The Path to the Next American Economy: The Cult of Scale

An obsession with the largest economic players distracts us from the smaller companies that should drive our future economy.

Both Richard Fisher, the president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, and Alan Blinder, arch-economist and former vice-chair of the Federal Reserve Board, had fascinating commentaries last week on “too big to fail,” the big banks, and financial stability. Fisher’s was a reform proposal; Blinder’s a set of lessons to remember. Both dealt explicitly or implicitly with our cult of scale.

The business, popular, political, think tank, and NGO cultures of America are all infatuated with big enterprise and its leaders. As a society, we pay ritual and theoretical attention to small business and entrepreneurs, but with a very few exceptions we court big company CEOs almost exclusively. Every presidential economic statement or study has its requisite CEO centerpiece. When presidents (of all political persuasions) want to show that they are really, really serious about the economy, they have pictures taken of themselves with big company CEOs. The most frequently quoted business organization, the one whose policy pronouncements are taken as the last word in economic wisdom, is the Business Roundtable — the insiders club for big business CEOs. The big news talk shows always have big business CEOs as their private sector representatives. The lobbyists whom congresses and governments pay attention to are from the biggest businesses. The same set of CEOs are always invited to presidential state dinners for visiting heads of state. The board development committees of think tanks, NGOs, and foundations covet the same set of CEOs.


Certainly not because big businesses play an actual dominant and dynamic role in our economy. Essentially 100 percent of all new jobs in America are created by new medium and small businesses. Even though large companies dominate R&D spending, revolutionary breakthroughs come almost exclusively from small entrepreneurial companies. If you look back just at the business history of the last 20 years, the pathbreaking innovations were always driven by small and medium companies — never by the giant incumbents of an industry.

So what benefits does scale bring us? Richard Fisher raises this question dramatically in the case of banking. Banks with less than $10 billion in assets — 98 percent of all banks — held only 12 percent of total bank assets in America but they made 51 percent of all small and medium business loans. Banks with less than $10 billion in assets continued lending to these businesses during the financial debacle; the big banks stopped. Lending, I’ll remind you, is basically what banks are supposed to do.

And of course big banks are the riskiest and most costly part of the banking sector. Their failures or near failures nearly cratered our economy, they received the vast bulk of the bailout money, and they continue to hold the riskiest assets. The five largest banks in America hold $4 trillion in non-deposit liabilities, 26 percent of U.S. GDP. Among other problems posed by these liabilities — for example, that virtually no one understands them — they are the reason for the excess leverage of the big banks.

Blinder usefully underlines 10 commandments for avoiding the next financial crisis. They all make sense. But when you look closely at his commandments, at least eight out of 10 are directly linked to unavoidable problems of scale and complexity. Consider this: the five biggest banks operated through over 19,000 subsidiaries in a minimum of 50 countries each. The simple fact is that Blinder’s very intelligent commandments can’t work in this world. I begin with a prejudice: compared to the directors of the five giants (and these are highly sought after and highly compensated directorships), directors of America’s smaller community banks are every bit as smart, know more about the banks they direct, hold the CEOs of their banks in far less awe, are much more likely to discipline their management effectively, and are closer to the customers. None of this is just a role of the dice. According to Richard Fisher, J.P.Morgan Chase has about 5,000 subsidiaries. I’ll grant that many of these are meaningless. But no set of directors on earth can really understand or guide well an entity with thousands of subsidiaries. In these circumstances, the amount of arbitrary, mostly unchecked authority given to senior management and the CEO is enormous. A single director is rarely going to risk either losing his or her directorship or simply being humiliated in the club by challenging the CEO on anything.

Which gets me back to the general problems of mega scale in business. While the biggest banks pose particular problems and the biggest dangers, all the evidence seems to say that as businesses get very, very big, four developments are inevitable. The businesses become sclerotic and bureaucratic. The businesses lose the creativity and dynamism that initially drove them. The businesses become extraordinarily complex. The businesses become less market-driven and more dominated by CEOs with a fair amount of arbitrary power. Some businesses and some extraordinary leaders — Steve Jobs — delay all of this, but the trends are inevitable.

So once again, why the fascination with big companies and their chiefs? Awe, power, and money. The heads of the biggest companies are the real masters of our universe. They are treated like heads of sovereign states. A lot of them think of themselves that way and, in fact, a heck of a lot of big company CEOs have more actual power than the heads of government of all but 30 to 50 countries. And within a range the power is fairly arbitrary. The biggest companies have the widest range of choices about products, locations, suppliers, public and community relations money, and foundation money. There is lots of economic “rent” buried among all those choices and everyone wants a little bit of it. I think the resources most big companies allocate through these choices mostly do an enormous amount of good and have a significant function in our strange society, but that’s not the same thing as believing these companies are the future of our economy.

To be clear, big companies play big, real, valuable roles in our economy. We need a mix. But the balance has gone too far in our infatuation with bigness. The true path to the Next American Economy does not go in that direction. We will not grow as fast as we must with an increasingly big company economy. Equity and social mobility won’t increase that way. We will need more breakthrough innovation, more new companies creating good jobs, more highly specialized value-added products and services, and more diversity and localization of businesses. The dream should be an economy driven by thousands of companies growing from dozens of very different urban platforms, not by a few dozen giants. But achieving that dream will be much harder if our political and intellectual culture is perpetually fascinated and seduced by the non-economic glamor of the wrong part of the private sector.