Posts Tagged ‘dividends’


The capitalist machine is broken—and no one seems to know how to fix it.

The machine I’m referring to is the one whereby the “capitalist” (i.e., the boards of directors of large corporations) converts the “surplus” (i.e., corporate profits) into additional “capital” (i.e., nonresidential fixed investment)—thereby preserving the pact with the devil: the capitalists are the ones who get and decide on the distribution of the surplus, and then they’re supposed to use the surplus for investment, thereby creating economic growth and well-paying jobs.

The presumption of mainstream economists and business journalists (as well as political and economic elites) is that the capitalist machine is the only possible one, and that it will work.

Except it’s not: corporate profits have been growing (the red line in the chart above) but investment has been falling (the blue line in the chart), both in the short run and in the long run. Between 2008 and 2015, corporate profits have soared (as a share of gross domestic income, from 3.9 to 6.3 percent) but investment has decreased (as a share of gross domestic product, from 13.5 to 12.4 percent). Starting from 1980, the differences are even more stark: corporate profits were lower (3.6 percent) and investment was much higher (14.5 percent).

The fact that the machine is not working—and, as a result, growth is slowing down and job-creation is not creating the much-promised rise in workers’ wages—has created a bit of a panic among mainstream economists and business journalists.

Larry Summers, for example, finds himself reaching back to Alvin Hansen and announcing we’re in a period of “secular stagnation”:

Most observers expected the unusually deep recession to be followed by an unusually rapid recovery, with output and employment returning to trend levels relatively quickly. Yet even with the U.S. Federal Reserve’s aggressive monetary policies, the recovery (both in the United States and around the globe) has fallen significantly short of predictions and has been far weaker than its predecessors. Had the American economy performed as the Congressional Budget Office fore­cast in August 2009—after the stimulus had been passed and the recovery had started—U.S. GDP today would be about $1.3 trillion higher than it is.

Clearly, the current recovery has fallen far short of expectations. But then Summers seeks to calm fears—”secular stagnation does not reveal a profound or inherent flaw in capitalism”—and suggests an easy fix: all that has to happen is an increase in government-financed infrastructure spending to raise aggregate demand and induce more private investment spending.

As if rising profitability is not enough of an incentive for capitalists.

Noah Smith, for his part, is also worried the machine isn’t working, especially since, with low interest-rates, credit for investment projects is cheap and abundant—and yet corporate investment remains low by historical standards. Contra Summers, Smith suggests the real problem is “credit rationing,” that is, small companies have been shut out of the necessary funding for their investment projects. So, he would like to see policies that promote access to capital:

That would mean encouraging venture capital, small-business lending and more effort on the part of banks to seek out promising borrowers — basically, an effort to get more businesses inside the gated community of capital abundance.

Except, of course, banks have an abundance of money to lend—and venture capital has certainly not been sitting on the sidelines.

Profitability, in other words, is not the problem. What neither Summers nor Smith is willing to ask is what corporations are actually doing with their growing profits (not to mention cheap credit and equity funding via the stock market) if not investing them.


We know that corporations are not paying higher taxes to the government. As a share of gross domestic income, they’re lower than they were in 2006, and much lower than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. So, the corporate tax-cuts proposed by the incoming administration are not likely to induce more investment. Corporations will just be able to retain more of the profits they get from their workers.

But corporations are distributing their profits to other uses. Dividends to shareholders have increased dramatically (as a share of gross domestic income, the green line in the chart at the top of the post): from 1.7 percent in 1980 to 4.6 percent in 2015.


source (pdf)

Corporations are also using their profits to repurchase their own shares (thereby boosting stock indices to record levels), to finance mergers and acquisitions (which increase concentration, but not investment, and often involve cutting jobs), to raise the income and wealth of CEOs (thus further raising incomes of the top 1 percent and increasing conspicuous consumption), and to hold cash (at home and, especially, in overseas tax havens).

And that’s the current dilemma: the machine is working but only for a tiny group at the top. For everyone else, it’s not—not by a long shot.

We can expect, then, a long line of mainstream economists and business journalists who, like Summers and Smith, will suggest one or another tool to tinker with the broken machine. What they won’t do is state plainly the current machine is beyond repair—and that we need a radically different one to get things going again.


Capitalism is a giant machine for pumping out the surplus from workers—just like feudalism, slavery, and other class-based economies before it.

That’s from one perspective. But the capitalist machine isn’t just about the “vampire thirst for the living blood of labor.” It also involves various mechanisms for capturing that surplus—in the form of dividends, CEO salaries, interest payments, and so on.

Another, increasingly important such mechanism is hedge funds. And boy are they capturing a lot of the surplus these days!



The hedge-fund industry continues to balloon in size (after a dip during the financial crash in 2008, and even though 2015 was by all accounts a rocky year), with something like $3 billion dollars in assets under management.

And, as the New York Times reports, the pay of the industry’s leaders has soared.

JPMorgan Chase paid its chief executive, Jamie Dimon, $27 million in 2015. In another Wall Street universe, the hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin made $1.7 billion over the same year.

Even as regulators push to rein in compensation at Wall Street banks, top hedge fund managers earn more than 50 times what the top executives at banks are paid.

The 25 best-paid hedge fund managers took home a collective $12.94 billion in income last year

Yes, billions, with a “b.”


That’s the list of the top 10 (courtesy of Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine)—from Griffin (at $1.7 billion) to Joseph Edelman (at $300 million) in 2015.

Not only are Griffin and company capturing a large share of the surplus (even when some of their funds actually lost money for investors last year, just by virtue of their sheer size).* They’re spending it—on everything from art and luxury housing to funding politicians and political campaigns.**

So, with the rise to prominence of hedge funds and other financial instruments, it’s time to revise our definition: capitalism is a giant, vampire-like machine for pumping out, capturing, and spending the surplus from workers.

*Ray Dalio made $1.4 billion in 2015 through Bridgewater Associates, the world’s biggest hedge fund firm with $150 billion of assets under management. Dalio, who founded Bridgewater, is frequently quoted promoting a strategy he calls risk parity. Yet Bridgewater’s risk parity fund, called All Weather, lost investors 7 percent in 2015.

**Griffin was the biggest donor to the successful reelection campaign of Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago.

fast food

Everyone knows we live in a fast-food nation (everyone, that is, who has read Eric Schlosser’s book or seen Richard Linklater’s movie). But not everyone is aware that it’s only a tiny portion of the nation that benefits—directly and indirectly—from the existence of fast food.*

Some, of course, benefit directly, because they either receive in CEO compensation or in the form of stock dividends a portion of the enormous profits created within the fast-food industry.

fast food finances

The reason profits are so high is because fast-food wages are very low (an average of $8.69 an hour for those working at least 27 weeks in a year and 10 hours a week), and fast-food employers are able to shift the cost of the low wages they pay their employees to public programs (such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Earned Income Tax Credits, food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

Those at the very top of the nation also benefit from the fast-food industry because, as a result of low wages and public programs to assist the working poor, fast-food prices are kept down. Thus, the price of one of the elements of the wage bundle of all workers—food—is kept low. Thus, workers in all industries—not just fast food but the production of all goods and services—have to spend less of their day working for themselves and more of the day working for their employers. That, in turn, raises profits in those industries, a portion of which shows up in the executive-compensation packages and dividends of the tiny minority of income earners.

The prototypical high-net-worth individuals who are “coastal, educated, older, white and male,” certainly don’t consume fast food on a regular basis.** But they’re the folks who benefit, both directly and indirectly, from the existence of a fast-food nation.


*The information in this post comes from two recent reports: Super-Sizing Public Costs: How Low Wages at Top Fast-Food Chains Leave Taxpayers Footing the Bill [pdf], by the National Employment Law Project, and Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry [pdf], by Sylvia Allegretto et al. at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Urban & Regional Planning.

**Although at least one neoclassical economist who opposes any increase in the minimum wage, John Cochrane, occasionally does.