On Friday’s episode of the “Morning Wire” podcast, bestselling author and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy joined hosts John Bickley and Georgia Howe to discuss Elon Musk’s massive purchase of Twitter stock.
Ramaswamy first noted that Musk’s actions “might be the most promising path for driving cultural change in corporate America and in the market more generally.” Instead of “divestments” or “boycotts,” Musk is “representing the voice of everyday citizens and everyday shareholders as a shareholder, including in the boardroom.”
While he doesn’t know how much the billionaire can tilt the scales at Twitter, Ramaswamy suggested that we are likely to see more “shareholder activism” from others.
“So you’re describing effectively a positive or proactive move rather than a defensive one – adding influence as a shareholder rather than, say, staging a boycott,” Bickley said.
Ramaswamy responded by comparing it to the ESG (environmental, social, governance) movement, which he defined as essentially “a political ideology that says that companies are supposed to take action to advance particular agendas,” such as implementing racial, gender, or sexual orientation-based quotas.
ESG essentially acts as an end-run around the constraints of politics and lawmaking by targeting the market, “where people work, where they bank, where they invest” to achieve particular ends, Ramaswamy said.
He continued, saying that although much focus is on the non-investment angle of ESG, the issue isn’t that companies like BlackRock are “divesting from companies like Exxon,” it’s that they are “invested in companies like Exxon, and they vote for actually new boards of directors as they did last year, voting for three new board members, that changed the purpose of that company.”
This “is distorting the behavior of companies across corporate America,” he added, “in part because BlackRock and State Street and Vanguard, those are the three largest asset managers, they don’t actually represent the shareholders. They’re not the shareholder; they’re the stewards of other people’s money. Everyday citizens’ money. What makes the Elon Musk move really interesting is he’s showing up as an actual shareholder with his money. Now, the top shareholder of Twitter, who’s going to say that I actually, as the shareholder and owner of the company, want to see that company heading in a different direction.”
Bickley suggested that through his actions, Musk is effectively “countering the ESG movement.”
The conversation shifted away from ESG, and toward Twitter specifically, with Ramaswamy suggesting that Musk’s move is important because alternative forms of social media are difficult to expand.
“The reason that’s really hard to do is that you have a network effect that ultimately once you — the platform becomes more valuable based on the more people who are on it, and you have an incumbency bias and there’s all kinds of algorithms and table stakes that you have set up as an existing behemoth that make it really hard in a natural monopoly business,” he said.
But what Musk has done is bring “true diversity and true competition, not to the marketplace of products, but to the marketplace of ideas in the boardroom of the company.”
Ramaswamy cited late economist Milton Friedman, who said social value can’t be advanced at the expense of shareholders. However, he said what certain companies such as Blackrock and Vanguard have done is purchase shares in corporations, then turn around and claim that they can indeed advance social value.
“One of the ways it’s false is it’s not actually their money,” Ramaswamy said. “It’s the money of everyday citizens who are the actual shareholders who disagree with the voice they’re bringing to the boardroom.”
“They threw a tripwire in the system of classical shareholder capitalism,” he added. “What Elon Musk is doing [is] saying, you wanna play that game, too? [I] can play that game actually.”
“Time will tell whether he actually brings that different voice or whether he merely joins the managerial class by now joining the board — but I’m optimistic that even if he doesn’t do it here or doesn’t go all the way here, he’s paved a path to show us the right way forward, which is actually exercising our voices as citizens, but also as shareholders in America,” Ramaswamy concluded.
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