Forget socialism – shareholder capitalism is delivering

Many Millennials say they would prefer to live in a socialist society. That's understandable. But while socialism promises everyone ownership and power, it has never actually delivered. Shareholder capitalism, on the other hand, does deliver.

Earlier this year asset manager Standard Life Aberdeen renamed itself abrdn. This is a very silly name for many reasons: not having vowels is silly; not having a capital letter is silly (particularly at the beginning of sentences). But there is good news: the company is not as silly as it sounds (which is why I sit on the board of an investment trust it manages). It has a new advertising campaign on the go, and it’s pretty good.

Instead of the vague inanities you get with most financial advertising (which suggest it all has something to do with teeth whitening and holidays) the firm has actually had a go at explaining what investing is – the financing of the companies that actually do the stuff that keep the economy going. “When you invest in this”, says the TV ad, over video of a construction site, “you invest in this”, over video of happy people at a football match. The same trick is used for scientific research (you see labs, then a child with a prosthetic limb) and hospital equipment. The radio ad takes a similar tack. The idea, says abrdn, is to reframe investment as “an ability – the power to change, not just your future but lots of futures, for the better”.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? It is. Over the last decade, capitalism has taken a bit of a bashing: more than 60% of UK Millennials think they would like to live in a socialist society; we think they probably wouldn’t. We also think that if they understood that they mostly own shares (via pension auto-enrolment) and that their ownership gives them power, they might change their minds. After all, while socialism promises everyone ownership and power, it has never actually delivered; shareholder capitalism is delivering. There’s a hill to climb to before that is fully grasped in the UK – a recent survey found only 35% of adults know that their pension contributions go into shares – but campaigns such as this will surely help.

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That said, there is one problem with the campaign. It suggests that investing is a type of soft, fluffy and mostly-green do-goodery (“...when your investments do good things so can you”) that mostly goes right. That isn’t necessarily so. Investing can also mean capital losses, miserable retirement and failed technologies. And to be properly diversified (and more certain of getting the returns you need) you might find you have to put your money into things that are morally more complicated than prosthetic limbs for children. Right now many markets are expensive, and nearly all are fragile – see page 6 for the various breakdowns and recoveries caused by the Omicron variant in even the four days since its apparent discovery.

Recent history suggests you should buy every dip. Long-term history says that given valuations and obviously non-transient inflation you should buy only very carefully. What counts as careful? Take oil. There is no bit in the abrdn ad pointing out that when you invest in petrocarbons you also invest, for example, in the sulphur that makes much of the fertiliser that helps maintain global food security. But you do. Lithium mines may not feel fluffy either – but we need it and there’s a supply and demand mismatch that makes the sector look attractive. You might also look at emerging markets: buying into Turkey, Russia or South Africa might not feel comfortable right now, and certainly doesn’t come with a soothing voiceover, but there is often good reason to buy what others shun.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.