SWELLENDAM – If economic theory holds true, you could have a good business selling Johannesburg Big Mac hamburgers in New York. For the latest Economist Big Mac Index shows that New Yorkers pay about twice as much than Joburgers, and that’s a healthy margin by any standards.
Of course, even the most ill-informed will protest that it is much more complex than that. It may not be the best example, but it is some reflection of how often theories, abstracts and aggregates lose touch with underlying complexities, when a macro-assumption not only does not fit a micro situation but its imposition as an absolute can cause more harm than good. The best examples we have are the dominant drivers of economic policy such as gross domestic product and the consumer price index.
Markets are messy. People are messy. They become even messier when you add to the mix those powerful intangibles and immeasurable such as hopes, fears, expectations and aspirations. These are the real driving forces behind human behaviour and simply cannot be captured by an economic model or economist’s spreadsheet. It has given birth to a recent serious field in economic study called complexity economics, which is questioning many of the assumptions of neo-classical economic theory. The driving forces behind human behaviour are not shaped by these theories, or even the way we try to construct and institutionalise them. They are shaped by relationships at many different levels and in different forms and that are seldom, if ever fully recognised in the way we understand and measure business specifically and economies generally.
Recognising, understanding and shaping the relationship dynamics in companies could hold much promise in solving many of the issues confronting them. I can remember in my early days of financial reporting being troubled by the bland way company figures were presented and the failure to reflect behaviour and relationships that were the real essence behind the figures. In the early 80s I was exposed to the UK accounting format, the value-added statement, which went quite a way in doing that, but still did not seem to appropriately reflect the relationship between the main role players or stakeholders. But a significant conclusion that could be reached was that the value-added measurement itself not only reflected a figure (income less outside costs), but a magnificent metric of contributory behaviour. To repeat a previous postulate: adding value is the oldest activity known to man. It is also the most powerful business principle.
- It is behind all positive transformation
- It is the source of wealth
- It measures contribution
- It measures reward
- It links contribution and reward
- It drives all contributory behaviour
- It is the base of GDP, the nation’s wealth
- It is the source of profits, wages and taxes
- It affects all company measurements
By way of illustration, I’m including the Contribution Account© that I extrapolated and indexed for the mining industry.
The full strength of this form of accounting is the way it defines relationships – first between the enterprise and its market, where it creates and receives value, and then between labour, capital and state, where that value is shared. It is in that relationship where things can be contaminated and logic lost. I was reminded of this by a comment to my recent article Debunking monopoly capital where the reader equated debt with equity to satisfy the conventional abstract of “providers” of capital and, of course, sustain the myth of the supremacy of capital. To be fair, the UK VAS format does this as well, but in the European format interest paid was moved to “outside supplies” in what became known as the Cash value-added statement.
The latter format also moved depreciation and amortisation to outside supplies. Both not only make technical sense, but even more so from a contributory relationship point of view. Allocating depreciation to outside costs is based on the logic that the item being depreciated was invariably purchased from an outsider, but the cost advanced is set-off over time through the balance sheet. Regarding debt, no one can logically see interest paid as anything but a cost. A lender’s relationship is as a supplier of a service – the use of money, and seldom, if ever extends beyond that. The risk of advancing that money is covered in the interest rate.
Equity also cannot be generalised as a single abstract called capital. It can have many forms such as owner’s money, crowdfunding, inherited funds, use of friends’ and acquaintances’ money, majority and minority shareholders, holding companies and institutional investors. All have different relationships with the enterprise. Many will take no heed of esoteric formulas such as capital or labour productivity. When these are imposed as rigid benchmarks they often disturb and sour relationships. There’s also a stark relationship difference between retained income and dividend, with the former being a commitment, and the latter a cash receipt. As a shareholder, you don’t get a debit card to draw on the company’s savings. The relationship between retained earnings and dividends, or dividend cover, speaks volumes about company intent.
I used the cash value-added statement as the basis for the Contribution Account©, simply to reflect its behavioural qualities. More recently I have moved personal income tax from labour to state, again as an accurate reflection of the relationship between state and the enterprise. One could argue that the state itself should be viewed as an outside supplier, but apart from its variable share of wealth, the state generally does not (or should not) create wealth in its own right and relies on that created by others for its income.
But here’s the exciting part – nothing prevents or should prevent stakeholders or contributors from defining their relationship with the collective and between themselves. Of course all have a specific context for their existence, but their validity and ultimate strength lie in a common value creating purpose and to be as free as possible from external prescriptions and pressures. Even then, relationships with anything or anyone are still highly manageable and flexible and are defined by expectations which in turn are self-defined. Increasingly companies are starting to see that.
What hinders this process are the absurd theories, abstracts and aggregates that we try impose upon them.
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