they just stood in crowds in the Board’s trading room. But it was hard to see over the heads of the crowd so they took to moving furniture and climbing on desks to get a better view. In 1870 this workaround was formalized and the octagonal pits were first introduced. The pits formed the heart of a new building in 1885, a monument to the civic power of finance with figures of Agriculture, Commerce, Fortune, and Order decorating the trading room. Soon, trade outgrew the architecture and the Board commissioned a new building, the art deco monolith that still looms over LaSalle Street. In this building too the pit-powered trading room dominated the design. It was a vast, open room, for designers by now understood that uninterrupted lines of sight were crucial to the functioning of the market. The world poured into the room through the newest communication technologies imaginable: the telegraph, pneumatic tubes, even telephones. Agriculture and her fellows were absent, though. The new building, completed in 1930, manifests the industrial modernity and bling of Art Deco: as Zaloom cannily notes, machined-finished, stylized images of plants and flowers bear the same relation to nature as the futures contracts, one step removed from the real thing. We might say that the building’s form represents the existential presuppositions of the business at hand; its architectural imagery is far more concerned with the mechanical processes of agriculture and transport than it is the natural underpinnings of commodity production. It’s no surprise that stock markets can be implicated in environmental degradation as well as inequality. When we come to build our stock exchange, if we want justice and sustainability, we’ll have to make sure the building backs us up.

—- Trading bell and pit noise[7] —-

These stepped, octagonal spaces were soon found across the world. Their basic organisation had changed little by the time Zaloom, and other social scientists, visited them in the 1980s and 1990s. A bell sounded to open trading, and to close it, deepening liquidity by compressing orders into a short period of time. Runners brought orders into the pit and carried trade records out to be stamped, recorded and filed, while traders did battle to outwit their fellows and take home a profit. A pit trader did not need to know economics or commodity forecasts. Those things were translated into the orders pouring in from outside. They simply knew how to trade. They read faces and sought fear or weakness in the shouts of their rivals. It was enormously physical work, pushing, shouting and gesticulating, using a complicated system of hand gestures that had evolved over the previous century. Size mattered, so a cobbler in the building’s basement fitted high heels to the shoes of shorter traders.[8] More senior traders, often those prepared to commit to bigger, more risky trades, worked their way to the front of the pit where they enjoyed better visibility and the advantages that came with it. It would be a mistake, however, think of this scrum as anarchic. The trading pits were organised and governed by complex social norms and procedures. Traders had to be prepared to take losses, transacting with brokers or fellow market-makers struggling to unload a position, a favour that would be reciprocated another day. Trades would be made in quarters, not eighths, thereby guaranteeing a certain minimum commission.[9] Those in the pit would respect its politics and status organising themselves according to its invisible hierarchies. But most of all, those in the pit would honour their bargains even though these were simple spoken agreements. Failure to do so, or indeed to comply with any of these routines, would result in exclusion from future trades.[10] In a now classic study the sociologist Wayne Baker showed how these behavioural patterns governed the ideal size of a pit; while economic theory would suggest that a bigger crowd would provide more liquidity and better prices, Baker showed that social controls failed if the crowd became too large and the whole pit suffered.[11] Such social controls were necessary to protect the integrity of the central characteristic of the market, unchanged for a century and from which all else follows: the acceptance of a spoken trade as a solid contract.

You can see this world, perhaps a caricature but still well observed, at work in the finale of the 1980s comedy ‘Trading Places’. The verbal deals made by the heroes are concrete enough to bankrupt the villains after a failed corner in frozen concentrated orange juice, of all things.

But progress marches on, and the pits have all gone.  While they help us understand the evolution of finance, it is unlikely that  we would build our stock exchange around the human computers of old. Things change. As Sinclair said of those unfortunate piggies, we ‘could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog squeal of the universe…

I’m Philip Roscoe, and you’ve been listening to How to Build a Stock Exchange. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share it. If you’d like to get in touch and join the conversation, you can find me on Twitter @philip_roscoe or email me on philiproscoe@outlook.com. Thank you for listening, and see you next time, when we’ll find out how London’s new stock market helped the King of England out of a sticky problem…

References and credits

[1] Upton Sinclair (1906) The Jungle, Ch3. I have edited the passage.

[2] An elegant primer is found in Donald MacKenzie, Material Markets: How Economic Agents Are Constructed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). MacKenzie is the undisputed leader in this field of study.

[3]  Caitlin Zaloom, Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). This quotation from p16.

[4] This and below, Alex Preda, “Socio-Technical Agency in Financial Markets: The Case of the Stock Ticker,” Social Studies of Science 36, no. 5 (2006).

[5] Ticker: recording from ‘Timbre’ via freesound.org, under a non-commercial creative commons licence

https://freesound.org/people/Timbre/sounds/148893/

[6] Frank Norris, The Pit (London: Penguin Classics), 72-73.

[7] Sound recording from ‘touchassembly’ via freesound.org, under a creative commons attribution licence

https://freesound.org/people/touchassembly/sounds/146268/

[8] Caitlin Zaloom, “Ambiguous Numbers: Trading Technologies and Interpretation in Financial Markets,” American Ethnologist 30, no. 2 (2003).

[9] MacKenzie, Material Markets: How Economic Agents Are Constructed.

[10] M Abolafia, “Markets as Cultures: An Ethnographic Approach,” in The Laws of the Markets, ed. M Callon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[11] Wayne E Baker, “The Social Structure of a National Securities Market,” American Journal of Sociology 89, no. 4 (1984).


Episode 1. Finance matters



Finance matters. We’re off to build a stock exchange, but first of all I’ll spend a little time explaining why financial markets matter. This episode explores how financial markets – a crucial mechanism for the distribution of wealth – are implicated in our present political malaise and looks at some of the ways that finance has squeezed us over the last three decades.

Transcription

A famous philosopher once said – ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ It was Adam Smith, of course, born not far down the road from me in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, and the father of modern economics. He once walked to neighbouring Dunfermline in his dressing gown, apparently, so deep was he in thoughts, musings like this, and ‘Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.’

From those words, published in 1776, a whole global order has sprung. We can call it capitalism, and at its centre lies a strange entity, so much part of our lives that we simply take it for granted.

I’m talking about the stock exchange.

Hello, and welcome to this podcast.

My name is Philip Roscoe, and I teach and research at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. I am a sociologist interested in the world of finance and I want to build a stock exchange. Why? Because, when it comes to finance, what we have just isn’t good enough.

To build something – to make something better – you need to understand how it works. Sometimes that means taking it to pieces, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this podcast. Over the coming episodes I will be revealing finance as you have never thought of it before. I’ll be asking what makes financial markets work? What is in a price, and why does it matter? How did finance become so important? And who invented unicorns? We will see that stock markets have places, and histories and politics. And we will come to understand just how influential stock-markets are in our everyday lives.

In this first episode I’m not going to do much building. Instead, I’m going to talk to you about why the world of finance really matters. I want to step back from the nitty-gritty of the project – we’ll see enough of that as we move along – and think about the role that financial markets play in society. You see, we can’t help noticing that things have changed in the last decade. Britain has fallen into disrepair. In the regions jobs have evaporated. In the cities casual work and portfolio careers have become the norm and it’s impossible to buy a house. Food banks are rife and one in five children lives below the poverty line. Brexit is looming, a howl of rage – as one commentator put it – against the state of the nation. I daresay swathes of North America and Europe feel much the same. But what has this to do with financial markets?

Well, the world has changed and financial markets stand at the heart of these transformations. They are not the only problem of course – but it is fair to say that finance is the mechanism on which global inequality pivots. Take risk. It’s everywhere in business, the other side of the coin from profits. The big question is who should carry it, and at the moment the answer seems to be the poor. Risk has been outsourced. It’s experienced as precarious employment, social exclusion, or plain, old-fashioned poverty, while financial markets – institutions that exist solely to manage risk – have pronounced themselves risk free. You can buy a bond rated triple A – as safe as the debt of the strongest governments – and still expect a return. Short-termism has prevented sustainable, long-term investment. At the same time, the rewards that supposedly come from taking risk – future profits – have been privatised among the financial elite, and they have done so through those same mechanisms that have shifted the risk itself: financial markets.

Sometimes finance goes stupendously and calamitously wrong, as in the financial crisis of 2008 – celebrating its tenth anniversary and still trailing a wake of austerity, Brexit and Trump. But here’s the rub: financial markets had sold us out anyway.

Global finance has transformed itself during the last three decades. During much of the 20th century financial markets were built around nation states and an economy that made tangible, concrete things. Their primary purpose was to allow investors to buy and sell stock, separating ownership of the firm from its day to day management by creating a new kind of product – the stock – and a market in which it can be traded – the stock-market. These markets evolved alongside the corporations of the twentieth century, their history overlapping but also self-contained. Financial markets supplied capital for companies and traded the bonds of governments that needed to raise money, whether to build hospitals or wage wars.

By the end of the 1990s, however, all this was slipping away, to be replaced by a global financial market that dealt in the knowledge economy and capital flows. I remember a glorious few years in the late 1990s when it looked as if the Internet could be the final democratising force in a decade of change. The Berlin Wall had fallen and we had enjoyed a decade of economic growth. The twin towers still stood, and the dotcom bull market promised that everyone could have a piece of the action.

This turned out to be an illusion. The Internet didn’t go the way we expected, for sure, but finance went even further off track. A utopian project sought to act out a vision of universal markets with every possible contract imagined and existent. This was free market thinking as a religion and the pointy-head, hedge fund quants with their Gaussian copulas were its apostles. Put simply, financial markets stopped trading in things we could, if not see, at least understand and imagine, and instead began to engineer new products so complex that even start traders couldn’t comprehend them.  For a decade fortunes were made until with a crash and a bang, the whole thing came unravelled, and governments were forced to bail out these colossal banks lest they destroyed the basic economic structures that we need to live. I’ll spend some time talking about the crash later in this series, but for now let’s focus on its consequences. Ten years of austerity followed, and I think it’s fair to draw a straight line of cause and effect between those moments and the nasty, broken world we seem to be living in now. It hasn’t been bad for everyone, of course. Ironically, the more liquid and immaterial capital has become, the more solid and tangible its bridgehead cities must be. So London, New York, Frankfurt and Tokyo have become crowded with the towering glass cathedrals of global finance, visible anchors for the imaginary products they sell. No wonder you can’t buy a house there. Financial markets, as I keep saying, really matter.

We may remember the crisis of 2008 as spectacularly destructive, but in fact it is only one of a number. Markets imploded on ‘Black Monday’, 19 October 1987. The global financial order nearly collapsed in 1998 when Russia’s troubles with the rouble caused a melt-down among overstretched investors, and then the spring of 2000 saw the dot-com bubble burst. There is something in the genes of financial markets that leads to ‘excessive exuberance’, in the words of Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve and free-market apostle whose own economic policy was responsible for much of that overexcitement. Going further back there was a prolonged downturn in the 70s, and the great crash of 1929. There was even a boom – and bust – trading the shares of dog tracks in post-war London.

These regular crises are just a spectacular manifestation of an more general trend towards inequality and exploitation. Thomas Piketty, rock-star economist, has shown that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is steadily growing.[i] His claim, that returns on capital are greater than growth, is an update on Marx’s classic insight that there is an inherent conflict between those who have to work for a living and those who generate income from investment in that work. For investors to gain a bigger share of the pie they must find ways of squeezing workers and for two decades financial markets have been at the centre of this process. This has involved a collective forgetting of the separation between stock ownership and management, and in its place the construction of new narratives of shareholder value and control. The idea that stock markets have single-handedly funded global corporations from the beginning and are therefore entitled to a disproportionate share of rewards and control is, in the words of anthropologist Karen Ho, a ‘neoliberal fairy story’.[ii] But it is persuasive enough. Short termism and a collective attempt to eradicate risk from investment has seen innovation decline and uncertainty – in classical terms the source of profits for any business – shipped out to employees. Uber is the most perfect example of this process: underneath the bluster and talk of disruptive, technological innovation is an attempt to drive every other taxi firm into bankruptcy through sheer force of capital and then use its monopoly to impose high prices on customers and harsh conditions on its workers.

Okay, let’s backtrack a little. The fundamental purpose of stock markets is to provide a market in the instruments of investment, be they stocks or bonds. Stocks are tiny fractions of a corporation, and owning them entitles you to a share of the profits distributed as dividends. Bonds are a kind of debt issued by governments and companies. They pay interest and at the end of the term you get your money back. We’ll revisit these in due course. But the very existence of these instruments shows that the secondary, related purpose of financial markets is to provide new capital for growth, or to facilitate this process by allowing investors to realise some of their profits and reinvest elsewhere. Stock markets are the interface between capital and firms; that makes them the link between the owners of firms and the people who work for those firms.

Money can flow both ways. It pours into companies to fund their growth, expanding into new markets, buying expensive assets, or developing new technology. Shareholders support growing firms through rounds of financing often known as ‘placings’, where new shares in the firm are issued to investors. Once firms mature, cash flows out again as dividends. Assuming that firms have a life-cycle and are truly profitable only in their comfortable but short-lived middle age, this pattern should repeat itself over and over, everyone benefiting in the process.

You might think this sounds like a generally beneficial process. How can these markets serve as instruments of inequality? In several ways. Towards the end of the 20th century capital –if you do not like this term you could say Wall Street, or investment funds, or the one percent – decided it wanted a bigger share of the pie. When that happens, stock-markets are the mechanism for putting on the squeeze. Money starts to flow out. Investment declines and executives will be pressured to increase dividends year on year, by squeezing employees and holding back from long-term investments or risky research and development. Stock markets mediate this pressure through aggressive shareholding tactics and short-term reporting cycles that force managers to deliver regular increases in pay-outs. Strategies such as takeovers and buyouts, while almost always destructive in the long term, are justified by the rhetoric of offering value to shareholders. Companies might use surplus cash to buy back their own shares, driving up the price and concentrating any future returns in the hands of remaining owners – those, of course, who can afford to pass up on a short-term bounty.

WE academics are culpable too. Sometime in the 1980s, a piece of academic know-how called ‘agency theory’ has passed into the common domain. I mentioned just now that stock exchanges are the interface between capital and firms, and therefore between the owners of firms – the shareholders – and the people who work for those firms. Note that I didn’t say ‘work for those shareholders’, because that isn’t the case, but that distinction is often overlooked. In 1976 two professors, from the Simon Business School at University of Rochester – Michael Jensen and William Meckling, suggested that owner-managed firms performed better than firms with salaried managers, and that they did so because in the case of owner-managers the interests of capital and management were neatly aligned. They therefore proposed that managers should be made owners – given a share in the firm. Fourteen years later, as these ideas were entering the mainstream, they penned an influential Harvard Business Review article subtitled ‘It’s not how much you pay but how’, suggesting how this might be done: chief executives should be granted the option to buy shares at knockdown prices if certain targets were reached. ‘On average, corporate America pays its most important leaders like bureaucrats,’ they blustered.

The complaint about being paid ‘like a bureaucrat’ is not a gripe that executives are paid as badly as bureaucrats, for by 1990 chief executives were paid vastly more than public servants; it is that bureaucrats are paid irrespective of the performance of their organisation. Max Weber, the father of sociology, saw this security of tenure as crucial to the disinterested performance of bureaucratic responsibility, but it did not cut it for Jensen and Meckling. ‘Is it any wonder then,’ they continued, ‘that so many CEOs act like bureaucrats rather than the value-maximizing entrepreneurs companies need to enhance their standing in world markets?’ This was just what investment bankers, already committed to the maxim of “shareholder value’, needed to hear and the principle rushed into practice. [iii]

Agency theory provided the intellectual underpinning for a new class of super-chief executive, whose incentives are all too well aligned with those of their shareholding paymasters, committed to the ‘tough choices’ that will increase short-term earnings, often at the expense of long-term performance. Tough choices is a euphemism that too often means redundancies, squeezing suppliers and passing on uncertainty to outsiders; stock markets are the mechanisms through which these modern regimes of power are transmitted. Chief executives have become grossly overpaid, too, though without the compensatory effects that Jensen and Meckling promised when they lobbied so hard for a pay rise:

Are we arguing that CEOs are underpaid? If by this we mean “Would average levels of CEO pay be higher if the relation between pay and performance were stronger?” the answer is yes. More aggressive pay-for-performance systems (and a higher probability of dismissal for poor performance) would produce sharply lower compensation for less talented managers. Over time, these managers would be replaced by more able and more highly motivated executives who would, on average, perform better and earn higher levels of pay.’[iv]

I’ll read that again, missing out all but the crucial words:

Are CEOs underpaid? The answer is Yes. More able and more highly motivated executives would [assuming aggressive pay-for-performance systems] earn higher levels of pay.’

So there you have it.

But isn’t all this a means to an end – making more money for shareholders – that’s us – and thereby making the world a richer and better place? Don’t forget what I said before, though. It’s distribution that really matters. It turns out that not all shareholders are equal and future gains don’t get shared out equally. Take Silicon Valley’s ‘unicorns’ – startup firms worth over a billion dollars. Their extraordinary value comes not from profits but repeated rounds of financing at ever higher levels (again, I will explain this process later). If the everyday investor is only allowed in at a late stage, buying on the hype and paying accordingly, they will simply be funding the rewards already enjoyed by those already in the network who have been able to invest earlier on. It is an elaborate financial game of pass the parcel. At some point the music will stop and those left holding the parcel will unwrap it to find nothing inside, but by then the others will be long gone, their pockets stuffed with cash. Our contemporary economy is a chimera, a mirage, make believe. It’s a collective convention whereby everyone is better off if we agree that, yes, a loss-making online taxi-firm could be worth nearly a hundred billion dollars. A cynic might even see some kind of Ponzi scheme in the colossal valuations of the tech unicorns, and suspect that some entrepreneurs are more committed to capitalizing – cashing in – on a rhetorical strategy of global supremacy than actually squaring up to the Sisyphean labour of becoming the only taxi operator in the entire world.

Global finance is a con.

It’s not all bad news. There are green shoots of possibility emerging that may carry us into a better, fairer economy for the future. There is talk of ‘patient finance’ with connotations of fairness and long-term engagement. We see new market start-ups – there’s one near me in Scotland that’s talking about social impact and regional development, and I hope it comes to fruition. Perhaps I’ll be able to tell you more about it as this series progresses. Such moves seek to recover stock markets as mechanisms for social transformation, funding new ventures of all kinds. I think this is an endeavour worth pursuing.

In this podcast we’ll be working towards that goal, trying to imagine a finance fit for all. We need a new language to tell new stories of markets, to imagine designer markets that can offer us all kinds of future possibility, from radical technological innovation to new understandings of social organisation. We need markets that can facilitate growth, but growth of a kind fitted for the future.

And most of all, we need, as citizens, to really understand how finance works. We need to understand why markets have so much influence over politics and state. We should try and understand what those people sitting in skyscrapers in Canary Wharf or quiet offices in Mayfair actually do all day. We should think about the stuff that markets are made of: buildings, screens and wires. We need to understand the stories of markets; I’ve already sketched out some – the rights of shareholders and the laziness of bureaucratic managers and the myth of business as funded, even founded, on the efforts of finance – but there are others, about how finance is male, white and complicated, and out of bounds to the rest of us.

We could even think about prices. If prices contain information, as financial economists believe they do, how does it get there? Are some prices better than others? Why is it headline news if Apple’s share price goes down? What can we price, and when does it stop being okay to do so? As the philosopher Michael Sandel has asked, what can’t money buy?

So that’s where we are. In a society that’s broken, divided and unequal, financial markets are mechanisms absolutely at the root the trouble. But let’s hold onto them a little longer; let’s try and capture a little bit of that old, Enlightenment optimism about markets and their possibility. Maybe it’s misguided. Maybe we’ll discover that the best kind of market is no market at all. I don’t know. Let’s think of ourselves as twenty-first century financial engineers, examining this strange cyborg thing of people and wires and screens, stripping it down to figure out how it works and why it’s broken. Only when we have done that can we start to work out how to fix it.

That’s what this podcast is all about, working to build a finance that’s fit for purpose and fair for everyone.

I’m Philip Roscoe, and you’ve been listening to How to Build a Stock Exchange. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share! Tell your friends! If you’d like to get in touch and join the conversation, you can find me on Twitter @philip_roscoe or email me on philiproscoe@outlook.com. Details are on the website. Please join me next time when we explore how stock exchanges telescope time and space, and wonder how you’d build one if you didn’t have computers…

Notes

[i] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2017).

[ii] Karen Ho, Liquidated (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

[iii] The original paper is MC Jensen and WH Meckling, “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behaviour, Agency Costs, and Ownership Structure,” Journal of Financial Economics 3 (1976). The ideas reached a broader audience through MC Jensen and WH Meckling, ‘CEO Incentives—It’s Not How Much You Pay, But How,’ Harvard Business Review (1990 May-June). For an account of Wall Street’s preoccupation with shareholder value see Ho, Liquidated.

[iv] Again, from MC Jensen and WH Meckling, ‘CEO Incentives—It’s Not How Much You Pay, But How,’ Harvard Business Review (1990 May-June)