Posts Tagged ‘wealth’

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No, the stock market is not predictable. And no one knows the exact causes of last week’s carnage on Wall Street—with the Dow down 4.2 percent, the S&P 4.1 percent and the Nasdaq 3.7 percent, representing their worst weekly performances since March.

But the precipitous fall in all major indices, which many analysts blamed at least in part on the earnings blackout period, did serve to highlight one of the factors that has been driving the bull market: corporations purchasing their own stock.

As Matt Phillips explained,

When companies have more cash than they believe they can use productively, they typically return it to shareholders either with cash payments—known as dividends—or by repurchasing shares in the market. Buybacks raise demand, putting upward pressure on share prices.

Such repurchases have boomed this year as the strong economy—and steep cuts in corporate tax rates—have left American companies flush with profits. Companies including Apple, Cisco Systems and Amgen have returned billions in cash to shareholders by buying back shares. Apple is responsible for the largest sum, spending nearly $64 billion on buybacks in the 12 months ending in June 2018, the last period for which full data is available, according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Generally, around earnings reporting season, corporations avoid repurchasing their own stocks, to avoid the appearance of insider trading. And, without those corporate buybacks, it seems the stock market has fallen off a cliff various times already this year.

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But the overall trend is for U.S. corporations to spend (or to leverage, via debt) a large portion of their profits on buying their own stocks—with plans to spend $770 billion on share buybacks in 2018, and even more next year.*

And when they cut back on those purchases, as they seem to have done last week, a large part of the demand for stocks collapses.

The fact is, corporations have three major ways of goosing their golden goose, which they and a small group of wealthy households in the United States benefit from.

First, employers endeavor to keep workers’ wages low, even as productivity increases, thereby boosting their pretax profits (of which they then distribute a portion in the form of salaries to their CEOs and dividends to stockowners).

Second, corporations lobby for tax breaks on their profits, an effort that once Donald Trump was elected delivered a slashing of the tax rate, from 35 percent to 21 percent.

Third, businesses use a portion of those higher post-tax profits to purchase their own stocks, which tends to boost the price of shares, producing additional wealth for shareholders who hang onto their stock. It also improves per-share performance on key metrics like earnings, which in turn attracts more stock purchases from other institutional and noninstitutional investors with their own growing share of the surplus.**

The result, of course, is an increase in the already-obscene degree of income and wealth inequality in the United States.

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According to my calculations (illustrated in the chart above), the top 1 percent in the United States owns (as of 2014, the last year for which data are available) 62 percent of equities, which has been climbing since the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the share of the entire bottom 90 percent has been falling, and is now only 11 percent.

So, it’s really only the small group at the top that is in a position to receive a cut of corporate profits in the form of dividends and to increase their wealth as corporate buybacks boost the prices of the stocks they keep in their portfolios.

Everyone else is forced to have the freedom to try to get by on their stagnant wages—and to watch with both fascination and horror the ongoing spectacle in the Trump White House.

 

*For most of the twentieth century, stock buybacks were deemed illegal because they were thought to be a form of stock market manipulation. But since 1982, when they were essentially legalized by the Securities and Exchange Commission, buybacks have become perhaps the most popular financial engineering tool in the American corporate tool shed.

*According to the S&P Dow Jones Indices, the top 100 stocks with the highest buyback ratios in the S&P 500 have regularly outperformed the overall S&P 500 index (as seen in the chart below).

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Almost 30 thousand people joined the ranks of the global super-rich last year, as booming global stock markets and corporate profits boosted the fortunes of the already very-rich and bumped them up into the ultra-high-net-worth bracket.

The global population of ultra-high-net-worth people, classed as those with more than $30 million in assets, increased by 12.9 percent last year to a record 255,810 people,  while their combined wealth surged by 16.3 percent to $31.5 trillion, according to a report by research firm Wealth-X.

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Not surprisingly, most of the gains were captured by those at the very top of the global wealthy pyramid. While all six tiers recorded double-digit growth in ultra wealthy numbers of between 13 and 15 percent, the fastest- growing tier was that of billionaires, which increased by a net 357 to a record high of 2,754 individuals. Almost half (48 percent) of the global ultra wealthy population had a net worth of between $30 million and $50 million, with the number of individuals in each tier diminishing steadily as the wealth pyramid rises. Average net worth for the approximately 122,500 ultra-high-net-worth individuals in the lower tier was $38 million, rising to $342 million for those in the $250-500-million bracket, and a substantial $3.3 billion for the elite group of billionaires. On a collective basis, only those individuals in the top two tiers of the pyramid—with a net worth of more than $500 million—experienced an increase in average net worth in 2017.

All of that makes perfect sense, given the trajectory of global capitalism during 2017. Notwithstanding the fears occasioned by surprising political events (such as the protracted negotiations for Brexit and the vagaries of Donald Trump’s presidency), the fact is last year represented a “sweet spot” for the tiny group at the top of the global economy, “supporting robust wealth gains in the financial, commodity, technology and industrial sectors.”

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But then the folks at Wealth-X want us to believe that most of the wealth was “self-made,” based on market conditions that

were clearly supportive of personal enterprise and successful investment, driven by higher financial-sector returns, entrepreneurial wealth creation in Asia and further dynamic growth in technology-related industries.

Clearly, this is not the kind of wealth that represents the property of small artisans and peasant farmers, which in fact is being marginalized and destroyed on a daily basis by the growth of finance, manufacturing, and technology—the primary sources of the wealth of the world’s ultra-high-net-worth people.

Nor is it the property of the working-class, since the wealth they create stands opposed to them and serves as the means of extracting even more surplus from the growing army of wage-laborers across the globe—in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

There’s nothing hard-won, self-acquired, or self-earned about the wealth owned by the world’s ultra-high-net-worth individuals. With their cadre of accountants, tax advisers, and financial consultants (not to mention the politicians whose campaigns they finance), they manage to capture, invest, and keep in the form of cash a large portion of the surplus created by workers toiling away in factories and offices around the planet.

Their personal property is therefore social wealth, created by the united action of all members of society. Only when it is made into common property, into the property of all members of society, will it lose its antagonistic class character.

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