Thursday, April 09, 2009

Taleb on Rebuilding Capitalism

A Black Swan in Canberra

Nicholas Taleb has an article in the Financial Times about how he thinks the capitalist system needs to be changed in the wake of the global financial crisis. Roger Nusbaum made some comments on the piece. Taleb's comments are all about making the system more resilient to shocks and some of them make sense in that regard. However, his point that people shouldn't depend on financial assets for their retirement "which they don't control" but instead on "their businesses" that "they control" is problematic. If you've read this blog you'll know that I am all for people being entrepreneurial but on the other hand not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. And risk is very concentrated in most small businesses. While the owner controls management decisions they have no control over the external environment. And though an economy of many small businesses might be more resilient in the face of shocks than one with just a few large ones this isn't true of those businesses themselves. This is why small businesses are usually sold for lower multiples than large businesses. Of course there are some small businesses which are pretty solid like a medical practice, though they still have their risks. But most retail and manufacturing enterprises are at great risk from competition as well as general economic conditions. Farms are at risk from the weather and market prices.

And anyway what is the retiree supposed to do when they "retire"? Sell the business and put the money in financial assets? I guess we might consider land to be a non-financial asset, but it's not risk free either. In pre-industrial economies people could retire by renting their land out to a tenant farmer or relying on their children to feed them.

Realistically, retirement income can only be provided for most people either from financial assets of some sort or from the government taxing productive people and enterprises to pay the retirees. Not everyone has children or could depend on them to look after them. Relying on an employer to pay you a retirement income would be even more risky unless the firm invests in financial assets.

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