Milking the dairy industry dry leaves us all poorer

Once upon a time, two large milk wholesaling companies faced public backlash about their decision to unexpectedly pay dairy farmers less for milk than it cost to produce and apply it retrospectively.

The good consumers of Australia, frothing with outrage, supported the local farmers by buying the named brands milks at the local supermarkets and took photos of the sold out sections of milk fridges and plastered them all over social media. The supermarket brand milk remained on the shelves and the consumers conveniently ignored the fact they had propped up this unsustainable system by buying $1 a litre milk for the preceding two years.

Meanwhile, in a spectacular display of cynical cause-related marketing, Coles, one of the originators of the $1 a litre milk in 2011, launched a special brand of milk that was more expensive with 20c from every sale going to a fund for the farmers.

This is the same supermarket chain that signed a 10-year milk supply deal with Murray Goulbourn, that according to their public statements at the time it would be ‘a major win for farmers because we cut out the middle man and farmers get a bigger share of the retail price’. Three years in, that doesn’t appear to be working.

The real bottom line in this ethical conundrum that we all need to consider, how much do we value our dairy industry? How important is it for Australian to be able to produce its own milk and dairy products and, if that is important, what is a viable price to pay the farmers who make it?

For the investment managers investing in Woolworths and Wesfarmers (the owner of Coles), an important question is when the stand over tactics of the supermarkets’ on their suppliers actually starts destroying the economic value of an entire industry, is it time to look more broadly than just what creates profit margin for the two powerful distributors?

Beyond the marketing, the real story is, in 2011 the supermarkets, started offering $1 a litre milk, purportedly to make milk ‘affordable’ for more people, even though it has been bought by the majority as a valued staple food for decades. Cheap milk was the enticement to get customers in the door and then get them spend up on other higher margin products. It was part of a vicious price war between the two major supermarket chains in an attempt to defend and grow their market share.

It was never going to be the supermarkets that bore the brunt of the price cut, they can choke the distribution channels, so held the power to pass financial pain onto their suppliers. And the institutional investors who bought shares in Woolworths and Wesfarmers (the owners of Coles) approved of this margin clawback because it delivered on the profit line.

And the customers bought the $1 milk, telling themselves that is what they could afford. Until now.

This week’s debate about the value of the Australian dairy industry, what is reasonable for the farmers to earn and what we are prepared to pay for milk the perfect parable to demonstrate the cause and effect of valuing the profitability of the dominant and powerful groups in a production chain, over the value of the product and industry itself to a society.

Murray Goulbourn and Fonterra are not blameless either. MG were briefing shareholders this month that there was no concern with their financial stability, with a strong balance sheet and a growing business, but in the same breath talking about a Support Package for farmers to spread the impact of the cost cuts over the next three years. So, they won’t absorb any of the price pain, but are happy to pummel the farmers, without whom, they wouldn’t have a product to sell.

We, as members of superannuation funds and other investment vehicles, provide the capital to the likes of Woolworths, Coles and Murray Goulbourn and we can use our collective power to be more thoughtful about the impact of their profit seeking on entire industries. Pushing the pain down to the most powerless group in a supply chain makes us all poorer.

Tax avoidance is rewarded by the financial markets

This weekend the leaders of the G20 nations met in Brisbane and corporate tax avoidance, or ‘minimisation’ was on the agenda. There has been outrage in recent months as it was revealed that large companies have routed money through complex structures in countries such as Luxembourg in order to minimise the tax. The objective is to maximise profits for shareholders and minimise a company’s contribution to the community benefits derived from tax payments.

Some of the companies are global household names such as Ikea, Pepsi, Deutsche Bank and use these methods. Apple and Amazon have been at centre of similar controversies in the recent past. While many commentators are focused on the impact on the public purse of those countries where revenue is generated, very few are asking why the dominant value of profit maximisation is allowed to continue to reign. It is just assumed that is what companies will do and markets will accept it.

Why is profit maximisation more important than paying reasonable tax to help develop the countries from which corporations derive their revenue? Why does short-term earnings results designed for the investment markets get more senior management attention than long-term investment in the future of societies for hospitals and health care, schools, roads, public transport and the like? This community investment through tax payments also benefits the very same companies which use the infrastructure networks such as roads, rail, airlines and ports, and whose employees and their families go to the schools and use the hospitals.

It is because those in senior management at these companies and those that control the investment decisions at large institutional investment groups, prioritise a very narrow set of short-term profit-driven values over the longer term goals of a rise in living standards for all. We know that they share the same values because investment funds participate in the same tax minimisation schemes. Public investment funds from Canada, Australia, as well as investment giants like Citigroup, Credit Suisse, ABN Amro, AIG, Dexia, Fidelity, Schroders, State Street and UBS were also on the list of tax offenders released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

These investment houses manage billions of dollars of citizen’s retirement and other savings through a variety of mutual funds. And because they have the power to make the investment decision, they impose a narrow set of profit-driven values on their decision. They do very little to gather the views of the citizen investors or reflect them in the investment decisions.

As those who provide the money for these funds to invest, we have a responsibility to make it clear that we are not only the ultimate shareholders of these funds who want a long-term return from our savings but we are also the people who use the infrastructure, the schools and the hospitals that improve our societies’ standards of living, as opposed to wanting our investments to produce a short-term return to boost the bonus payments of our professional money managers.

A virtuous approach to investing could benefit us all

Laura D’Olimpio argued in her recent article on The Conversation, that the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that being virtuous was rational and good for everyone. Humans, he wrote, are political and moral creatures because we live in a society and our behaviour affects one another. Virtue is the mid-point between excessive or deficient behaviours and finding the mid-point was crucial for everyone to flourish. For instance, we may have to pay $5 more for a T-shirt, and a large Western organisation may need to take a small cut to its profit margin in order for garment workers in Bangladesh to have a safe working environment and enough money to support the family. But everyone still wins because we still get cheap t-shirts, the business still makes money and people in Bangladesh improve their quality of life through economic growth.

But the spectre of renowned free marketeer economist Milton Friedman still looms over the financial markets and listed companies. Friedman believed in the view that the only social responsibility of business was to make profits’ is still a dominant belief among large investment houses and the companies they invest in. Therefore, maximising profits is a seen as a virtue in this world.

Indeed, Max Weber, as cited in Dyck and Schroeder’s 2005* article, wrote that materialism and individualism are the twin hallmarks of the moral point of view that underpins management thought. A focus on work and emphasis on material success has become normalised in western management and is the ‘uncontestable, objective, morally neutral ‘reality’’ adopted as the natural facts of life, rather than a particular version of the ‘moral’ facts of life. This translates into modern management’s focus on efficiency, productivity, profitability, measured by performance relative to other comparable companies and the expectations of the market.

Materialism is used as a tool to measure human progress, a method of attaining ‘success’ and social acceptance. In 2010, Decktop, Jurkiewicz and Giacalone** argued that financial success and material possessions are the core elements of western corporate cultures and financial rewards at work are used as a form of motivation and control. Materialistic values are rewarded in employees because they are aligned to those in senior management. In this view, money and the desire for money equal competence and the acquisition of more of it (particularly more than someone else) equals greater competence. People with these values gravitate to jobs that can be measured by material accumulation. In corporate finance books this belief is reinforced. According to the Principles of Corporate Finance, ‘the goal of maximising shareholder value is widely accepted in both theory and practice’ because, the authors argued that shareholders’ priority is ‘to be as rich as possible’ (Brealey, Myers and Allen 2011). The question of ‘why is this important?’ is not considered.

Companies are held captive by the tyranny of a quarterly earnings reporting cycle that focuses on short-term profit making rather than long-term sustainable business development. This benefits the privileged class of institutional investors who make their money by managing trillions of dollars of other citizens’ money. They market their competence as investors to attract more money, based on these short-term returns. When the reality is most of their investors have a very long-term investment timeframe and quarterly results are not particularly relevant.

This mismatch in expectations between the average citizen whose retirement funds are managed by institutional investors, and the investors and senior managements of companies themselves is demonstrated in the recent research by Harvard Business School and Chulalongkorn University. The research showed that the average citizen around the world believes that CEOs earn far more than what is a fair amount, when compared to an unskilled workers. What was worse is that the estimate was completely out of kilter with the astronomical pay packets that actually get paid, which is supported by most fund managers.

Surely this is an example of one group, the powerful elite who manage and influence the management of large listed companies, who’s values are at the extreme end of a spectrum, and the virtuous mid-point which allows everyone to flourish is a long way, away.

*Dyck, B. and D. Schroeder. 2005. “Management, theology and moral points of view: Towards an alternative to the conventional materialist-individualist ideal type management.” Journal of Management Studies 42(4): 705-735.

** Decktop, J., C. Jurkiewicz, and R Giacalone. 2010. “Effects of materialism on work-related personal wellbeing.” Human Relations 63(7): 1007-1030.

The fruit of SPC Ardmona’s labour should not be closure

And so it has come to this. The Liberal government has washed its hands of supporting the last fruit and vegetable processor in Australia as part of its ‘age of responsibility’. But let’s be honest, this is more about their ideological stance about unions and a chance to make their point while attacking some of the lowest earners in Australia for having generous working conditions. I look forward to their attack on investment bankers…

Coca-Cola Amatil now has a decision to make about the future of SPC Ardmona, and the final decision will need to be seen as ‘investor friendly’. To its credit, unlike the car manufacturers, the company’s plan was to completely re-tool the plant to make it profitable into the future, with some federal government support. The question now is can they gain the support of institutional investors to make the entire investment themselves?

SPC Ardmona is a major employer in a region that has an unemployment rate that has been at least two per cent higher than the Australian average for at least four years.

The preservation of local food production is a personal passion of mine, not just in Australia but around the world. We have to eat every day and how we eat and what we eat really matters. Beyond that, the case of SPC Ardmona is a litmus test of the dominant values in our society. Is finding a way to preserve the Shepparton community and make money from our fabulous fruit and vegetables in the long term, more important than propping up the short-term market returns of a listed entity?

It is evident that the processor needs support to weather the perfect storm of circumstances in which it has found itself during the past few years, but it also needs a long-term sustainable business plan. Much time and energy is spent on the CC Amatil Sustainability Report, which also includes a section on workplace commitment. Perhaps the company could consider that making this investment would fit into that workplace commitment and create a real legacy which would have positive repercussions for generations.

According to its 2012 annual report, the Coca-Cola Company owned 29% of CC Amatil as at 31 December 2012, followed by a range of institutional investors.  All of these groups need to consider their role in this situation. Of course, it is hard to know who these institutional investors are because most of them use nominee companies, thus obscuring their investment from public view. But at 31 December 2012 the investors in HSBC Custody Nominees (17.65%), JP Morgan Nominees (13.32%) and National Nominees (9.69%), would all have significant influence over the board. The board and the investors need to understand that corporate social responsibility is more than ‘nice-to-have’ reputational insurance. Taking a financial hit now to save SPC Ardmona, and the community it supports, will make CC Amatil a leader of business reinvigoration and a true corporate citizen. It may even make it some money.

Well done Aldi for committing to use only SPC Ardmona for its 825g fruit product in Australia.

Democratic capitalism achieves communism’s goal

Phillip Adams’ was bemoaning the failures of capitalism this week in The Weekend Australian, adding it to the pile of other failed ‘isms’ and he points out that we need new answers to stem the widening gulf between those that have and those that don’t. He proposes a hybrid economic model.

We don’t need to invent a hybrid. We have already done it, we just don’t recognise it. Democratic capitalism has succeeded in achieving communism’s ultimate goal. It has shifted the ownership of the means of production to the citizens away from unelected elites. In most Western nations, the citizens provide the money for substantial chunks of the equity markets and the bond markets. It is just when we put our money into our retirement funds, managed by institutional investors, the ownership of those funds is suddenly assigned to those institutional investors. Our money become ‘their investments’. When really, these investors are merely managing our money and it is our money that buys the shares (which are units of ownership in companies), so we own the companies. The key is to make the institutional investors listen to a wider array of voices as to what constitutes a long-term ‘value’ building in a company.

The problem is we are still living in an age that assigns a higher moral value to people with money (or control of other people’s money) rather than people with knowledge. We lionise business leaders for their ability to make money, not their ability to change the world for the better. We agonise that we will not have enough money in retirement to maintain our lifestyle, so we turn a blind eye to bad company behaviour in favour of returns. We value our ability to buy things, more than our ability to understand things.

Perversely though, more and more of us comfortable in our middle class lives are getting uncomfortable about how big business is shaping our society, our planet and the futures of those who may not have the opportunity to worry about whether to go to Bali or holiday at home this year.

If we want this to change, we have to challenge this power structure and its associated values. We need to engage with institutional investors and get them to step up to the plate in engaging with company management and boards on issues that matter to us. We need investors not to punish companies on the stock market when they choose to do something that is better for all of us in the long term, but shaves off some profit in the short term.

Institutional investors need to democratise investing and create opportunities for people to engage with them and share their views. A starting point may be a simple online tool, like Vote Compass. It was used in the latest Australian election to help voters understand what mattered to them and which party best represented their views. A similar tool could help institutional investors understand how we feel about particular issues. Institutional investors could then represent these views to senior managements of companies and hold them to account on behalf of us all.

Fat profits from empty calories

Is a rapid rise in obesity levels in poor countries an acceptable side effect of multi-national companies and their investors pushing hard into these markets to create new profits?

In June this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the increasing number of people in low and middle income countries being overweight and obese was creating major long-term public health problems. WHO identified that more than 75% of the world’s overweight children lived in those countries that also suffered issues associated with under-nutrition.

One of the key problems was the rising availability of cheap, highly calorific, or energy dense, foods and drinks that had little nutritional value. Driving this increase of consumption was intensive marketing, by multinational food and drink companies, particularly to children, according to another WHO study. Marketing about unprocessed foods in these countries did not exist.

There is so much money to be made in these low and middle income countries from selling soft drinks and the junk food that companies are targeting these markets as their future. Indeed, Coca Cola was very excited about the profit-making potential of the poor. In a presentation to a Barclays Capital conference in September this year, Coca Cola’s  senior executive Ahmet Bozer talked about ‘seizing the moment’ in sub-Saharan Africa with their ‘sparkling drinks’ (read the calorific Coke and the like) leading their charge into the market.

Bozer identified that there was a target consumer base of 6.1 billion people in Coca Cola’s International business and 37% of these were under 21. A core strategy was to drive sales growth through the flagship ‘sparkling’ market. Coca Cola was in the market for young drinkers to become loyal buyers of their product throughout their life, not as an occasional treat drink but as an everyday choice.

Some of the biggest American institutional investors in the world have major stake in Coca Cola. As at 30 June 2013, Berkshire Hathaway held 9% of the company, followed by Vanguard at 4.8%, State Street at 3.8%, Fidelity at 3.4% and BlackRock at 2.6%. Vanguard, State Street and BlackRock also have large stakes in PepsiCo.

Imagine if these institutional giants, who manage the money of the citizens of the US and others, actually told Coca Cola to revise their strategy.

What would happen if these investors told Coca Cola they would not sell their stock if Coca Cola took responsibility for the impact of their products on the health of their consumers (many of them without the benefit of the same level of health education as those of us in high income countries)? What would happen if Coca Cola focused on pushing their bottled water and healthier choice drinks into these markets instead? What impact would that have on this impending major health issue?

It doesn’t mean Coca Cola can’t make money, but rather make money out of products that don’t leave a trail of long-term health issues for its customers, the very people that will keep the company in business.

It doesn’t mean that investors can’t make returns on their investment in Coca Cola, but if nothing changes, what it does mean is that we, as the people that ultimately provide the money for institutional investors, value wealth over our health and the health of others less fortunate than us.

Who owns what is as clear as mud

One of the great transparency furphies in the corporate world is that you can find out who are the top shareholders by looking in their annual reports. The problem is a flick through the annual reports of most of Australia’s largest companies you may think you are reading the same list over and over again.

Most of the names on the list are nominee companies. The biggest ones in Australia are HSBC Custody Nominees (Australia) Ltd, JP Morgan Nominees Australia Ltd and National Nominees Ltd.

Nominee companies are custodian services that allow investments from a number of investors to be aggregated into one entity. According to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) they typically hold securities, arrange the banking of dividends and some form of consolidated reporting. They don’t engage with senior management or boards about how companies are run on behalf of their clients.

In fact, large listed companies raised the use of nominee companies as a key barrier to engaging  institutional investors in submissions to the 2008 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services inquiry into barriers to the effective engagement of shareholders on corporate governance. The companies said the use of nominee entities also made finding the ultimate owners of shares difficult. This makes it very hard to align the long-term investment goals of superannuation funds and the short-term remuneration and performance goals of senior management and professional investors.

The parliamentary committee also found that institutional investors, such as superannuation funds, made decisions about whether to engage with companies’ management and boards based primarily on the economic cost to them. Some found engagement to be a distraction from their stated primary role of generating investment returns. The use of nominee companies would provide a useful way of distancing themselves from the companies and, therefore, actual engagement.

So it appears institutional investors not only don’t canvas the opinions of the people that provide them the money to invest, they are not that interested in engaging with the companies they invest in either. If they do, they certainly don’t share it with their clients.