The current crisis is an opportunity to drive sustainable growth
Corporate governance must now reflect stakeholders’ needs instead of shareholders’ whims. Building an inclusive, sustainable economy depends on productive cooperation among the public and private sectors and civil society. This means firms need to listen to trade unions and workers’ collectives, community groups, consumer advocates, and others.
Likewise, government assistance to business must be less about subsidies, guarantees, and bailouts, and more about building partnerships. This means attaching strict conditions to any corporate bailouts to ensure that taxpayer money is put to productive use and generates long-term public value, not short-term private profits.
In the current crisis, for example, the French government conditioned its bailouts for Renault and Air France-KLM on emission-reduction commitments. France, Belgium, Denmark, and Poland denied state aid to any company domiciled in a European Union-designated tax haven, and barred large recipients from paying dividends or buying back their own shares until 2021. Likewise, US corporations receiving government loans through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act were prohibited from using the funds for share buybacks.
These conditions are a start, but are not ambitious enough, either from a climate perspective or in economic terms. The magnitude of government assistance packages does not match firms’ requirements, and the conditions are not always legally binding: for example, the Air France emissions policy applies only to short domestic flights.
Far more is needed to achieve a green and sustainable recovery. For example, governments might use the tax code to discourage firms from using certain materials. They might also introduce job guarantees at company or national level so that human capital is not wasted or eroded. This would help the youngest and oldest workers, who have disproportionately suffered job losses owing to the pandemic, and reduce the likely economic shocks in disadvantaged regions already suffering industrial decline.
Finance needs fixing, too. During the 2008 global financial crisis, governments flooded markets with liquidity. But, because they did not direct it toward good investment opportunities, much of that funding ended up back in a financial sector unfit for purpose.
The current crisis presents an opportunity to harness finance in productive ways to drive long-term growth. Patient long-term finance is key, because a 3-5-year investment cycle doesn’t match the long lifespan of a wind turbine (more than 25 years), or encourage the innovation needed in e-mobility, natural capital development (such as rewilding programs), and green infrastructure.