If you were to pick one company that symbolizes how America has changed and been changed over the last half century or so, it would be General Electric. The company founded by Thomas Edison is in many ways a microcosm of the American economy over the last century or more. It rose to become an industrial giant in the 20th century, the symbol of America manufacturing prowess. It then transformed into a giant of the new economy in the 1990’s, a symbol of the new America.
Today, General Electric is a company in decline. After a series of problems following the financial crisis of 2008, the company has steadily sold off assets and divisions in an effort to fix its financial problems. In 2019, Harry Markopolos, the guy who sniffed our Bernie Madoff, accused them of $38 billion in accounting fraud. The stock has been removed from the Dow Jones Industrial composite. Many now speculate that GE will end up in bankruptcy in order to reorganize.
For those interested in a longer discussion about the history of General Electric, Myth of the 20th Century did a podcast on the company. One aspect they did not cover is how General Electric transformed from a company that made things into a financial services company that owned divisions that made things. Like the American economy in the late 20th century, the company shifted its focus from making and creating things to the complex game of financializing those processes.
Like many companies in the late 20th century, General Electric found that their potential clients were not always able to come up with the cash to buy their products, so they came up with a way to finance those purchases. This is an age-old concept that has been with us since the dawn of time. Store credit is a way for the seller to profit from the cash poor in the market. He can both raise his price and also collect interest on the payments made by his customers relying on terms.
For American business, this simple idea turned into a highly complex process, involving tax avoidance strategies and the capitalization of the products and services formerly treated as business expenses. Commercial customers were no longer buying products and services, but instead leasing them in bundled services packages, financed at super-low interest rates and tax deductible. Whole areas of the supply chain shifted from traditional purchases to leased services.
For example, a local supplier of industrial goods used to own a warehouse to hold the products he supplied to clients. Inside would not only be the products, but material handling equipment like forklifts and shelving. Outside at the loading docks would be a fleet of big scary trucks used to deliver the products. Of course, to make it all work would be a staff of people loading and unloading trucks, moving product around the warehouse, making deliveries to clients and so on.
All of this would require a lot of money to acquire and maintain. That small local distributor would have millions tied up in assets. This is where the magic of cheap credit came into the economy. Companies like GE could go to these suppliers and unleash that capital tied up in those assets, by converting them into leased services. The trucks, for example, would no longer be purchased, but leased from a GE division that paid the taxes, did the repairs and provided spares in peak times.
As an aside, another aspect of this new leased economy is what happened with the people inside of it. That local supplier could not only lease his trucks and material handling equipment; he could lease his people. The building, the warehouse people, the administrative staff, the trucks, all of it, could be turned into a single lease payment for larger operators. This allowed the big players to muscle out the small players in just about every aspect of the supply chain.
What really made this new form of store credit work was both super-low borrowing rates for big players like GE, but also changes in the tax laws that allowed these lease payments to be treated like depreciation. The customer not only got the benefit of holding his cash he would normally use for asset acquisition; he could also get favorable tax treatment on the lease expense. To no one’s surprise, the big lobbyists for these changes in the tax laws were the financial services firms.
That is what GE became in the 1990’s. It was no longer a company that made stuff and financed it for select clients. It was a financial services firm that owned manufacturing facilities that supplied products it could finance. GE Capital became a massive commercial bank, not entirely regulated like a commercial bank and free to invent new financial services to meet its needs. They bought up manufacturing and commercial services companies, in order to monopolize their financing operations.
In the old economy, the credit system existed to serve the broader economy. In the new economy, the broader economy exists to serve the credit system. That which can be turned into a credit instrument increases in value, while that which cannot be bundled into a financial instrument loses value. Small players that provide specialized services lose value, while global players with easy access to credit increase in value. Everyone and everything serves the global credit system now.
This is what happened with General Electric as its credit empire grew. It was first and foremost a finance company. Since the flow of cheap credit was unlimited, the need to find new places for the credit became the point of GE. They bought companies in order to have new clients for their financing arm. They expanded the realm of that which could be leased and financed. By the end of the Jack Welch era, the point of General Electric was to grow bigger in order to supply more credit.
This financialization of the economy also allowed companies like General Electric to maintain implausible growth rates. This is where that credit machine at the heart of the company came into play. They could finance acquisitions with cheap credit. They could structure the purchase of a company in such a way as to realize its revenue now, while amortizing its debt and expenses. Suddenly that new division was wildly profitable through the miracle of off-balance sheet transactions.
The last financial crisis broke General Electric, by exposing a reality of the modern credit-based economy. Without new ways to move credit through the system, the credit system begins to seize up. Since the profit in this system is entirely through the skim, the slowing of credit means a collapse in profits. Once those profits disappear, the ability to make interest payments declines and that slows the system further. GE was close to insolvent within days of the mortgage crisis in 2008.
That is the real lesson of General Electric. The company became something like the old Mafia bust-outs. The whole point of the business was to squeeze every drop of value from clients and divisions. Instead of running up the credit lines and burning down the building for the insurance, General Electric turned the human capital of companies into lease and interest payments. They were not investing and creating, they were monetizing and consuming whatever it touched.
GE came close to collapse in the financial crisis, but they were bailed out. They stagger on, despite having lots of divisions that make high quality products. The cost of unwinding the company back into a normal company will be high, maybe too high for them to survive. The same can be said of the American economy. It will have to be unwound, but there will be no bailout. Instead, it will have to unwind quickly and painfully, in order to become a normal economy again.
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