WeWork – Counterfeit Capitalism

Source: Matt Stoller blog, Sep 2019

WeWork, because it’s just such an obvious example of self-dealing couched in New Age management consulting speak. Its CEO, Adam Neumann, was just forced to step down.

The Stupidity of WeWork

WeWork describes itself as offering the ‘“space-as-a-service” membership model that offers the benefits of a collaborative culture, the flexibility to scale workspace up and down as needed and the power of a worldwide community, all for a lower cost.” In other words, the company sublets office space.

Generally speaking, Softbank’s model is to manipulate private capital markets as a way of drowning out competitors with cash.

For instance, there were several ‘rounds’ of WeWork investment where Softbank was buying more shares at higher valuations. WeWork ostensibly became more valuable because Son said it was more valuable, and bought shares for higher prices. And since there was no public market for these shares, the pricing of the shares was totally arbitrary.

WeWork then used this cash to underprice competitors in the co-working space market, hoping to be able to profit later once it had a strong market position in real estate subletting or ancillary businesses.

The goal of Son, and increasingly most large financiers in private equity and venture capital, is to find big markets and then dump capital into one player in such a market who can underprice until he becomes the dominant remaining actor. In this manner, financiers can help kill all competition, with the idea of profiting later on via the surviving monopoly.

Engaging in such a strategy used to be illegal, and was known as predatory pricing. There are laws, like Robinson-Patman and the Clayton Act, which, if read properly and enforced, prohibit such conduct. The reason is very basic to capitalism. Capitalism works because companies that thrive take a bunch of inputs and create a product that is more valuable than the sum of its parts. That creates additional value, and in such a model companies have to compete by making better goods and services.

What predatory pricing does is to enable competition purely based on access to capital.

Someone like Neumann, and Son’s entire model with his Vision Fund, is to take inputs, combine them into products worth less than their cost, and plug up the deficit through the capital markets in hopes of acquiring market power later or of just self-dealing so the losses are placed onto someone else. This model has spread. Bird, the scooter company, is not making money. Uber and Lyft are similarly and systemically unprofitable. This model is catastrophic not just for individual companies, but for their competitors who have to *make* money.

Endless money-losing is a variant of counterfeiting, and counterfeiting has dangerous economic consequences. The subprime fiasco was one example.

Another example was the Worldcom fraud in the late 1990s, which forced the rest of the U.S. telecom sector to over-invest into broadband. Competitors have to copy their fraudulent competitors. It’s a variant of Gresham’s Law, which says that “bad money drives out good.” If you can counterfeit something for cheap, the counterfeit will eventually take over the entire market and drive out the real commodity. That is what is happening in our economy writ large, a kind of counterfeit capitalism as ‘leaders’ like Neumann are celebrated and actual leaders who can make things and manage are treated like dogshit.

This kind of counterfeit capitalism is terrible for society as a whole. At first, with companies like Walmart and Amazon, predatory pricing can seem smart. The entire retail sector might be decimated and communities across America might be harmed, but two day shipping is convenient and Walmart and Amazon do have positive cash flow. But increasingly with cheap capital and a narrow slice of financiers who want to copy the winners, there is a second or third generation of companies asking Wall Street to just ‘trust me.’

As euphoria in capital markets takes hold, predatory pricing scheme come to entirely wastes capital on money losing enterprises, and eventually these companies become Soviet-style generators of white elephants and self-dealing.

The men and women who run them have to be charlatans, because they are storytellers justifying losses. Powerful men like Dimon are sucked in, consultants start explaining to old-line economy companies how they too can become like WeWork, and eventually more and more of the economy just adopts counterfeit capitalism.

Across the West, the basic problem of a corrupted productive process is becoming a quiet crisis. The reason is simple. The people that do the work in organizations are increasingly excluded from the decision-making about the work.

That is why Boeing is losing its ability to build planes, why we can’t build infrastructure, and why New York City is on the verge of disaster. And the cherry on top is investors pouring money into enterprises that aren’t even speculative, but are purely loss-making, because they find a destructive personality like Adam Neumann compelling.

If we restore laws against predatory pricing and centralized financial control, the entire counterfeit capitalism model will go away. We can then get back to the business of making and selling things to each other without engaging in celebrated cases of fraud and abuse under the guise of ‘quirkiness.’

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