The new era of big government that Australia entered in 2020 will soon be matched by bigger, more dominant corporations and a consolidated investment sector that will wield power in the hundreds of billions.
The implications of the government’s push for superannuation funds to merge — the creation of a new set of super-powerful investment behemoths, led by the government’s most loathed sector, industry super — are beginning to become apparent to people beyond those of us who’ve been pointing them out for a while.
The emergence — at the government’s behest — of mega-super funds controlling investments worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and pursuing their own environmental, social, and corporate governance agendas separate from whatever pro-fossil fuel goals the government has, is surely alarming to the Liberal Party, which includes a number of backbenchers who not merely want to destroy industry super but end compulsory superannuation altogether.
But consolidation was already coming in the investment sector.
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Last October, ASIC chair James Shipton identified investor consolidation as a significant issue for the corporate regulator. While recognising the benefits of consolidation, Shipton noted:
Investment funds are consolidating into a smaller number of larger players … we are aware of the potential impacts this may have on capital markets, particularly, the ability of emerging companies to access equity capital. As these larger funds seek a broader range of investment opportunities, we are observing growth in private debt and equity markets.
This is contributing to a global trend of de-equitisation of equity markets and a contraction in the number of companies listed on public markets. This is fast moving in a direction where regulators will need to consider the impact on public markets in the next five or 10 years and their ability to price and allocate risk capital.
Shipton’s concern about the growth of private equity and debt — and thus the lack of transparency afforded by public markets — and access to capital for smaller firms, are just two of the questions created by consolidating large chunks of capital — oftentimes a significant percentage of GDP — under the control of a small number of what become very powerful investment institutions that wield enormous power over who accesses capital, the uses of that capital and who sits on boards.
The questions arise not just about Australia’s biggest industry and retail super funds, which will emerge bigger than ever after the consolidation phase, but investment giants based outside Australia.
A prolonged recession is likely to drive further consolidation in areas like asset management — US analysts are already pointing to the virtues of scale in both surviving the current economy and taking advantage of emerging trends. Investment giants in the north Asian region are looking for opportunities from the pandemic to consolidate Asian financial markets.
This means a future where more and more key investment decisions are made by powerful institutional investors, often operating via private equity and without the need for public markets and the scrutiny that they bring.
The recession will also drive further consolidation of corporations, reducing competition and strengthening the market power of companies able to survive and prosper in a recession.
As Crikey has regularly reported before, consolidation and increasing market dominance were already significant problems, in the United States, Europe and Australia (and separate from the high concentration of the oligopolistic tech sector). The links between greater market concentration and higher profits, lower wages growth and lower investment are well-established.
As the recession claims smaller business and those that lack the scale to operate effectively in a slower economy, larger businesses have prospered. The early months of the pandemic saw some of the world’s biggest companies building up massive warchests of borrowings, using record low interest rates backed by the US Federal Reserve and other central banks.
The warchests were not merely for surviving the oncoming crisis, but enabling large companies to acquire cheaply those who were not as fortunate. That is, the borrowed funds won’t be invested in innovation, but in acquiring the market share of former competitors. The steady rise in market concentration that has characterised much of the last two decades is likely to accelerate.
While on issues like climate change, mega-investors and large corporations may be at odds with Australia’s giant Coalition government, the growth in the size of both investment entities and corporations means that they will have greater capacity to influence the policies of government, exploiting Australia’s weak regulations around donations, lobbying and influence-wielding and their capacity to offer post-public life employment to former politicians and public officials.
Bigger government, bigger investors and bigger corporations means bigger influence than ever before.