Taking a closer look at finance capital

written by: Mark Swilling on Wednesday, 26 September 2012. Posted in Footprints Blog

I am in Brisbane now, at Griffiths University,  attending a conference entitled The Necessary Transition hosted by Asia-Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise. Just listened to a very interesting paper by David Peetz entitled 'Corporate Ownership and Global Sustainability'. It examined the role of finance capital in promoting sustainability and climate change in particular. They addressed the assumption that because finance capital supports neo-liberal ideology and because there is a strong correlation between neo-liberal ideology and climate denialism, it follows that finance capital is unlikely to be a force for change with respect to climate change and sustainability in general. This, however, was not in fact the case. Instead, there is a 'power struggle' between investors with a short-term 'capital gains' focus, and investors with a long-term focus [read: investors who are more interested in dividends over the long term?].


They examined the world's largest investment funds (i.e. entities that own significant amounts of shares of the world's 250 largest corporations). They correlated the size of these funds (measures in terms of shareholding of the world's 250 largest companies) with their commitment to climate change/sustainability as reflected in their participation in various sustainability-oriented initiatives such as the Carbon Disclosure Project, UN Global Compact, etc.  They found that just over a third of the largest investors had signed up to at least one of the major initiatives. However, they detected a clear division between investors primarily interested in returns over the short-term and investors primarily interested in returns over the long-term. The former was less inclined to worry about climate change/sustainability, while the latter was more inclined to worry about climate change/sustainability. 

This conclusion is very interesting to me because I have been arguing that the build-up of uninvested funds in many OECD countries and South Africa is a reflection of the fact that (capital-gains seeking) finance capital remains hegemonic despite the financial crash of 2007/2008 and that this is reflected in the fact that policy frameworks have not been introduced that incentivize investments by productive capital in the 'real economy' (i.e. in pursuit of dividends). This paper suggests that it is not appropriate to make a simplistic distinction between 'finance capital' and 'productive capital', but to factor in a more refined distinction between different segments of finance capital - some still only focussed on capital gains over the short term, while others have a longer-term interest in dividend flows. Makes sense, because after all the financialisation of the global economy has left us in a position where these massive global funds effectively dominant investment flows. How they respond to the global crisis and, in particular, to possible future policy frameworks that incentivize productive investments in the real economy will obviously have a major influence on future economic trajectories. These choices, however, are profoundly political. At the moment, austerity (and possibly also non-action re: climate change) seems to reflect the interests of short-termists. Will those who favour a growth agenda recognise what will be required to unlock productive investments pursuing dividends over the long term? Although this paper is primarily interested in investments in climate change responses/sustainability, the analysis can have a wide economic significance.

 Listening to the discussion, I am reminded of a dinner with Executives from Shell to discuss sustainable development that took place a few months ago in Cape Town. After making good progress in the argument, one of them turned to me and said: "Ok, so what would you do that will make it all happen?" I was taken by surprise and so did not immediately say what I should have said and so lost the moment. But what I should have said is the following: (1) cut the $1 trillion subsidy of the fossil fuel industry, (2) require all financial institutions to have a minimum investment portfolio in renewable energy, (3) introduce a carbon tax of at least $100 per ton, and (4) introduce a Tobin tax on financial transactions.