Ray Dalio’s Hollow Lament

Hedge fund titan Ray Dalio is just the latest billionaire to call for government to save us from guys like him.  

It’s not pretty. Dalio’s recent article titled “Why and How Capitalism Needs to be Reformed” is a mess, though to be clear it’s a thoroughly well-intentioned and heartfelt mess. It’s a mix of self-effacement (I’m just a lucky guy with good parents who went to good public schools!), dubious statistics concerning the non-problems of wealth and income inequality, and utterly unoriginal, counterproductive proposals for government action. But approving journalists can’t get enough of it, or him, because nothing beats a billionaire’s mea culpa for capitalism. So Dalio, fantastically rich and successful at age 69, finds himself a media darling on financial talk shows after a recent kickoff appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

The article, in two parts, is fairly long. It spends several pages discussing the author’s own background, wage and income inequality, bad schools, lack of child care, lack of health care, and a host of other standard left-liberal complaints. But we can summarize Dalio’s bottom line, as he does in a section called “What I Think Should be Done.” It’s an exercise in bland, meaningless jargon and lack of specifics:

  • Leadership from the top. People with their “hands on the levers of power” (yikes!) need to make inequality a priority. Obviously he means politicians and corporate leaders, and does not intend to lessen the “power” of either. But if bad politicians and greedy corporate types got us into this mess, how will they get us out? More importantly, and left unaddressed, is any suggestion of their incentives to do so. After all, the present system made them rich, powerful, and unaccountable.
  • Bipartisan policy makers working together to “divide and increase the economic pie better.” More politics, which doesn’t work and can’t work. Whose policy? What makes a policy good? Why hasn’t this supposed policy consensus already emerged on its own?
  • Clear metrics and accountability for the “people in charge.” This doesn’t work, and can’t work, in politics. We have centuries of “data” to show how the worst rise to the top of the political world. Government by definition acts outsider the market, and is unaccountable by its very nature as a monopoly. Politicians don’t have a P& L; private businesses do. Again, why does Dalio seem so oblivious to incentives?
  • Redistribution of resources. This doesn’t work and can’t work, except by market processes. Taxes. regulations, economic intervention, and state ownership of industry always reduce total wealth in society. A total nonstarter of a tired and thoroughly debunked idea, especially considering we already have a heavily interventionist economy. We also have the entire history of 20th century collectivism to demonstrate why “third way” interventionism can lead to outright socialism.

Many billionaires—Mr. Dalio, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates among them— like to call for higher taxes on people such as themselves. But this raises a compelling question: would they have become rich in the first place under the kind of  tax system they now advocate? Would they have accumulated a critical mass of investment capital if taxes had consumed more of their profits along the the way? Would they have been able to maintain sufficient capital expenditures in their respective businesses to stay dynamic? Or would revenue, capital, and personal wealth lost to the IRS have relegated these super achievers to the status of merely successful? 

Well-heeled tax hikers never mention the diminishing marginal utility of money. A billionaire could lose 90% of his/her wealth to the state and remain an elite centimillionaire. Higher taxes for billionaires are simply a cost of doing business, like paying 20% more for an acquisition. But for a “rich” American family making $200,000, or even $40,000 by global standards, a 20% higher tax bill might prevent them from ever reaching their own critical mass of savings and wealth. Just as dominant corporations welcome new regulations, financial elites welcome new taxes as a form of protecting their status from upstarts.

Furthermore, there is no indication Mr. Dalio or other wealthy advocates for wealth redistribution ever practiced this idea in their own businesses. Dalio voluntarily could have paid higher taxes, much higher taxes, both to the federal government and his home state of Connecticut. He could have argued for higher capital gains tax rates, and refused to accept “carried interest” treatment of his firm’s income for management services. After all, to paraphrase Warren Buffett, why should Dalio’s secretary pay a higher tax rate than him?  

He also could have equalized pay and ownership among his employees, and hired low-income and low skilled victims of the bad public schools he identifies. He could have run his hedge fund as an employee-owned cooperative. He could have opened his funds to ordinary people with $500 or $1000 to invest.

Perhaps most of all, he could have called for the Federal Reserve to end its practice of keeping interest rates artificially low. Cheap money and credit are the lifeblood of hedge funds, making it possible to buy companies with less equity and more debt—less skin in the game. Leveraged acquisitions allow for fewer shareholders receiving (nondeductible) dividends, along with the tax benefits of deductible interest payments. Cheap leverage made Mr. Dalio billionaire he is today. 

But low interest rates cause tremendous harm to average people who simply want to save money in simple, low-risk vehicles, and they distort the entire economy by producing malinvestment, encouraging consumption over saving, and rewarding high time preference. While Dalio admits the Fed favors rich guys by crafting policy that inflates asset prices instead of wages, he remains blind to the central bank’s role as the primary driver of the wealth inequality he laments.

Mr. Dalio is by all accounts a brilliant and hard-nosed businessman. Hedge funds, at least successful hedge funds, make money by ruthlessly identifying untapped value in organizations, replacing board members and management with fund executives, and selling when the selling is good. So why on earth would he pledge to donate $100 million to Connecticut public schools, a system he admits is failing?  Would he invest in a company with a similar track record of spending more and more each year for worse results? A company where he would have no say in management, board governance, operations, or how it spends his investment? Will he maximize, or even measure, the “return” on his investment in Connecticut public schools? Will he seek to minimize risk, in the form of his $100 million being irretrievably wasted?

The answer to these question is “No”, because he’s not buying a company or making a financial investment. He’s buying goodwill, a form of insurance for billionaires against the growing tide of populist resentment. The infamous Reverend Bacon from Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities comes to mind: Dalio is buying “steam control,” and he’s getting “value for money” as Bacon puts it. He’s buying relief, an indulgence for his sin of getting too rich.

Dalio played the game, by the rules of the game. Now he appears to say, “I’ve got mine, let’s change the rules.”

 

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