Apart from the constant cash burn, the missed production targets, the deaths, defaults and debilitating debt, Tesla was dragged to a further low this month when its CEO publicly slandered a diver involved in the rescue of a youth football team trapped in a cave in Thailand, calling him a paedophile in retaliation for the diver’s defiance of his genius in sending a mini-submarine to rescue the boys.
Despite this and the ensuing threat of litigation, Tesla’s share price registered a bare 2% dip for one trading day before rebounding. As vehement as debates can get in crypto Twitter between developers and disbelievers, never has the conversation dipped to a point where a literal goliath (Musk has 22 million Twitter followers) diminished a minnow opponent so crudely.
Indemnified from real-world consequences by his cult status, if Tesla does succeed with Musk as CEO then the gates of corporate dystopia are wrought for any size ego to fit through (similar to the political indent left by the election of Donald Trump).
Is cryptopia the hippy collective dream?
Crypto has been aggrandized by many as the solution to the evils inherent in corporate governance by automating the monetary incentives and much of the human decision-making processes through node-to-node consensus. While reducing the human contact points would undoubtedly remove error, an egalitarian algorithmically-governed company is still a long way off and shouldn’t be over-romanticized — Tezos being testament to that.
What is clear, however, from projects like Tezos and EOS is that delegated-governance style companies are in big demand, as both projects were the biggest grossing ICOs of their time ($2 billion for EOS and $230m for Tezos).
Tezos, was “created as a self-amending cryptoledger” and future tokens built upon it would work as programmable money that its bearers (stakeholders) could hold to account – for example, a token denominated by a business that could attach to it certain conditions to promote collaboration between its token holders. In effect, these token holders become co-workers and are incentivized to choose optimal governance and monetary decisions.
In his account of the Tezos story for Wired, Gideon Lewis-Kraus brings to life what Tezos envisioned in the real world:
“Deli Dollars, for example, could be put onto Tezos. Everybody who bought a Deli Dollar would get to vote on how they would behave. They could decide, say, that if you help Frank sweep the floors for an hour, your account is credited with five Deli Dollars. Or that if you propose an imaginative new sandwich, Frank will put it on the menu, and you’ll get 2 percent of the proceeds in the form of Deli Dollars. All of the accounting and the settlements would be automated and incorruptible, so there would be no question as to whether the books were kosher…”
“Tezos was designed at least in part for enterprises like Frank’s that might want to operate on a larger scale, or for larger entities that might seek to generate public credibility by outsourcing their accounting to a clear, auditable blockchain.”
Once they got the project off the ground the Tezos founders signed a contract that put the project’s ICO funds out of their reach in case it looked like a personal money-grab and into a foundation over which they had no power. Ultimately, however, Tezos has become an allegory of human interference corrupting egalitarian causes — even the villain of the story was motivated to take on the “too big to fail” corporate model after the global financial crisis.
What listed companies do with billions in cash
Meanwhile, throughout the almost decade-long bull run, many S&P companies have built billion dollar stockpiles in cash and equivalents and can find no better use for it than to buy back their own shares.
In a telling sign, Berkshire Hathaway, the company Warren Buffett founded as his investment vehicle and whose S&P-traded shares are currently valued around $290,000, has adjusted its governance mandate to allow the company to start buying back stock as a way to reduce some of its $100b cash pile, while it’s ‘undervalued’.
Although as widespread as airdrops and coin burns in crypto, stock buybacks have become a controversial practice because, just as Buffett’s investing partner Charlie Munger has warned, many companies appear to be propping up their price with them.
For CEOs, the incentive for share buybacks can be just as self-interested as the motivation for those behind “pump and dump” ICOs, as nearly all CEOs and executives who get the green light on buybacks also hold option positions in their company’s stock and can benefit hugely from the subsequent surge in price by selling at a much higher price than their options strike price.
Elon Musk is also incentivized through stock options to drive Tesla’s share price to the echelons of the world’s biggest companies by market capitalization. Earlier this year shareholders narrowly approved a deal whereby Musk forfeited his earnings for 12 tranches of options over the next decade if Tesla hits 12 market capitalization milestones with him as CEO. The first target is a market cap of $100b, which at current prices means TSLA stock would almost need to double to around $600 per share to hit. Musk’s ultimate goal is to hit a market cap of $650b, a value at which his stock options will be worth over $55b. While this does align him with shareholder interests, it also entrenches Musk in his fight to stay in power amid the flak for his perverse behavior.
The end of empire?
So is the era of omnipotent CEOs like Musk presiding over multiple million and billion-dollar kingdoms going to survive the coming age of mass automation and crypto governance?
Although projects like Tezos and EOS have come in for a lot of flak, the automation of governance, revenue distribution and incentivising a more collaborative business model is not going to cease. This centuries-old top-down business model has enriched a generation of passive shareholders (invested through funds) and elevated the executive class to autocratic rule. The future of humanity is limited in this business model of perpetual share price and revenue growth, though, as new efficiencies must continuously be found in decision-making and production.
This isn’t just crypto-romanticism either, the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, has already started to replace managers with artificial intelligence to automate day-to-day management of the firm, including hiring and firing, to save time and eliminate human emotional volatility.
In socialism, the real world Tezos analogy, the state eventually fails because humans win over their peers. But against cold coded machines, it might take less failed attempts to get closer to a more egalitarian capitalist model where innovations in security tokens open up a whole new monetary incentive model.
As admirable as Elon Musk might be an innovator, he hopefully is — just like Donald Trump — the Nero in a dying age of corporate demagogues empowered by a shareholder mandate to abuse their rank, money and promises, and not the start of a new one.