The book that I would recommend to anybody wishing to understand the economy is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Not as a book to replace all the books that can be found in the economics section of any library, but as a first text which to give a good grounding in all things economic. What any budding economist needs to know about the economy is that things are not as they appear. Alice is able to get through a door for which she is to tall by drinking from a bottle labelled ‘drink me’. After drinking that she shrinks in size to such an extent she is now able to walk through the door. She can be both giant and of normal stature in Wonderland. Later in the book she meets the Cheshire cat, who not only can become invisible but is able to become visible in place other than that in which he first appeared. What the good economist should do is to be prepared to surrender their belief in a world of common sense. Just as for Alice the rabbit hole is a portal to another world, so a public corporation can equally be a portal to a world in which strange behaviours predominate.
One good example of this strange new world of economics is the strange behaviour of Starbucks. I was puzzled when I read that Costa Coffee a British coffee shop chain was more profitable than Starbucks. Starbucks seemed to be everywhere and I could see no evidence from what I observed that the business was doing badly. Then on reading more I realised that is was yet another example of a company not wanting to earn profits. Yet all the textbooks state that all businesses are profit maximisers. Profits earned are subject to corporation tax, so companies will do all they can to minimise their profits and tax bills. This is usually done by having a head office located in a low tax country such as Eire and that head office then imposes such a high level of charges on the business (for services provided) that the profits are reduced to such a low level that the company is either ceases to be liable for tax or it only has to pay a minimal amount.
However the process becomes stranger and stranger the more it is examined. Usually the ‘charges’ that are paid to the Head Office are through a chain of offshore companies remitted to the multinationals homeland. Yet the profits declared then are only small part of the companies income. Such companies sit on vast cash piles which are located in various tax havens. This cash pile increases the companies wealth and the price of its shares. Shareholders are in many cases happy to have a reduced dividend but a reduction more than balanced by an increase in the value of their shareholding. Banks recognise that the shares held in such as Starbucks, Apple. Google etc. are extremely valuable assets. They will then lend large sums of money to these people against the security offered by there shares. These loans which are rolled over from year to year and which can be increased in line with the increase in the value of these shares. Loans have the advantage of not being income and are therefore exempt from tax. Many shareholders are content to enjoy their income in this way. Although there are a significant number who would still want to enjoy a cash return from their investment.
There is a passage in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ where Alice comes across a group of the Red Queen’s servants painting white rose red. This because the Queen wanted red roses and they mistakenly planted white roses. They hope that the Queen won’t notice the red paint. Similarly there is the many thousands of financial advisers who role in life is to paint earned income as anything but earned income. Anything that is either not liable for tax or which is taxed lightly. Unlike the Red Queens gardeners they are very successful in that the tax authorities never see through the disguise.
Apple is described as the world’s largest business. Although they are the company with the largest sales revenue are not necessarily the most profitable. Much of the profit earned is changed into something quite different, such as a charge to Head Office at least in all the European countries. What profit Apple declares is largely resting in some offshore tax haven beyond the reach of the US tax inspector.
What any economist needs to realise is that to understand the behaviour of multi-national companies,is that the economics textbook is of little use. The book describes the behaviour of an ideal and imagined company, not a real one.
I could go further and relate other features of the book to the real economy. There are frequent examples in the book of nonsense verse, such as the song of the Walrus and the Carpenter. What the economist needs to know is that in the real world economy there are plenty such similar examples. All too often when a company goes bankrupt it is usually one that has received a successful audit. The auditors seem unable to notice those gaping black holes in the company accounts. This is because they use a set of industry agreed accounting conventions when analysing the companies accounts, conventions that serve to conceal rather than reveal mismanagement and a shortage of funds. While company accounts are not nonsense verse, they are often intended to deceive as often as they are intended to reveal the true state of a company’s affairs.
Politicians come the nearest to uttering nonsense verse on the economy. They are found of uttering what seem to be profound mantras on matters of the economy, but which are in fact meaningless phrases. Phrases such as the country has ‘maxed out its credit card’ a phrase uttered by a politician, when his government was doing all it could to encourage a borrowing binge to kick start the economy back to life.
Why I recommend Lewis Carroll’s book for any budding economist is that it reveals to the reader a strange world that is and is not ours. It prepares for them recognising the unfamiliar and strange amongst the familiar and it is often the strange and unfamiliar that make seemingly inexplicable behaviour explicable. Conventional or bad economists are unable to see beyond the fog that is the received economic wisdom. This is why these economists were unable to see the financial crash of 2008 looming in front of them, when all the danger signals were showing red.