Business Groups in the US
| Peter Klein |
Diversification continues to be a central issue for strategic management, industrial organization, and corporate finance. There are huge research and practitioner literatures on why firms diversify, how diversification affects financial, operating, and innovative performance, what underlies inter-industry relatedness, how diversification ties into other aspects of firm strategy and organization, whether diversification is driven by regulation or other policy choices, and so on. There are many surveys of these literatures (Lasse and I contributed this one).
Some of the most interesting research deals with the institutional environment. For example, many US corporations were widely diversified in the 1960s and 1970s when the brokerage industry was small and protected by tough legal restrictions on entry, antitrust policy frowned on vertical and horizontal growth (maybe), and a volatile macroeconomic environment encouraged internalization of inter-firm transactions (also maybe). After the brokerage industry was deregulated in 1975, the antitrust environment became more relaxed, and the market for corporate control heated up, many conglomerates were restructured into more efficient, specialized firms. To quote myself:
The investment community in the 1960s has been described as a small, close-knit group wherein competition was minimal and peer influence strong (Bernstein, 1992). As Bhide (1990, p. 76) puts it, “internal capital markets … may well have possessed a signiﬁcant edge because the external markets were not highly developed. In those days, one’s success on Wall Street reportedly depended far more on personal connections than analytical prowess.” When capital markets became more competitive in the 1970s, the relative importance of internal capital markets fell. “This competitive process has resulted in a signiﬁcant increase in the ability of our external capital markets to monitor corporate performance and allocate resources” (Bhide, 1990, p. 77). As the cost of external ﬁnance has fallen, ﬁrms have tended to rely less on internal ﬁnance, and thus the value added from internal-capital-market allocation has fallen. . . .
Similarly, corporate refocusing can be explained as a consequence of the rise of takeover by tender offer rather than proxy contest, the emergence of new ﬁnancial techniques and instruments like leveraged buyouts and high-yield bonds, and the appearance of takeover and breakup specialists like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which themselves performed many functions of the conglomerate headquarters (Williamson, 1992). A related literature looks at the relative importance of internal capital markets in developing economies, where external capital markets are limited (Khanna and Palepu 1999, 2000).
The key reference is to Amar Bhide’s 1990 article “Reversing Corporate Diversification,” which deserves to be better known. But note also the pointer to Khanna and Palepu’s important work on diversified business groups in emerging markets, which has also led to a vibrant empirical literature. The idea there is that weak institutions lead to poorly performing capital and labor markets, leading firms to internalize functions that would otherwise be performed between firms. More generally, firm strategy and organization varies systematically with the institutional environment, both over time and across countries and regions.
Surprisingly, diversified business groups were also common in the US, in the early 20th century, which brings me (finally) to the point of this post. A new NBER paper by Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, and Yishay Yafeh studies these groups and reaches some interesting and provocative conclusions. Check it out:
Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, Yishay Yafeh
NBER Working Paper No. 19691, December 2013
The extent to which business groups ever existed in the United States and, if they did exist, the reasons for their disappearance are poorly understood. In this paper we use hitherto unexplored historical sources to construct a comprehensive data set to address this issue. We find that (1) business groups, often organized as pyramids, existed at least as early as the turn of the twentieth century and became a common corporate form in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly in public utilities (e.g., electricity, gas and transportation) but also in manufacturing; (2) In contrast with modern business groups in emerging markets that are typically diversified and tightly controlled, many US groups were focused in a single sector and controlled by apex firms with dispersed ownership; (3) The disappearance of US business groups was largely complete only in 1950, about 15 years after the major anti-group policy measures of the mid-1930s; (4) Chronologically, the demise of business groups preceded the emergence of conglomerates in the United States by about two decades and the sharp increase in stock market valuation by about a decade, so that a causal link between these events is hard to establish, although there may well be a connection between them. We conclude that the prevalence of business groups is not inconsistent with high levels of investor protection; that US corporate ownership as we know it today evolved gradually over several decades; and that policy makers should not expect policies that restrict business groups to have an immediate effect on corporate ownership.