William Agee, chairman of the Bendix Corporation, is of my own generation, give or take a few years. So I think I know what he did as a lad on rainy days in his hometown of Boise, Idaho. In those days, when it was too wet to play football or softball, you played Monopoly by the hours.
That "children's" game (try it sometime if you doubt that man is basically aggressive) must have left a permanent imprint on him.
There may be a basic business "strategy" in the Bendix grab for control of Martin Marietta: an aerospace contractor that could prosper mightily if the Reagan defense spending plans weather the current congressional revolt against them. But the Bendix tender offer, which quickly sparked a ferocious counterattack by Martin Marietta (who owns whom if two companies acquire control of one another simultaneously?) is another of those apples/oranges/peaches/pears/apricots/kiwi mergers characterizing the age of "conglomerates."
People of Bill Agee's and my generation still think of Bendix as a maker of good washing machines. But it may soon be well into the guided missile business. It is all rather bewildering, with so many giant corporations wandering forlornly along Wall Street wondering what kind of companies they really are.
People of Agee's reputed brilliance may be able to juggle a vast mixture of unmatched fruits. But the vogue of conglomeration and "unfriendly" seizure brings turmoil to the marketplace without any notable contribution to invention or enterprise.
Beyond that, some conglomerated companies tend to forfeit old management traditions that once made brand names reliable. That has, I know, happened here and there in publishing, both of books and newspapers.
And there is another, more basic issue. Companies with the pools of cash to seize possession of other people's genius and hard work (even when those people don't want to sell it) should probably be prodded by the tax or securities laws to do something more adventurous and creative with their idle balances.
But sky-high money market rates offer every incentive to hold cash and lie in wait for a juicy acquisition. Lee Iacocca recently observed that when Chrysler sold its only profitable division (which makes tanks for the Army), his company soon was making more money on the money than it had made making tanks. That is hardly good news for venture capitalism. The sluggishness of the U.S. industrial sector shows it.
Maybe, out of all this bidding and counterbidding, there'll be a net contribution to wealth or jobs. More likely, it is just another move on the big Monopoly board, of no economic significance.
And even if the merger sours, and stockholders lose their shirts, its architects will suffer no penalty worth mentioning. The managers, with their "golden parachutes" (entrenched contractual rights), will bail out over greener pastures.