Clayton M. Christensen: A Capitalist’s Dilemma, Whoever Wins on Tuesday

WHATEVER happens on Election Day, Americans will keep asking the same question: When will this economy get better?
In many ways, the answer won’t depend on who wins on Tuesday. Anyone who says otherwise is overstating the power of the American president. But if the president doesn’t have the power to fix things, who does?
It’s not the Federal Reserve. The Fed has been injecting more and more capital into the economy because — at least in theory — capital fuels capitalism. And yet cash hoards in the billions are sitting unused on the pristine balance sheets of Fortune 500 corporations. Billions in capital is also sitting inert and uninvested at private equity funds.
Capitalists seem almost uninterested in capitalism, even as entrepreneurs eager to start companies find that they can’t get financing. Businesses and investors sound like the Ancient Mariner, who complained of “Water, water everywhere — nor any drop to drink.”
It’s a paradox, and at its nexus is what I’ll call the Doctrine of New Finance, which is taught with increasingly religious zeal by economists, and at times even by business professors like me who have failed to challenge it. This doctrine embraces measures of profitability that guide capitalists away from investments that can create real economic growth.
Executives and investors might finance three types of innovations with their capital. I’ll call the first type “empowering” innovations. These transform complicated and costly products available to a few into simpler, cheaper products available to the many.
The Ford Model T was an empowering innovation, as was the Sony transistor radio. So were the personal computers of I.B.M. and Compaq and online trading at Schwab. A more recent example is cloud computing. It transformed information technology that was previously accessible only to big companies into something that even small companies could afford.
Empowering innovations create jobs, because they require more and more people who can build, distribute, sell and service these products. Empowering investments also use capital — to expand capacity and to finance receivables and inventory.
The second type are “sustaining” innovations. These replace old products with new models. For example, the Toyota Prius hybrid is a marvelous product. But it’s not as if every time Toyota sells a Prius, the same customer also buys a Camry. There is a zero-sum aspect to sustaining innovations: They replace yesterday’s products with today’s products and create few jobs. They keep our economy vibrant — and, in dollars, they account for the most innovation. But they have a neutral effect on economic activity and on capital.
The third type are “efficiency” innovations. These reduce the cost of making and distributing existing products and services. Examples are minimills in steel and Geico in online insurance underwriting. Taken together in an industry, such innovations almost always reduce the net number of jobs, because they streamline processes. But they also preserve many of the remaining jobs — because without them entire companies and industries would disappear in competition against companies abroad that have innovated more efficiently.
Efficiency innovations also emancipate capital. Without them, much of an economy’s capital is held captive on balance sheets, with no way to redeploy it as fuel for new, empowering innovations. For example, Toyota’s just-in-time production system is an efficiency innovation, letting manufacturers operate with much less capital invested in inventory.
INDUSTRIES typically transition through these three types of innovations. By illustration, the early mainframe computers were so expensive and complicated that only big companies could own and use them. But personal computers were simple and affordable, empowering many more people.
Companies like I.B.M. and Hewlett-Packard had to hire hundreds of thousands of people to make and sell PC’s. These companies then designed and made better computers — sustaining innovations — that inspired us to keep buying newer and better products. Finally, companies like Dell made the industry much more efficient. This reduced net employment within the industry, but freed capital that had been used in the supply chain.

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