Posts Tagged ‘stocks’

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I have long argued (e.g., herehere, and here) that capitalism involves a kind of pact with the devil: control over the surplus is reluctantly given over to the boards of directors of corporations in return for certain promises, such as just deserts, economic stability, and wage increases for workers.

In recent years, as so often in the past, we’ve witnessed those at the top sabotaging the pact (simply because they have the means and interest to do so) and now, once again, they’ve undermined their legitimacy to run things.

First, they broke their promise of just deserts, as the distribution of income has become increasingly (and, to describe it accurately, grotesquely) unequal and the tendency toward high concentrations of wealth has returned, threatening to create a new class of plutocratic coupon-clippers. Then, they ended the Great Moderation with speculative decisions that ushered in the worst economic crisis since the First Great Depression. And, now, the promise of using the surplus to create jobs that would raise workers’ pay appears to be falling prey to directing the surplus to other uses: share buybacks and increasing CEO salaries.

According to a recent report by Goldman Sachs, stock repurchases will reach $1 trillion this year, up 46 percent from 2017 on the back of tax reform and strong corporate profits. Corporations buying back their own stocks leads to higher stock prices, which is an additional benefit to those who own the stocks—on top of the dividends they regularly receive.

As I explained earlier this year, the top 1 percent owned in 2014 almost two thirds of the financial or business wealth, while the bottom 90 percent had only six percent. That represents an enormous change from the already-unequal situation in 1978, when the shares were much closer: 28.6 percent for the top 1 percent and 23.2 percent for the bottom 90 percent). So, rising stock prices are both a condition and consequence of the obscene levels of inequality that obtain in the United States today.

And who loses? Workers, of course. A recent report from the National Employment Law Project calculated that McDonald’s could have paid each of its 1.9 million workers $4 thousand more a year if it had used the $21 billion it spent between 2015 and 2017 on stock buybacks to reward its workers instead. Starbucks could have given each of its workers a $7-thousand raise. With the money currently spent on buybacks, Lowe’s, CVS, and Home Depot could give each of their workers pay increases of at least $18 thousand a year.

But they’re not. Instead, corporations are using their enormous profits to repurchase their own stocks and, in addition, rewarding their executives with enormous pay increases.

According to Bloomberg, the median CEO-to-worker-pay ratio last year was 127 to 1 (at International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.). For U.S. corporations, the ratio ran from 0 (for Twitter, because CEO and cofounder Jack Dorsey received $0 in 2017) to 4,987-to-1 (at Mattel, where CEO compensation was $31,275,289).*

As it turns out, some of the most extreme examples of the gap between executive and median worker pay occurs at companies directly supported by federal contracts and subsidies. The latest Executive Excess report, published annually by the Institute for Policy Studies, found that at many federally funded companies the gap is far in excess of what ordinary American taxpayers find acceptable. For example, more than two-thirds of the top 50 government contractors and top 50 recipients of federal subsidies, receiving a total of $167 billion, currently pay their chief executive officer more than 100 times their median worker pay. At the top of the scale are leading military contractors, with the top bosses at Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman each earning an average of $21 million, or between 166 and 218 times average worker pay.**

So, do Americans have any sympathy for the devil? The typical American believes CEO pay should run no more than six times average worker pay, according to the “2016 Public Perception Survey on CEO Compensation” at Stanford Business School (which mirrors a similar study by Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael Norton). Clearly, given the obscene ratios of CEO to average worker pay, Americans are no longer puzzled by corporations’ game. My guess is we’d see the same results if someone conducted a survey about stock repurchases. U.S. publicly traded companies across all industries spent almost 60 percent of their profits on buybacks between 2015 and 2017, while workers’ wages stagnated.

Sure, the tiny group at the top may present themselves as people of wealth and taste. But they’ve also shown they can lay waste to the economy they alone control, and they are clearly in need of some restraint. So, now, almost a decade into the current lopsided recovery—as they watch with glee their growing profits and an increasing gap between those who receive the surplus and everyone else—they deserve no sympathy whatsoever.

They’ve broken the pact and now their game is up.

 

*But Dorsey still owns a bundle of equity in Twitter, whose stock has increased in value 20 percent since the beginning of 2018. As of April 2 Dorsey owned 18 million shares of Twitter, currently worth $627 million as of Tuesday’s closing price. Dorsey also is the CEO of payments company Square, in which he owns 65.5 million shares, which currently would be worth $6 billion.

**The Geo Group, one of the primary contractors for the notorious immigrant family detention centers, took in $663 million in Justice Department and Homeland Security contracts in 2017. Geo CEO George Zoley pocketed $9.6 million that year, 271 times more than his company’s median worker pay of $35,630.

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In a 1999 interview with Fortune, legendary investor Warren Buffett coined the term “economic moats” to sum up the main pillar of his investing strategy. He described it like this:

The key to investing is not assessing how much an industry is going to affect society, or how much it will grow, but rather determining the competitive advantage of any given company and, above all, the durability of that advantage. The products or services that have wide, sustainable moats around them are the ones that deliver rewards to investors.

The idea of an economic moat, with Buffett’s endorsement, has picked up steam since the article. Morningstar, an investment research firm, created an index that tracks companies with a wide economic moat in order to see if Buffett’s theory holds water. In 2012, VanEck, a money manager, created an exchange-traded fund called “MOAT” that would track Morning Star’s economic moat index.

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And it works! Since 2012, VenEck’s Wide MOAT fund has beaten the Standard & Poor’s Index: it’s up 125.68 percent compared to the S&P’s 108 percent.

But what’s true for the individual investor does not hold for the U.S. economy as a whole. That’s because corporations with a Buffet moat around them are only managing, for a time, to capture portions of the surplus produced and appropriated elsewhere. It’s a rent—thus, of course, justifying the use of a feudal concept to characterize an investment strategy within contemporary capitalism.

Of course, the U.S. economy is not feudal (at least, for the most part). Instead, it is based on capitalism. And what’s important about American capitalism is the gap between workers’ wages and the total value they produce, which is profits—a portion of which is distributed in the form of dividends.

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As is clear from the chart above, over the course of the past decade both corporate profits (the red line) and dividends to shareholders (the green line) have rebounded spectacularly while the share of national income going to labor (the blue line) has fallen precipitously and remained very low. That’s the case during the so-called recovery from the crash of 2007-08 as well as the 15 or so years prior to the crash.

So, the comparison between feudalism and capitalism is perhaps even more apt than Buffett and other investors are willing to admit: in both cases, the surplus labor pumped out of the direct producers—serfs then, wage-laborers now—is appropriated—in the form of feudal rents or capitalist profits—and is then distributed to still others—to other religious and secular lords or other capitalists and equity owners.

And the result is exactly the same: a growing gap between the small group of gangsters at the top and everyone else.

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Clay Bennett editorial cartoon  EPSON scanner image

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I have been arguing, since 2016 (e.g., here, here, and here), that one of the likely outcomes of the kind of corporate tax cuts Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have supported—and, as we saw, eventually rammed through—would be an increase in inequality. That’s because corporations would likely use a portion of their higher profits to engage in stock buybacks, leading to an increase in stock prices. And stock ownership in the United States is already grotesquely unequal. Therefore, the rise in equity prices would disproportionately benefit the small group at the top of the wealth pyramid.

And that’s exactly what is happening. As CNN Money reports, U.S. corporations have showered Wall Street with $214 billion of stock buyback announcements so far this year.

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According to a recent report by U.S. Senate Democrats (pdf), that total includes enormous repurchases from a diverse array of large corporations, including Wells Fargo, Oracle, Amgen, and Alphabet (Google).

Even those who, like Tyler Cowen, defend the use of the tax cuts for stock buybacks are forced to admit that

If a major corporation engages in buybacks, that simply transfers money from one set of hands to another — from the corporate entity to the shareholders.

That’s exactly right—except, of course, Cowen forgets about the initial transfer of value, the surplus, from workers to corporate boards of directors.

Now consider my estimate of the distribution of stock ownership in the United States, illustrated in the chart at the top of the post.

Again, as with the distribution of wealth in the United States, most experts get it wrong (as I showed recently, in a post that was picked up by Market Watch). As of 2014 (the last year for which data are available) the top 1 percent of American taxpayers (the green bar) owned not two or three but almost six times the corporate equities as the bottom 90 percent (the red bar)—62.19 percent compared to only 10.8 percent.

So, who are the real beneficiaries of the corporate tax cuts? Not workers (in terms of pay, benefits, or jobs) but the tiny group at the top who already own the bulk of stocks in the United States.* They’re getting wealthier and leaving everyone else further and further behind.

Let’s see what kind of economic voodoo the tiny group at the top of the wealth pyramid and their friends in politics and the media are going to use to attempt to buyback that obscene result.

 

*While some corporations have announced one-time bonuses, the money devoted to workers pales in comparison with the buyback bonanza. So far, just 6 percent of the corporate windfall from the tax cuts has gone to workers in the form of pay hikes, bonuses, and other benefits, according to an analysis by JUST Capital.

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There’s no real mystery behind the spectacular gains in the stock market over the course of 2017. Much of it can be explained by the rise in U.S. corporate profits.

But, as is clear from the chart above, the relationship between corporate profits (after tax, in red, measured on the right-hand side) and the stock market (the Dow Jones Industrial Index, in blue on the left) actually goes back almost a decade. Corporate profits have increased, from their low in the fourth quarter of 2008, some 176 percent. Meanwhile, the stock market has risen 182 percent from its own low in the first quarter of 2009.

Corporate profits are, of course, a signal to investors that their stocks will likely rise in value. Moreover, increased profits allow corporations themselves to buy back a portion of their stocks. Finally, wealthy individuals, who manage to capture a large share of the growing surplus appropriated by corporations, have had a larger and larger mountain cash to speculate on stocks.

Clearly, the United States has had a profit-led recovery since the crash of 2007-08, which is both a cause and consequence of the stock-market bubble.

However, that recovery has left most other Americans behind. First, corporate profits have increased in large part because workers’ wages have largely stagnated. Second, most American workers don’t own any stocks, either directly or indirectly. Stock ownership itself is highly concentrated, as the top 10 percent of households own well over 80 percent of the U.S. stock market.

And looking forward? I don’t make predictions but it’s obvious that the Republican administration is determined to do all it can to keep corporate profits growing and to make sure wealthy individuals keep a larger share of the surplus they receive. As long as that happens, we’ll continue to see the kind of lopsided recovery—including banner gains in the stock market—that has characterized the U.S. economy for the better part of the past decade.