Taskrabbits all the way down

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In May 2013 shareholders voted to break up the Timken Company—a $5 billion Ohio manufacturer of tapered bearings, power transmissions, gears, and specialty steel—into two separate businesses. Their goal was to raise stock prices. The company, which makes complex and difficult products that cannot be easily outsourced, employs 20,000 people in the United States, China, and Romania. Ward “Tim” Timken, Jr., the Timken chairman whose family founded the business more than a hundred years ago, and James Griffith, Timken’s CEO, opposed the move.

The shareholders who supported the breakup hardly looked like the “barbarians at the gate” who forced the 1988 leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. This time the attack came from the California State Teachers Retirement System pension fund, the second-largest public pension fund in the United States, together with Relational Investors LLC, an asset management firm. And Tim Timken was not, like the RJR Nabisco CEO, eagerly pursuing the breakup to raise his own take. But beneath these differences are the same financial pressures that have shaped corporate structure for thirty years.

Urging Timken shareholders to vote for the split, Relational Investors argued that they should want “pure-play” companies, focused on a single industrial activity. Investors would then be free to balance their portfolios by selecting businesses in industrial sectors with varying degrees of risk and sensitivity to different phases of economic cycles. A firm such as Timken—about one-third a steel company (a materials play) and about two-thirds a bearings and power transmission business (an industrial components play)—would lock investors into a mix that, Relational Investors claimed, leads to a discount on share price.

Timken management argued that making both materials and products enabled them to bring to market higher-quality goods that met customers’ needs: for example, their ultra-large bearings for windmill towers, which measure two meters in diameter, weigh four tons, and have to stand up to extreme wind and temperature conditions. Controlling the entire value chain, they said, allowed them to fine-tune the attributes of the steel in order to make superior products. Nonetheless, the financial calculation about how to maximize quarterly returns won out.

The financialization of society is not a story that simply plays out in the bigwig corporate world, between negotiations on mergers and acquisitions and divestments. Every new venture, it seems – Airbnb, Uber, Taskrabbit, and all its equivalents – all are a breaking down of resources into ever smaller consumable units optimized for the best value. In this, Wall Street and Silicon Valley speak the same language, despite the superficial differences in attire and hangout venues, so that anyone that looks for an alternative is effectively a luddite and/or a liberal.

The trouble is that we have these seven billion people in the world in between that cannot be as easily optimized. When I think of Amazon and its possible future of being the largest retailer in the world without having a single salesperson or someone in the warehouse, I think, will people boycott Amazon for its status as a non-employer (as consumers do right now for companies that do animal testing, etc), or will they have no choice but to continue being a customer because it is Amazon that will be offering the lowest prices – an important fact, especially to those out of a job.

Article via Boston Review


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