Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Personal Reminiscences
One of the features of aging past ninety is accumulating many stories to tell. Perhaps fewer are left alive to challenge insignificant details.

Expanded Health Savings Accounts

How to Cope with a Trillion Dollars of your own Money.

"Eighty years ago any one of the 'tycoons,' whether in the U.S, Imperial Germany, Edwardian England or in the France of the Third Republic, could and did by himself supply the entire capital needed by a major industry of its country. Today the wealth of America's one thousand richest people, taken together, would barely cover one week of one country's capital needs. The only true 'capitalists' in developed countries today are the wage earners through their pension funds and mutual funds." (Peter F. Drucker, The Wall Street Journal, September 29, 1987.)

In the passage displayed above, a noted authority on the American economy has concisely captured the new dimensions of capitalism in the Twentieth Century, even though his jump in logic can be disputed. It is too soon for the evolution from Nineteenth-Century tycoons into universal capitalism to have affected common parlance; redefinition took place without anyone's planning or prediction. People who describe themselves as workers and employees are slow to develop attitudes and skills appropriate to their new economic power. It is equally uncongenial for those who think of themselves as entrepreneurs and managers to accept "people's capitalism" as the present and growing future of free-enterprise America. Drucker's partitioning of the country into two classes may well be disputed, but he has an insight of some sort which warrants examination. Obsolete class rhetoric will doubtless persist through several more presidential election campaigns.

Two things fit together here. It takes a ton of money to finance a multi-trillion a year economy. It also takes a ton of money to pay for a whole country to retire from work at age 65 and then go on a twenty-year vacation. The new imperative of capitalism is that we somehow must save enough of our collective working income to supply the capital requirements of the economy, which must, in turn, employ such capital efficiently enough to pay for our old age including its inherently heavy medical costs. If we have wars we will have to pay for them too, but the main dividend of our economy does go into a national retirement nest-egg. That's why we work, and that's all we have when we are done working. Stop worrying about quick-rich stories like Mr. Boesky's concerning conspicuous consumption by overpaid yuppies on Wall Street. Forget about the occasional person who takes a year or two off in mid-career to wander around Nepal. Don't however forget to remember the poor, the disadvantaged and the shiftless, because they get old too, and are part of the molten mass. In my view, the national economy can be roughly summarized as a process in which we collectively attempt to have nearly everyone spend his last cent on the day he dies but not a day sooner, living as well as he can in the meantime. Within the scope of this description we thus all become capitalists as we strive to enjoy twenty years without working income after we retire. The only alternative is that we mustn't live so long.

Because broad-based or near-universal capitalism has evolved recently and is not entirely acknowledged, the present system has some large transitional defects. Health insurance, unfunded health insurance, is one of the main defects we will get to in a few pages. A more immediate structural defect is what is that we have not yet evolved an efficient system of aggregating the savings of a nation of little capitalists who are unsophisticated in the ways of Wall Street and want to stay that way. Not only does it cost excessively to hire investment advice, but the voting power of ownership control gets lost in the process.

In the bad old days, when J.P. Morgan and others would buy common voting stock, they bought the company, and the company certainly knew it had been bought. If all of the officers and managers of the bought company weren't soon changed, that was only because they made desperately clear they were ready to take orders about company policy. By contrast, when T. Boone Pickens today buys a similar share of the voting stock of a corporation, the hired hands appear before a congressional committee, or the legislature of Delaware, to get a law passed outlawing the "unfriendly takeover". In Morgan's day, money didn't just talk, it screamed. Today, well, money is in a fight for its life with one-man-one-vote power in the hands of elected representatives. People's capitalism has become a humbled passive investment process, although not necessarily a cheap one, or invariably profitable.

There may be some exceptions, but the middlemen in peoples capitalism have generally declined to grab the voting power which the small stockholder cannot usefully exercise. The people who run what is known as the "Institutions" are custodians of great gobs of other people money in a mutual fund, pension or insurance trusts, and hence hold enormous voting power in the election of corporate directors, officers, and auditors. For some reason institutional investors seldom vote against the management, generally preferring to sell the stock if they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in a portfolio company. Consequently, the entrenched management of major publicly held corporation can do just about as it pleases even following policy disasters. To say this is a flaw in our system is a massive understatement. Things which run by the law of gravity generally tend to go in only one direction. No one wants to see the Japanese pulverize our major corporate jewels, no one wants to see them repeatedly greenmail. Nobody loves a corporate raider.

And still, it is clear the little stockholder cannot and never will aspire to meaningful voting power in a corporation which has millions of shares and thousands of stockholders. (Footnote; When I get those expensively packages proxy cards for my pitiful holdings, I always vote along with management. My theory is it's a good thing to change watch dogs frequently, and my Quixotic vote might hurt somebody's feelings enough to notice the message it sends). The system of governance of very large corporations needs to be reformed by its insiders before consumer activists using one approach, or elected public officials using another, manage to fill the power vacuum to our national disadvantage. They might, for example, reexamine the New York Stock Exchange rule, prohibiting the listing of companies with more than one class of stock. Someone should be asked to evaluate the experience of companies like Ford which evaded the rule, or of those companies which escaped to other exchanges to avoid it.

The directions such reform might take are not the concern of this book; the present focus is on the difficulties which are created for pre-funded health insurance by the fact that corporate voting power materializes whenever major purchases of common stock are made for purely investment purposes. Unpredictable things happen no matter how the stock is voted. If the voting power in the hands of custodians is never exercised, corporate control automatically concentrates in the hands of those whose ownership is relatively minor, whether insiders or outsiders.

One does not have to be a rabid conservative to recognize that government ownership of voting control of a corporation is a form of is w form of nationalization. The Labor party in England nationalized the steel and airline industries, the Socialists in France and India nationalized the banks, Communist doctrines go to the extreme of requiring government ownership of the total "means of production". If we are imaging success in the effort to pre-fund a trillion dollars of health insurance, we have to contemplate the highly undesirable features of potential government control of the voting stock of IBM, American Telephone and Telegraph, Exxon, and Morgan Guaranty Bank. The aggregate worth of all he stock on the New York Exchange is xx xxx. A trillion dollar worth of all the stock implies voting control of quite a bit of corporate America, no matter how sincerely its managers try to avoid it. a resolutely passive investment stance would just make it cheaper for the Japanese to buy control or for that matter the Russians, if they wanted to do it.

This scary line of thought potentially leads to the conclusion that pre-funded health insurance should avoid the purchase of common stock. But that seems bizarre; the historical difference between a 3% return (bonds) and 8% return (stocks) means this voting control issue could condemn health insurance pre-funding to a pitiful fraction of its potential for reducing the costs of an essential social service. It seems imperative to seek ways to improve the long-term return, even if government-controlled pools have to be rejected. True, massive increases in the proportion of non-voting stock confer unwarranted power to the management of the corporations and their potential greenmailers, no matter who runs the passive investment pool. Go one long jump beyond that; they just cannot be permitted.

As a matter of fact, it is impossible to conceive of a permissible investment vehicle for a government-controlled fund, except government bonds. Unfortunately, when you look at what has happened to the Social Security trust funds which are totally invested in government bonds, you find an appalling thing. Buying government bonds isn't too satisfactory, either.

When sums approaching a trillion dollars are involved, even the finances of the United States Government must reckon with the law of supply and demand. If a lot of people want to buy government bonds, they push the price up as long as the supply is limited. Since government bonds are issued to pay for federal debt, increasing the supply of those bonds means increasing the national debt, so we ordinarily don't want to do that either. That is, we don't want the Treasury to issue more bonds just to provide a safe investment vehicle for funded health insurance. On the other hand, by restricting permissible investment to government bonds in huge amounts we cripple the cost reduction of health insurance, since the inevitable result of clamoring to buy bonds will be lower interest rates. Quite aside from the fact that a captive customer gets shabby treatment, it may not be in the national interest to lower interest rates. Since Government bonds are regarded as the safest possible investment, their rate is the floor under all interest rates in the country or even the world. So, lower interest rates are inflationary, even at times when it may be contrary to national policy to stimulate inflation.

What this focus on government bonds has stumbled onto is the mechanism by which modern government attempt to fine-tune the national economy, a process mostly devised by the British economist Maynard Keynes. Based on the premise that no one controls enough money to affect the market price of government bonds, the government sets the price by buying and selling to itself. This particular conflict of interest operates between the Treasury which issues the bonds, and the Federal reserves which buy them. To a certain extent, the Arabs and the Japanese have been rich enough to influence the price of US Bonds, but the largest "external" bond buyer has been the Social Security trust funds. The quasi-external quality of the trust funds is often minimized or exaggerated as it suits some momentary purpose. If more money flows into the funds from tax payments than flows out for pension checks, the trust funds are described as assisting the national deficit. However, if the future indebtedness of the funds is increased more than current revenues are, this debt is regarded as the trust funds' problem and not a matter of national accounts. All this is a cross-generational difference in point of view. My generation can only see it as one big sticky ball of wax. The Federal Reserve's regards it as a major obstacle to their effective use of Keynesian principles. One has to conclude that it would be very unfortunate to add a great big lump of health insurance funding to a government bond problem which will be convulsive enough without it.

In summary, what can we conclude about investing the proceeds of funded health insurance, if we could ever get around to funding it? We see that the creation of a new source of investment capital would be an enormous asset for the national economy, but reckless dumping of huge amounts of cash in any market at all could be disruptive. The purchase of common stock would be considerably more cost-effective than buying bonds, and in the long run, might even be safer. However, equity markets need to consider how to cope with the continuous concentration of voting control of major corporations by default, as a majority of votes would become further locked into passive custodial accounts by funded health insurance. And finally, control of funded health insurance by government agencies poses the same problem of stock voting power which is left to Wall Street to solve, the next chapter tries to consolidate these issues into a general prescription. Remember, Index fund investing is momentum investing. If everyone does it at once, it will pop the bubble.

Originally published: Thursday, September 13, 2018; most-recently modified: Tuesday, May 21, 2019