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Financialization, Globalization and the Making of Profits by Leading Retailers

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From the beginning of the 1990s up until 2007, leading retailers experienced a slowdown of their growth in domestic markets and yet generated an opposite upward trend in return on equity (ROE). This apparent paradox is examined through an analysis of the 10 main retailers' accounts. Focusing on the links between financialization and globalization processes, this article examines a variety of complementary ways of making profits implemented within the industry to satisfy impatient shareholders: foreign expansion, financialization of assets, deterioration of suppliers' and workers' positions and the use of working capital management to transform market power into financial gains.
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Financialization, globalization and the making
of profits by leading retailers
Ce
´line Baud1,* and Ce
´dric Durand2
1
Accounting and Management Control Department, HEC International Business School Paris, Jouy-en-Josas, France;
2
CEPN Centre d’E
´conomie de l’Universite
´Paris Nord, CNRS French National Centre for Scientific Research and University
of Paris 13, Villetaneuse, France
*
Correspondence: cdurand@ehess.fr
From the beginning of the 1990s up until 2007, leading retailers experienced a
slowdown of their growth in domestic markets and yet generated an opposite
upward trend in return on equity (ROE). This apparent paradox is examined
through an analysis of the 10 main retailers’ accounts. Focusing on the links
between financialization and globalization processes, this article examines a
variety of complementary ways of making profits implemented within the indus-
try to satisfy impatient shareholders: foreign expansion, financialization of assets,
deterioration of suppliers’ and workers’ positions and the use of working capital
management to transform market power into financial gains.
Keywords: financialization, globalization, retail industry, accounting, power,
distribution
JEL classification: F23 multinational firms, international business, L14 transac-
tional relationships, contracts and reputation, networks, M41 accounting
Financialization and globalization are usually analysed separately, and may even
be considered alternative uses of capital, competing with investment in oper-
ational domestic activities. Milberg (2008), in contrast, suggests that globaliza-
tion and financialization should be analysed as interrelated tendencies, given
that off-shoring allows firms to diminish their input costs and shrink the scope
of their productive activities, which reduces their productive investment and
operating costs. Such reorganization frees up financial resources to increase
share buybacks and dividends in order to satisfy shareholders.
This article proposes to point out other interdependencies between financia-
lization and globalization by studying two additional aspects of these interrelated
processes: the internationalization of sales operations, and the development of
financial investments and operations by non-financial firms. In order to
address these issues, we focus on the retail sector, since it is particularly relevant
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to the processes mentioned by Milberg (2008, p. 26) and also to the complemen-
tary aspects we point out. From the beginning of the 1990s until 2007, leading
retailers became highly financialized firms and experts in global supply, pro-
duction and sales strategies. Moreover, despite a downturn in sales growth on
domestic markets, retailers increased their return on equity (ROE).
We first point out that the development of international and financial oper-
ations contributed to retailers’ continuing capacity to provide high returns to
shareholders. However, we argue that looking at these processes separately does
not fully account for the upward trend in ROE. Their accumulation and combi-
nation over time also produce dynamic gains that sustain high levels of financial
profitability for the retailers. Globalization has improved the retailers’ position
vis-a
`-vis their suppliers and their workers, allowing them to obtain more favour-
able organizational and financial arrangements. Financialization and globaliza-
tion are thus considered combined cumulative processes that are jointly
beneficial to leading retailers.
Beyond the case of retail, our results point to the mechanisms that are fuelling
a global shift of economic power from workers to capital and, within capital, from
industrial capital to financial and commercial capital. Financialization, we argue,
both sustains and propagates itself through the power relationships framed by
globalization processes. In particular, we demonstrate the crucial role played in
the retail sector by management of financial relationships at the expense of sta-
keholders. We suggest that this phenomenon carries a more general relevance
and that its identification helps to explain how financialized capitalism develops,
and highlights some of its contradictions.
Section 1 presents our sample data and our initial observations. Looking at the
10 main retailers’ accounts since the early 1990s,
1
we clearly observe a downward
trend in domestic sales growth for almost all of them. However, their ROE fol-
lowed an opposite upward trend over this period, increasing from an average
level of 11.9% between 1990 and 1995 to an average level of 16% between 2002
and 2007. In 2007, average ROE reached the unprecedented level of 23.9%.
This apparent paradox is presented as a ‘puzzle’ to be solved.
Sections 2 and 3 focus on our first set of hypotheses to solve this puzzle: the
firms’ entry into new and more profitable fields of activities through
1
We end our study in 2007, on the eve of the financial and economic crises, because we believe that
retailers’ reactions to it could be a subject of interest for another paper to be achieved as soon as
reliable data with enough length to allow for consistent conclusions become available.
Unfortunately, retailers’ annual reports are usually published some months after the reference year,
and our experience during this present work is that the most recent information released is much
less reliable than that issued the following year. Reliable information on 2008 can be found in 2009
annual reports issued in the first half of 2010. To get some longitudinal data, it is therefore
necessary to wait at least until the first half of 2011 (data on 2008 and 2009) or even until 2012.
Page 2 of 26 C. Baud and C. Durand
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internationalization and financialization of investments and/or operations. We
identify a wave of internationalization that started in the mid-1990s and then a
wave of financialization that reached a peak in 2004. These two ‘waves’ of inter-
nationalization and financialization had transformed the industry into a highly
globalized and financialized one by the eve of the 2008 crisis. However, inter-
national expansion slowed down dramatically at the beginning of the 2000s,
suggesting that the most profitable opportunities had been exhausted or that
financialization was then more attractive (Section 2). The development of finan-
cial activities also slowed down after 2004, just at the time when profitability
entered its upward trend and reached unprecedented highs (Section 3).
We argue that if financial activities and international activities need time to be
efficiently controlled and fully profitable, then the sudden growth of profitability
observed for the years 2004 2007 also reflects some dynamic gains obtained
through the globalization and financialization of the sector during the preceding
10 years. This second set of hypotheses is explored in Sections 4 and 5. We
propose that the increase in ROE and the share of profits distributed may
result from the changes caused jointly by globalization and financialization in
the relationships between retailers and their stakeholders, especially workers
and suppliers. We first argue that retailers have derived operational advan-
tages—in the form of lower wages or prices, resulting in higher profits—from
the increased power they acquired with globalization (Section 4). Then, we
show that they also took advantage of their power position to derive financial
benefits from the reorganization of the industry value chain (Section 5). While
supply chain management processes and technologies have drastically reduced
the amount of capital tied up in inventories, the main retailers have been able
to maintain or even extend their supplier payment period, consequently retaining
for their own use the huge amounts of cash that are due mostly to the suppliers,
but also to workers. Free appropriation of workers’ and suppliers’ capital is thus
used to replace part of stockholders’ and bankers’ remunerated capital. For an
industry such as retail—where current assets management is of extreme impor-
tance for profitability—this forced funding is crucial in explaining the outstand-
ing increases in ROE and, more generally speaking, of distributed value to
shareholders (DVS) observed during this period.
The term ‘financialization’ is used heavily throughout this article. We should
therefore define it precisely. In a general sense, financialization refers to the trans-
formation of the relationship between financial markets and non-financial cor-
porations. At the firm level, financialization is ‘a pattern of accumulation in
which profits accrue primarily through financial channels rather than through
trade and commodity production’ (Krippner, 2005, pp. 174– 175). However,
we suggest that a distinction should be made between three main dimensions:
(1) financialization of objectives refers to the implementation of shareholder
Financialization, globalization and profits by retailers Page 3 of 26
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value norms, whose concrete consequences are an increase of the financial flows
from non-financial corporations to the financial sector; (2) financialization of
investment refers to the increasing share of financial assets owned by non-
financial firms; and (3) financialization of operations refers to the development
of financial activities and relationships, notably offered to customers and/or
imposed on workers and suppliers, by non-financial firms. The forms 1 and 2
are consistent with most of the macro-analyses of the financialization process
that stress the link between financialization and slow accumulation. In contrast,
form 3 adds a new dimension of the financialization process that could hardly be
captured at the macro level: the search for financial gains by non-financial cor-
porations from the routine transactions conducted mainly with their stake-
holders. This paper shows that retailers are becoming more and more
financialized in all three senses.
2
1. A neoliberal retail puzzle: slowdown of sales growth and
increasing returns to shareholders
Our research is based on an analysis of consolidated financial accounts of a sample
of the top 10 retailers by group sales published on the Osiris database under the
so-called global detailed format (Table 1).
3
It includes the top five international
retailers with consolidated published accounts available.
4
Such a sample of firms
allows us to capture the financialization phenomenon for the main internationa-
lized and non-internationalized firms. We have analysed the data from 1990, when
globalization gained momentum, up to the first jolts of the global financial and
economic meltdown in 2007; at the sectoral level, it is the period when consolida-
tion and foreign expansion by leading retailers really took off.
Unless explicitly mentioned, the data are in current US$. Wherever possible,
we have used ratios instead of monetary amounts in order to limit distortions
related to the influence of exchange rates and inflation. Data analyses have
been occasionally completed using the firms’ annual reports and Euromonitor’s
reports on their financial and strategic situations.
2
Hereafter, we will refer to these forms as Financialization 1, 2 and 3.
3
Osiris is a database of financial information, ratings, earning estimates, stock data and news on
globally listed public companies published by the Bureau Van Dijk on http://osiris.bvdep.com. All
company reports were downloaded on August 18, 2008 under the ‘global detailed format’ in
current US$. The ‘global detailed format’ is a global format: its presentation is the same for all
companies regardless of national templates. It is also the most detailed of the formats available.
4
That is, without Aldi, whose accounts are not consolidated, and Schwarz (Lidl), ‘a company
characterized by its secrecy and that does not publish accounts’; see Euromonitor International
(2008, pp. 6– 12).
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Between 1990 and 2007, the main retailers experienced a tremendous expan-
sion of sales, amounting to an average of 550% growth, whereas the G7 GDP and
the world GDP in current US$ grew by only 112 and 140%, respectively
(Figure 1). This expansion of the leading retailers was driven by a powerful
Figure 1 Growth of total revenue, 1990 2007.
Table 1 Ten main retailers by group sales and revenue in 2007
Rank
Name of
company
Country
of origin
Total revenue
(US$ billion)
International
sales (percentage
of total, 2007)
1 Wal-Mart USA 378.8 19.9
2 Carrefour France 122.6 51.8
3 Metro Germany 97 52.8
4 Tesco UK 94.6 21.9
5 Kroger USA 70.2 0
6 Costco USA 64.4 15.8
7 Target USA 63.4 0
8 Home Depot USA 52 6.6
9 Sears USA 50.7 0
a
10 Ahold Netherlands 41.4 73.5
Source: Total operating revenue and disaggregation of sales in geographic segments as provided by Osiris.
Notes: Total revenue includes net revenue from sales (typically more than 97%) and other operating revenues,
such as rental income and franchise fees.
a
Sears operates in Mexico and Canada, but a disaggregation of the sales in geographic segments is not
available.
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wave of mergers and acquisitions in ‘mature’ and often increasingly tightly regu-
lated markets (see Moati, 2001;Guy, 2006;Wood et al., 2006;Askenazy and Wein-
denfeld, 2008, for the cases of France and the UK), by complementarities between
the size of the chains and the scope of their business (Basker, 2007) and by a burst
of foreign direct investments (FDIs) in retail in the second half of the 1990s.
Retail expansion has, however, significantly lost strength with a slowdown in
the growth of the main retailers’ domestic revenues (Figure 2)—more pro-
nounced in 2000 than in the 1990s—in spite of the numerous merger and acqui-
sition (M&A) operations, revealed in the figure by the relatively high volatility of
the series.
Moreover, international expansion did not totally compensate for the slow-
down in domestic growth. As a consequence, as shown in Figure 3, total
revenue growth has slowed down since the mid-1990s.
However, Figure 3illustrates a quite surprising evolution: while there has been
a clear trend towards lower rates of total revenue growth, the return on share-
holders’ equity has been moving in the opposite direction.
More specifically, we can distinguish three periods: first, from 1990 to the
mid-1990s, a period of concomitant decrease of ROE and revenue growth;
second, from the mid-1990s to the financial crisis of 2001, a temporary accelera-
tion in revenue growth and profitability as retailers expanded sharply abroad;
third, since 2003, after the turmoil of the dot-com crisis, divergent paths of profit-
ability and revenue growth.
Figure 2 Annual growth rate of domestic sales.
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Moreover, this evolution has not been created by leverage policies to increase
the return for shareholders. On the contrary, on average, the companies have
reduced indebtedness throughout almost the entire period. Long-term debts rep-
resented up to 43.5% of non-current liabilities in 1992, steadily decreasing to a
minimum of 30.8% in 2006.
As presented in Figure A1,
5
the two leaders, Wal-Mart and Carrefour, as well as
Costco and Home Depot, perfectly embody the situation presented above. The
four of them faced a slowdown of revenue growth at the beginning of the
1990s. They were able to limit the decline for a while, in the late 1990s and
early 2000s, and Carrefour even succeeded in reversing the trend. But since the
mid-2000s, they have once again been facing huge slowdowns of revenue
growth. Surprisingly, they have at the same time maintained their ROE, and
even increased it in the most recent period, making the two curves radically
divergent.
However, there is some heterogeneity within our sample. Tesco, Metro, Kroger
and Ahold had slower paths of growth at the beginning of the 1990s. Tesco even
had negative growth. The four of them improved their rhythms of growth until
the mid-1990s and the slowdown of the late 1990s. Tesco, Metro and Kroger
had a new, but weaker, pace of growth in the 2000s and steadily increased their
ROE over the whole period. Ahold entered negative growth in the mid-2000s.
Like Home Depot, its fast development in the 1990s contrasts with its present
Figure 3 Growth of revenue and ROE.
5
Figures A1– A16 are presented in the supplementary file available online.
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situation, but both of them present among the highest ROE at the end of the
period. Sears is the only one that really distinguishes itself within our sample,
since it hardly grew at all during the 1990s and suddenly expanded in the
mid-2000s—thanks to a merger with Kmart, which also revived after almost
10 years of negative results with a consistent ROE. Finally, Target distinguishes
itself with an annual growth rate of 10% over almost the whole period (except
in the mid-2000s, when it fell to 5%). Its case is, however, consistent with our
general observations because this stable rate of growth sharply contrasts with
the steady rise, and then acceleration, of the ROE during the mid-2000s, just
when growth was slowing down.
This evolution suggests a financialization (1) of objectives in the retail indus-
try, the concrete consequences of which are an increase in the financial flows from
non-financial corporations to the financial sector (Dumenil and Levy, 2000;
Aglietta and Bretton, 2001;Orhangazi, 2008). Figure A2 shows that there is
indeed such a financialization of profit. Using the distinction between DVS,
used, for example, by Montalban (2008), and distributed value to banks, we
can show that the increase of the share of profit distributed to the financial
sector mainly benefits shareholders.
Moreover, as shown in Figure A3, the share of profit distributed to share-
holders reached a historical high in the most recent period (20022007) for all
the firms in our sample except Metro, which already had high redistribution
rates in the previous periods, and Carrefour, which had an intensive redistribu-
tion policy at the beginning of the 1990s.
The acceleration of financial flows from retailers to the financial sector while
growth is slowing down appears to be quite paradoxical, confronting us with a
puzzle that calls for further explanation.
2. Internationalization as a temporary substitute for domestic
growth
The late 1990s witnessed a powerful wave of retail internationalization
(Figure A4), as leading retailers from Europe and the USA entered new
markets, especially in developing countries (Coe, 2004;Dawson et al., 2006;
Reardon et al., 2007;Wrigley and Lowe, 2007). This spectacular process was
made possible by their ability to leverage their increasing core-market scale
and free cash flow for expansionary investment (Wrigley, 2000). Moreover,
access to low-cost capital and, most significantly, policies of full or partial liberal-
ization of FDI in the retail sector in many emerging economies favoured such a
move.
As shown in Figure A5, the main leading retailers operate internationally. This
international expansion began or accelerated as the firms experienced a
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slowdown in their domestic sales, mostly during the second half of the 1990s
(Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Metro, Ahold, Costco, Tesco). It allowed them to reduce
or temporarily check the slowdown in total revenue growth. Among the firms
which did not expand internationally, various explanations can be found. In
the case of Sears (its operations in Mexico do not appear in the data base), it
seems that the company was performing too poorly to invest abroad. The case
of Home Depot is somewhat atypical: it is the importance of domestic growth
prospects in its specific market (furniture and household appliances) which
explains late internationalization. Kroger and Tesco grew slowly but steadily on
the domestic market, with Kroger expanding the scale of its operations sharply
in 1999 by acquiring Fred Meyer, Inc. Contrary to the previous decade, the
2000s have been characterized by a slowdown (Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Metro,
Ahold) or even a reversal (Costco) of the dynamism of foreign operations,
Tesco being the only firm to accelerate its internationalization in that period.
The main period of retail internationalization was thus from the mid-1990s to
2001. Afterwards, some firms were struck by the successive financial crises in
emerging countries from Asia to Argentina and by the dot-com crisis or wea-
kened by their high level of debt. Greater priority was then given to the financial
performance of international operations, with selective divestments in underper-
forming markets (in the case of Wal-Mart and Carrefour, see Durand and
Wrigley, 2009).
In order to explain this wave of internationalization, a sectoral reformulation
of the argument of the classical theories of imperialism (Hilferding, 1910;Luxem-
burg, 1913;Lenin, 1916) may be helpful. These theories stress that due to dom-
estic over-accumulation, capital in general has to look abroad to find new
profitable investment opportunities and new outlets. A sectoral transposition
of the argument suggests that foreign expansion provides a means to pursue
the accumulation of retail capital despite limited prospects in domestic
markets. But such a strategy only makes sense if recycling the excess capital
embedded in a specific branch in another sector appears less profitable or
more risky than expanding the same business abroad. This point is particularly
pertinent when capital is strongly and durably embedded in one firm, as in the
case of family ownership, which plays an important role in firms such as
Wal-Mart and Carrefour. Moreover, considering each firm as a pool of resources
and a collective knowledge system (Penrose, 1959;Nelson and Winter, 1982;
Horsmann and Markusen, 1989), internationalization appears to be one way to
pursue the growth of the firm (Kay, 2000). Last but not least, the retail industry
is somewhat similar to the core industries described by Crotty (2000) where the
process of capital accumulation is deeply embedded in a specific sector. First,
as the activity is not subject to the law of diminishing returns, there are
strong incentives to increase the scale of operations, possibly through
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internationalization. Moreover, as the assets of the firms are significantly
immobile, irreversible or specific, they lose substantial value if they are reallocated
to a different industry or sold on a second-hand market. Such large economies of
scale and prohibitive sunk costs prevent withdrawal from the business and con-
stitute strong incentives to acquire complementary assets—possibly abroad—
insofar as they can positively affect the valuation of the firm.
In addition to this first range of motivations, the possibility of competitive
advantages deriving from ‘idea gaps’ in developing economies (Romer, 1993)
also acts as a strong incentive for international expansion. Unfortunately, detailed
information about the profitability of retailers’ operations abroad is not available
in the Osiris Database. However, a study by Durand and Wrigley (2009) corrobo-
rates the existence of such a skills/global-scale gap between international retailers
and their incumbent competitors. Indeed, the varying fortunes of Wal-Mart and
Carrefour expansions show that the ‘first mover’ advantage is a key element of
success for international retailers entering new markets. The Mexican case pro-
vides additional examples. A comparison between the return on assets (ROA)
evolution of the transnational corporation Wal-Mart and that of its Mexican sub-
sidiary is striking (Figure A6): between 1998—1 year after Wal-Mart took a
majority stake in Mexican retailer Cifra—and 2007, ROA remained almost
steady at the level of the consolidated company, while it increased sharply in
WalMex. This reflects the expansion of operating scale and the benefits of pro-
gressive implementation of technological know-how and management skills
from the parent company. At the same time, the gap widened between Walmex
and its closest Mexican competitors, who lost ground in terms of both sales
and profitability, as Wal-Mart took advantage of its edge in scale and
know-how (Durand, 2009).
The captive embeddedness of capital in the retail industry and the advantages
deriving from the idea gap do not exhaust the motivations behind retail’s inter-
national expansion. Other elements must be mentioned: the partial protection
against national economic cycles through geographical diversification (Pitelis,
2000); the positive impact on the firm’s innovation record of the clash between
the domestic background and new market conditions (Cantwell, 1995;
Dunning and Wymbs, 1999 and, for an overview on retail, Dawson and
Mukoyama, 2006); and, finally, the efficiency gains as firms are partially freed
from the social and political constraints linked to territorialization (Andreff,
1996;Saint-Etienne and Le Cacheux, 2005) through manipulation of internal
prices and modification of the capitalization of their subsidiaries.
6
6
French retailers have been accused of avoiding up to 1 billion euros in taxes through financial
affiliates in Switzerland (Le Figaro, 2008).
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This pattern of foreign expansion, along with the wave of mergers and acqui-
sitions in the second half of the 1990s, explains the short-lived break in the down-
ward trend of growth rates during the second half of the 1990s and the first rise in
ROE up to the turn of the millennium. The exhaustion of opportunities to exploit
a first mover position and an economic environment troubled by successive
financial crises in developing countries explain why the trend towards more inter-
nationalization of operations slowed after 2001. This timetable suggests that
financialization of investment (Financialization 2) may be an alternative to inter-
nationalization of operations.
3. Financialization as an alternative to internationalization
The end of the 1990s marked the beginning of the rise of financial investment by
retailers (Financialization 2). As shown in Figure A7, the financial assets/total
assets ratio began to increase in 1997 and grew more rapidly after 2002. This
acceleration occurred just after the surge of international expansion, even in a
period marked by a reduction in the average share of international sales. This
suggests that financialization could have been used as an alternative to internatio-
nalization for firms facing limited—or even disappointing—growth prospects
abroad.
This shift towards more financial investment to the detriment of tangible
investment has contributed to the prolongation of a dramatic fall of the
growth rate of tangible assets from 18% at the beginning of the 1990s towards
less than 10% in the 2000s. This downward trend has only been briefly inter-
rupted by the foreign expansion at the end of the 1990s. This evolution
towards more financial investments and a slower accumulation of tangible
assets is consistent with the literature on financialization, which points out that
firms have diverted a growing proportion of their incoming cash flows from
investment in fixed capital (Dumenil and Levy, 2004;Stockhammer, 2004;
Froud et al., 2005;Krippner 2005;Aglietta and Berrebi, 2007;Bauer,etal.,
2008). The shareholder revolution and the development of a market for corporate
control have led to a substantial transformation of management behaviour in
order to satisfy the cash payments required by impatient financial markets
(Lazonick and O’Sullivan, 2000;Crotty, 2005).
This new behaviour is detrimental to real investment through two kinds of
mechanisms (Orhangazi, 2008). First, increased payment to financial markets
in the form of interest payments, dividend payments and stock buybacks may
hinder real investment by reducing internal funds and shortening the planning
horizons of the firm management. Second, increased financial profit opportu-
nities may diminish real investment because firms will prefer to invest in financial
assets and activities. This is all the more important in the retail sector as profitable
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opportunities for real investments are reduced by a wide range of factors such as
the maturation of markets, stricter regulations, sluggish consumer demand and
increasing competition.
In addition, in a business environment characterized by a high level of uncer-
tainty, the preference for liquid assets tends to increase. Financial investments
may thus be considered a kind of ‘wait-and-see’ strategy.
Ahold clearly illustrates the first of these mechanisms: despite facing difficul-
ties at the beginning of the 2000s, at the end of 2003 it undertook a vast plan of
international divestment of ‘non-strategic’ assets to reconstitute distributing
capacities. By the end of 2004, Ahold had already put 14% of its net assets up
for sale, generating a huge increase in the share of financial assets. Sudden finan-
cialization may also reflect strategic choices other than international divestment.
Sears illustrates another tendency of the retail sector that also involves at least
brief financialization: merging. In 2004, Kmart, preparing its merger with
Sears, had to gather the funds to pay a cash consideration to those former
Sears’ shareholders who preferred cash payments in lieu of the stock issued by
the new merged company. It retained all 2004 earnings ($1.1 billion) and
raised the rest of the funds needed from financial markets, adding $2.3 billion
(38% of its previous total assets) to its $2.7 billion financial reserves in order
to redistribute them to the former Sears’ shareholders. This operation also con-
tributed to the 2004 increase in financial assets of our sample.
The acceleration of financialization in 2004 also reflects the more indirect,
long-term strategy of substitution of operational activities and investment by
financial activities and investment.
First, in a period of rising markets—as was the case between 2002 and 2007—
financial investments offer managers an opportunity to generate incomes and
satisfy impatient shareholders. Evidence from Sears is highly illustrative of this
logic: in the third quarter of 2006, the retailer earned more than half its net
income from highly risky investments in derivatives, boosting profits in spite
of gloomy sales (Covert and McWilliams, 2006).
To improve their profitability ratios, retailers can also develop financial
activities on their own. Non-financial corporations may develop direct financial
activities with their customers. Indeed, large proportions of Ford’s and GM’s
profits have come from their financial activities, notably captive finance (Froud
et al., 1998,2002;Lung, 2001,2005). This financialization (3), which has been
described as a transformation of the relationship with customers by providing
them with financial services (Lapavitsas, 2009), is also relevant in the retail
sector with the development of consumption credit by retailers. For example,
Burt et al. (2006) mention the development of financial services by Royal
Ahold in several countries.
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For the period 2002 2007, the financial assets ratio increased for all firms,
except Kroger and Metro, relative to the precedent periods (Figure A8). This
suggests that financial investments and the development of financial activities
have provided firms with new sources of income and profits. To discuss these
arguments in more detail in the retail sector, it would be necessary to identify
more precisely the financial assets held by retailers during this period and to
link them with identifiable incomes. However, the Osiris database does not
specify the nature of all financial assets or distinguish between all the different
financial revenues.
Nonetheless, the variation between the levels of these ratios is striking: on the
one hand, Carrefour and, to a lesser extent, Ahold, Metro and Target are the most
financialized, with ratios between 30 and 43%; on the other hand, Kroger, Home-
Depot and Wal-Mart have ratios between 10 and 13%.
Looking back to the annual reports for the two firms at the extreme positions
in this ranking, Carrefour and Wal-Mart, when financialization was the
strongest—in 2004—suggests the underlying rationale for this difference: finan-
cial investments and activities were profitable enough to improve Carrefour’s
overall profitability but may not have been profitable enough for a firm like
Wal-Mart, whose operational profitability in retail was already high
(Figure A9). Thus, Carrefour and Wal-Mart’s financial assets for 2004 differ
not only as a proportion of total assets (43.1 and 10.5%, respectively), but also
in their composition. Carrefour had a wide range of financial items that were
only loosely linked with its main activity, suggesting a diversification into finan-
cial investments and services; in contrast, Wal-Mart’s financial assets consisted
essentially of items closely linked to retail activities and strategies. This does
not mean that firms such as Wal-Mart do not seize opportunities to diversify
into financial activities. In fact, there is already such diversification: in Mexico,
el Banco Wal-Mart was launched in 2007 to tap the huge market of unbanked
Mexicans (Gelpern, 2007); Wal-Mart Canada Bank was launched in 2010; and
there are similar projects in the USA.
Financialization (2) of investments and the development of financial services
appear to be possible alternatives to the development of the usual operational
activities. Once foreign development prospects became scarce or disappointing,
these strategies were chosen as a way to improve profitability for firms that
could not carry on raising high profits through their traditional activities. This
is what Figure A10 shows: the most financialized firms (Carrefour, Ahold,
Metro, Target, Sears and Costco) are the firms that had the least profitable
assets when internationalization slowed down. Conversely, the least financialized
(Tesco, Kroger, Home Depot and Wal-Mart) were much more profitable at that
point. Thus, the most financialized firms were able to increase their ROA even
more when the financial markets soared between 2002 and 2007.
Financialization, globalization and profits by retailers Page 13 of 26
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In sum, both foreign expansion and financialization of assets have been used
by retailers to cope with slower growth in domestic markets and to meet their
shareholders’ expectations. But it was mostly when foreign expansion opportu-
nities vanished that financialization became more attractive, especially for the
least profitable firms. Financialization of investment thus appears as an alterna-
tive strategy to internationalization to improve financial profitability.
However, it is necessary to move beyond this first result, as globalization and
financialization are helping to reframe the operational and financial relationships
between retailers and their stakeholders, and this reorganization produced
dynamic gains that contributed to the sudden growth in ROE for the years
2004 2007.
4. Globalization and the deterioration of suppliers’ and workers’
bargaining power
Directly or indirectly, globalization has introduced changes in power relation-
ships between retailers and their stakeholders, helping the former to increase
their operational profitability at the expense of the latter. The shift in the
balance of power in favour of the main retailers allows them to appropriate
most of the efficiency gains obtained by reorganizing supply chain processes.
Moreover, their development in lower-wage countries and a macroeconomic
context adverse to labour in high-income economies increase their capacity to
control operational internal costs, especially wages, and to capture most of the
productivity gains obtained during the restructuring of their own operations.
Distributive gains at the expense of consumer welfare should also be considered.
But consolidated accounts are of no help here, and the literature is inconclusive.
In the USA, ‘an increase in price competition in product markets (...) has made
the firm’s [sic] implicit cost of raising the price prohibitively high’ (Milberg, 2008,
pp. 1112), while in France the legal framework has reduced competitive
pressure, allowing firms to increase their profits through higher prices (Askenazy
and Weindenfeld, 2008).
During the last 20 years, the main retailers have grown through mergers and
acquisitions and through international development. When expanding their scale
of operation, retailers become bigger buyers and enlarge their sourcing channels,
allowing them to increase competitive pressure on their suppliers (Coe and Hess,
2005;Coe and Wrigley, 2007;Durand, 2007;Reardon et al., 2007;Basker and
Pham, 2008;Milberg, 2008). Wal-Mart, for example, has built strong global sour-
cing capacities (Bonacich and Wilson, 2006) and has become the leading US
importer from China, with reported imports of $18 billion in 2004 and $27
billion in 2006 (Scott, 2007). Other works on European retailers (Palpacuer
et al., 2005,2006) also link the increase of shareholder pressure to deliver
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immediate returns and the intensification of competitive pressure on foreign sup-
pliers. In addition, the impact of the IT and logistics revolutions in the sector
(Moati, 2001, pp. 187– 192; Basker, 2007) has also contributed to the pressure
on supply prices because suppliers’ costs are better known, and the production
process is better controlled by retailers. In sum, globalization of supply chains
has increased retailers’ market power and, consequently, allowed them to increase
their profitability, as they can obtain lower prices from their suppliers.
As well as shifting the balance of power in their favour vis-a
`-vis their suppliers,
retailers have also benefited from a better position vis-a
`-vis labour. First, they
have expanded their activities in low-wage countries where labour militancy is
weak. Moreover, globalization (Locke et al., 1995;Chesnais, 1997;Crotty et al.,
1998;Dumenil and Levy, 2000;Pitelis and Sugden, 2000) and the introduction
of information technologies in work processes (Petit and Soete, 2001;Levy and
Temin, 2007;Gordon and Dew-Becker, 2008) have worsened the position of low-
skilled workers in high-income economies, fuelling a systemic rise in inequalities
(Petit, 2010). Labour in the retail sector has been severely exposed to this adverse
evolution because the sector is a labour-intensive tertiary industry, markedly
segmented in terms of workforce remuneration and with a large proportion of
low-skilled workers. Moreover, it is characterized by an important proportion
of part-time jobs, a mainly female workforce and a low level of unionization,
which are characteristics departing from the Fordist capital-labour compromise
and limiting Fordist-style mobilization (Silver, 2003;Glyn, 2006).
In such a context, we can assume that the reorganization of work following the
introduction of new technologies gives managers the opportunity to pressure
labour. First, they can intensify the labour process and then obtain efficiency
gains with a possible significant deterioration of physical working conditions
(Askenazy, 2002). Second, they can minimize labour costs by extending
working hours or limiting wages and labour compensation. This last hypothesis
is based on a number of empirical elements: the anti-union position of Wal-Mart
is well-known, as are its low wages and minimal labour standards (for example,
Bair and Bernstein, 2006;Hugill, 2006;Lichtenstein, 2006;Basker, 2007). Further-
more, many journalistic investigations, workers’ testimonies (for one of the many
testimonies, see Se
´range, 2006) and emerging social mobilization (Benquet, 2008)
indicate that harsh labour conditions, lack of respect for legal labour standards
and low wages and social benefits are general features of the sector.
Unfortunately, data published by the companies do not allow a direct assess-
ment of the hypothesis of an intensification of worker exploitation—i.e. an exten-
sion of the ability of capital owners ‘to appropriate the labor effort of the
exploited’ (Wright, 2005)—through the confirmation of an enduring
productivity-wage gap. Indirectly, however, some indicators tend to corroborate
this hypothesis. Facing limited growth prospects, leading firms seem to have
Financialization, globalization and profits by retailers Page 15 of 26
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followed a more intensive accumulation path. Figures A11 and A12 present the
capital mobilized and revenue generated per worker and indicate a process of
reorganization of work through the implementation of information technologies
and an increase in physical productivity that implies an intensification of work.
At the same time, we do not observe an important increase in nominal wages
in EU-based firms (Figure A13). There is even a decrease in some cases, although
our index is based on current value. For US-based firms, there are no data about
the cost of employment; however, some studies of the US retail markets (Foster
et al., 2002;Doms et al., 2004) indicate strong productivity gains—without taking
into account the negative externalities of suburban commercial centres—but with
an erosion of wages.
In sum, efficiency gains obtained during the past 15 years by retailers within
their own firms and along the supply chains have been mostly appropriated by
shareholders. This has been done at the expense of suppliers, through low
prices, and through an intensification of worker exploitation. The negative
impact of globalization on low-skilled workers’ bargaining power, which is well-
established in the literature, is confirmed in the retail sector. However, we suggest
that in the context of financialization, retailers do more than merely derive oper-
ational advantages—in the form of lower wages or input prices—from the
increased power acquired with globalization. This shift in the balance of power
has also been exploited by retailers to take advantage of the financial aspects of
their relationships with their stakeholders.
5. Forced funding of retailers by stakeholders
In addition to a direct deterioration of their position, stakeholders have also suf-
fered a worsening of their financial relationships with leading retailers. Retailers
have seized the opportunity of this shift in the balance of power to improve the
financial structure of their assets and their financial relationships with stake-
holders. Thus, as they imposed new supply chain management processes and
technologies, retailers have drastically reduced the amount of capital they need
for their inventories and consequently significantly reduced—or maybe trans-
ferred to their suppliers—their need for tangible assets. At the same time, they
have been able to increase their terms of payment and consequently increase
the amount of cash owed to their stakeholders that they keep available for
their own use.
Inventories are a form of immobilization that does not directly create revenue.
Developing a way to decrease inventories while still ensuring the continuous
refilling of stores is consequently critical for asset profitability. Such an evolution
has been possible thanks to the implementation and diffusion of logistics and IT
innovation within the sector. As a result, in our sample, we observe a 31%
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reduction in the share of assets immobilized for inventories, from 49 days of sales
in 1992 to 34 days in 2007 (Figure A14). This trend is shared by most of the firms
in our sample and is all the more important when the weight of assets immobi-
lized is important (Figure A15). Home Depot is the only exception with an
upward trend. This is explained by the fact that the company did not begin the
transition from a logistics model based on direct store delivery by suppliers to
a more efficient model based on distribution centres until 2008 (SCDigest
Editorial Staff, 2008; Lloyd, 2010).
These IT and logistics revolutions required substantial investment not only by
retailers, but also by suppliers (RFID Gazette, 2007), since they had to enter retai-
lers’ logistical and information networks and comply with ever more demanding
requirements for volume, place and time of deliveries. However, an even distri-
bution of the efficiency gains within the chain is not guaranteed. Consequently,
the supply chain reorganization may have been used to transfer the cost of inven-
tories to suppliers rather than reducing it globally. A complementary longitudinal
analysis of suppliers’ working capital would be necessary to properly settle this
argument.
Distributive gains at the expense of stakeholders are more obvious when one
looks at the structure of the financial relationships that link retailers to their main
partners: states, workers and suppliers. These kinds of relationships are, in fact,
unique to the retail sector: as retail firms operate at the interface between
businesses and final customers, they benefit from the differences in terms of
payments traditionally existing between these two kinds of economic actors. As
customers traditionally pay ‘on the nail’, and business payments may take
months—depending on the national commercial standards—the trade partners’
‘net’ account of retail companies automatically generates current liabilities. These
current liabilities have always been an important source of funding in the retail
industry. However, as they have become increasingly globalized, leading retailers
have taken advantage of their growing power over suppliers and have increased
their average payment period. Thus, in 2007, the trade partners’ ‘net’ account
of retailers represented 43 days of sales, compared with about 30 days in the
early 1990s, generating an increasing gap between the accounts receivable and
the liabilities due to trade partners.
Retail firms also take advantage of the benevolence or the weaknesses of other
partners—such as the state or employees—to whom they are traditionally current
debtors for expenses such as income tax, social expenditures or pension funds.
Current liabilities generated by these financial relationships are substantial;
they rose mainly during the mid-1980s and have been quite stable since then,
representing, for example, 14 days of sales in 2007. Overall, the total net
current funds retailers raise from all these stakeholders have steadily grown
Financialization, globalization and profits by retailers Page 17 of 26
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since 1990 from 45 to 57 days of sales (Figure A14), with a similar trend for
almost all of the firms in the sample (Figure A15).
Retail firms have always been able to fund their accounts receivable using their
stakeholders’ liabilities (Figure A16), which is why their ‘net partners’ account’ in
Figure A14 is always positive. Thanks to the double process described above, they
were also able to fully fund their inventories using their stakeholders’ liabilities in
1995. Subsequently, as the process continued, they were able to generate an
increasing flow of short-term disposable cash from relations with their stake-
holders, which surpassed the amount they needed and wanted to keep in cash
and short-term investments in 1998 (Figure A16).
Once current capital needs have been satisfied, using current liabilities to fund
fixed assets requires high capacities in current capital management, but it is
obviously not impossible. Since the late 1990s, the current debts of retailers to
their stakeholders have been globally sufficient to fund their assets immobilized
in favour of these stakeholders, their assets immobilized for their inventories,
all their cash and short-term investments, but also a growing and already impor-
tant part of their fixed investments (Figure A16). If we consider that stakeholders’
liabilities are used to fund assets from the most to the least current, as presented
here, then we can estimate that for 2007, about 13% of retailers’ fixed investments
were funded with funds due to the stakeholders. Even more striking, funds due to
the stakeholders represented 47% of the total assets of the firms in 2007 (versus
42% in 1990).
Decreasing inventories mechanically reduces the share of tangible assets
necessary to maintain retail activities, thus increasing—all things being equal—
profitability. The increasing share of stakeholders’ liabilities can be used to
increase asset profitability if the funds are used to make direct financial invest-
ments [Financialization (2) of assets] or to ‘replace’ banking debts or even share-
holders’ funds. This kind of ‘forced funding’—i.e. retailers obliging their
stakeholders to provide them with cash for free—means that the stakeholder
retailer relationship becomes more financialized as financial objectives are
added to operational objectives.
6. Conclusion
Despite the existence of some contributions at the firm and sectoral levels (Froud
et al., 1998,2002,2005;Montalban, 2008), there is a significant lack of studies
explaining how financialization is linked to organization, power structure and
distribution of wealth within firms and along supply chains for specific indus-
tries. In this context, one original feature of our study is that it relies on an analy-
sis of consolidated financial accounts in an international and comparative
perspective that can capture the effect of globalization processes. However, our
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results still need to be related to a comprehensive analysis of corporate govern-
ance changes and heterogeneity among firms. Consumer welfare and the evol-
ution of pricing policies along the supply chain are also key issues that are
difficult to address here for methodological reasons. Moreover, our data do not
allow us to explore the hypothesis of the growing importance of financial oper-
ations involving consumer credit (Financialization 3). Further research in these
directions is urgently needed.
Nonetheless, looking at the links between the financialization and globaliza-
tion processes, this paper points out several strategies the leading retailers have
used to increase their ROE and the share of profit distributed to shareholders
(Financialization 1) despite the slowdown in revenue growth. For example, we
observed remarkable foreign expansion by half of the firms in the sample and sig-
nificant—though heterogeneous—financialization of assets (Financialization 2).
Looking at individual strategies, we suggest that financialization of assets has
been a substitute for international expansion for those firms that were the least
profitable when international growth opportunities vanished.
Moreover, looking for potential interactions between the globalization and
financialization processes, we identify two other overlapping trends that helped
retailers to increase their ROE. The first of these trends is consistent with the
numerous studies that link globalization with a weakening in the position of low-
skilled workers and increased competition along supply chains. This shift of
power results in the intensification of worker exploitation and a deterioration
in trading conditions for suppliers. More unexpectedly, we have demonstrated
that management of the financial aspects of relationships with partners also
became a key variable of retailers’ financial performances. The generalization of
what we have called ‘forced funding’—i.e. working capital management used as
an effective tool for transforming market power into financial gains—is
common to our whole sample, and we argue that it has led to important distri-
butive gains at the expense of the stakeholders, especially suppliers.
We suggest that beyond the retail sector, this phenomenon is central to under-
standing how financialization affects the power relationships framed by globali-
zation processes. The evidence suggests that it is a general feature that follows the
intensification of competition along global supply chains. A connection with the
literature on Global Commodity Chains (Bair, 2009) would appear relevant to
this point, as the role of financial relationships in the structuring of asymmetric
relationships along the chains has so far been an under-studied aspect.
Beyond firm specificities, our study also suggests that these various sources of
profitability contain significant limits and contradictions that illustrate the neo-
liberal deadlock.
First of all, internationalization has offered new fields of profitability,
particularly through new growth prospects in countries with less vigorous
Financialization, globalization and profits by retailers Page 19 of 26
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competition for Western firms. The momentum of internationalization in the
second half of the 1990s was related to a set of particular opportunities and
does not seem to have constituted a sustainable long-term trend sufficient to
preserve ROE. Moreover, the slowdown of sales growth may also reveal that
consolidation—nationally and internationally—is now not so effective as a
means of increasing profitability.
Second, the oligopolistic control of the relationship with consumers is the
source of retailer-specific economic power. It also puts these firms at the forefront
of an economic instability and weakness of consumer demand that they help to
fuel. Indeed, their sources of profitability feed the slowdown of their growth pro-
spects for several reasons. First, at the macroeconomic level, preferring asset
financialization to tangible investment is unfavourable to accumulation and
growth. Second, the capture of supply-chain management benefits may sustain
a process of impoverishing growth (Kaplinsky, 2000) all along the supply chain
that also depresses global demand through limited investments and low wages.
Finally, the deleterious effects of intensifying work exploitation in terms of
employment and wages also have significant macroeconomic consequences on
final consumption, as retail represents a significant part of total employment.
At a third level, if financial investments may help the firms in hedging and
increasing their solvency, they also introduce new risks to their balance sheets
and earning streams (Orhangazi, 2009). The ongoing financial crisis should
reverse this trend towards the financialization of investment and significantly
weaken the situation of the most financialized retailers, such as Carrefour and
Ahold.
Taking into account these general contradictions, the adverse consequences of
the ongoing economic crisis for the retail industry may differ greatly from one
firm to another: consumption patterns will evolve as a result of deteriorating con-
ditions on the labour market in developed economies, and the varying fortunes of
leading firms, depending on their degree of financial and operational exposure to
this very harsh economic climate, may also give momentum to a new wave of
M&A within the industry, following a winner-take-all pattern. In the meantime,
the resilience of the developing world should lead to faster-paced differentiation
between leading firms, depending on the importance of their activities in these
regions.
Finally, our study suggests that the rearrangement and partial transfer of retai-
lers’ working capital to their stakeholders may have an impact on financial stability.
Retailers’ terms of payments and their standards of just-in-time delivery impose
additional financial costs on their suppliers and increase their capital needs.
When it is immobilized as working capital to cope with retailers’ terms of
payment, this additional capital generates additional costs, such as credit costs,
without raising additional revenue for the suppliers. On top of this, when
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capital is immobilized productively—to cope with the demands of flexibility and
just-in-time delivery—the resulting productivity gains are at least partly captured
by retailers. The specificity of this kind of investment also increases suppliers’
dependence on retailers and the cost of any drop in orders. Retailers’ increased
flexibility has partly been developed at the cost of their suppliers, leaving them
financially riskier and weaker. As very few suppliers are as big as their retailers,
some of the financial costs and risks of flexibility are inevitably transferred to
weaker structures, increasing their default risks and, ultimately, the overall risk
in terms of financial and economic stability. Such a phenomenon is all the more
significant because it probably extends beyond the retail industry alone.
Supplementary material
Supplementary material is available at SOCECO Journal online.
Acknowledgements
We are grateful to Pascal Petit and Florence Palpacuer for their very helpful com-
ments on an earlier version of the paper and to the three anonymous referees for
their insightful suggestions.
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... Além de analisar como os círculos de cooperação no espaço estendem, integram e potencializam os circuitos espaciais produtivos, é igualmente necessário compreender como estes, especificamente na figura dos instrumentos, agentes e lógicas financeiras, passam crescentemente a condicionar as operações e o sentido das empresas centrais que compõem os circuitos. Assim, a financeirização diz respeito aos modos pelos quais empresas transnacionais e circuitos espaciais produtivos globalizados "são crescentemente controladas, monitoradas e disciplinadas pelos mercados financeiros, via noções como as de shareholder value, cálculo de risco e percepção do mercado" Lai;Wójcik, 2014, p. 767), e como isso é cada vez mais expresso entre as grandes petroleiras (Bridge;Le Billon, 2017 Uma das maneiras de analisar os novos modos de operação das empresas e circuitos espaciais produtivos é verificar a dominação dos instrumentos financeiros sobre as novas formas de relação oferecidas a consumidores e/ou impostas a trabalhadores por empresas não financeiras (Baud;Durand, 2012). Assim, procuramos discutir como a Petrobras, Petróleo Brasileiro S.A., empresa que, apesar de centrada na produção de petróleo no território nacional, desenvolve cooperações com um amplo espectro de agentes globalmente distribuídos, tem lançado mão, nas últimas décadas, de novos instrumentos financeiros com vistas a expandir suas atividades, bem como a sustentar seus fornecedores e prestadores de serviços. ...
... Além de analisar como os círculos de cooperação no espaço estendem, integram e potencializam os circuitos espaciais produtivos, é igualmente necessário compreender como estes, especificamente na figura dos instrumentos, agentes e lógicas financeiras, passam crescentemente a condicionar as operações e o sentido das empresas centrais que compõem os circuitos. Assim, a financeirização diz respeito aos modos pelos quais empresas transnacionais e circuitos espaciais produtivos globalizados "são crescentemente controladas, monitoradas e disciplinadas pelos mercados financeiros, via noções como as de shareholder value, cálculo de risco e percepção do mercado" Lai;Wójcik, 2014, p. 767), e como isso é cada vez mais expresso entre as grandes petroleiras (Bridge;Le Billon, 2017 Uma das maneiras de analisar os novos modos de operação das empresas e circuitos espaciais produtivos é verificar a dominação dos instrumentos financeiros sobre as novas formas de relação oferecidas a consumidores e/ou impostas a trabalhadores por empresas não financeiras (Baud;Durand, 2012). Assim, procuramos discutir como a Petrobras, Petróleo Brasileiro S.A., empresa que, apesar de centrada na produção de petróleo no território nacional, desenvolve cooperações com um amplo espectro de agentes globalmente distribuídos, tem lançado mão, nas últimas décadas, de novos instrumentos financeiros com vistas a expandir suas atividades, bem como a sustentar seus fornecedores e prestadores de serviços. ...
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