Profits Without Prosperity

If there’s just one item which ought to be remembered from Vice President Biden’s recent  speech in Las Vegas it’s this – If the minimum wage were to be raised to $10.10 per hour this would add $19 billion into the national economy.  For 256,000 minimum income earners in Nevada that would pay for 19 months of groceries and three months worth of rent.  [LA-AP] So, if we really are “pro-business” then this information should be well received?

Once yet again to the point of unmentionable redundancy, here’s how we measure the growth in our national economy:

GDP formula

Consumer spending + business spending + government spending + the difference between imports and exports = the GDP.  So, why all the gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair over spending?  Why not promote that which will increase consumer spending? And why the inordinate attention to national spending?   Because the tail is wagging the dog.

The titans of finance – the banking sector – are wary of inflation.  That which puts more money into the hands of middle and working class families may cause inflation – the banker’s big bug-bear.  However, they’ve not mentioned the other side of the ledger; if income levels are dropping or if they remain stagnant those same bankers might be looking at deflation.  “The opposite of inflation, deflation has the side effect of increased unemployment since there is a lower level of demand in the economy, which can lead to an economic depression. Central banks attempt to stop severe deflation, along with severe inflation, in an attempt to keep the excessive drop in prices to a minimum.”

In other words, for average families the income will be spent.  Increasing the minimum wage would put more money into local businesses – furniture, appliances, groceries, clothing, entertainment, food service, hardware and home improvement, and so on.  However, for the top .01% whose income is primarily derived from investment earnings, increasing the minimum wage is of relatively little interest.  They are more interested in The Market (read Stock Market) than in the grocery market, the furniture market, the home improvement market, or the clothing market.

Not sure how this works?  Witness the plans for Hewlett-Packard to split up:

A close follower of the company’s stock price, Ms. Whitman may have also decided that the two separate companies would be worth more on Wall Street. Since Ms. Whitman became chief in September 2011, HP shares have risen about 50 percent. [NYT

HP also confirmed the split will result in the loss of another 5,000 jobs, in addition to the 45,000-50,000 layoffs announced with the company’s second quarterly earnings report for 2014 back in May. HP plans to invest the money saved in research and development, and projects full year non-GAAP (Generally accepted accounting principles) earnings of $3.83-$4.03 per share in 2015, not including one-time tax costs of the split. The companies will each have more than $57 billion in annual revenue.” [SDTimes]

There are structural reasons for the split, but the bottom line is that investors have decided the corporation would be more profitable split into at least two entities. And those 5,000 jobs lost?  The layoffs announced in May 2014?  The Market won’t be bothered by those at all; the value of the stock will increase whether or not the former employees are able to find new jobs, or have money to spend on housing, food, clothing, entertainment, furniture, etc.   The value of the stock is the pinnacle of success in the “Shareholder Value” construct of modern American capitalism.  There’s really nothing dramatically new about this – when share value for the sake of share value becomes the primary force in management then other considerations are necessarily secondary.

Hewlett-Packard’s focus on shareholder value isn’t unique either. Remember how the old Trickle Down Hoax was supposed to work? Corporations were supposed to have more revenue to invest on research and development, more to spend on expansion and hiring, more to spend on marketing and product sales?  Not. So. Much.

“Instead of investing in new plants, equipment and products, instead of paying their taxes and giving a long-overdue raise to their employees, big corporations are spending their record profits — plus gobs of newly borrowed money — to buy back their own shares and those of other companies.” [WaPo May 2014]

And we’re not speaking of just a few corporations, and the arithmetic is fairly simple:

“Meanwhile, the corporations of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index spent $477 billion last year (2013)  buying back their own shares, a 29 percent increase over 2012 and the most since the peak year of 2007. The idea behind buybacks is that they are a tax-advantaged way to return profits to shareholders by boosting the market price of their shares. Since the stock market tends to value companies by multiplying the profits per share times the number of shares, reducing the number of outstanding shares has the arithmetic effect of boosting the stock price. [WaPo May 2014]

During 2013 this “tax advantaged way to return profits to shareholders” was applied by 80% of the companies on the S&P 500.  This is precisely how Wall Street and the Corner Offices can see profits without prosperity. What we need to observe is the interplay between value creation and value extraction.  The Harvard Business Review explains:

“For three decades I’ve been studying how the resource allocation decisions of major U.S. corporations influence the relationship between value creation and value extraction, and how that relationship affects the U.S. economy. From the end of World War II until the late 1970s, a retain-and-reinvest approach to resource allocation prevailed at major U.S. corporations. They retained earnings and reinvested them in increasing their capabilities, first and foremost in the employees who helped make firms more competitive. They provided workers with higher incomes and greater job security, thus contributing to equitable, stable economic growth—what I call “sustainable prosperity.”

This pattern began to break down in the late 1970s, giving way to a downsize-and-distribute regime of reducing costs and then distributing the freed-up cash to financial interests, particularly shareholders. By favoring value extraction over value creation, this approach has contributed to employment instability and income inequality.”

Does that last sentence sound familiar?  So, we know that stock buybacks were popular as of 2013, how about 2014 – it’s now reported (Bloomberg) that 95% of the S&P 500 have engaged in the activity – of value extraction rather than value creation.   The Economist chimes in on the subject:

“Over the past 12 months American firms have bought more than $500 billion of their own shares, close to a record amount. From Apple to Walmart, the most profitable and prominent companies have big buy-back schemes (see article). IBM spends twice as much on share repurchases as on research and development. Exxon has spent over $200 billion buying back its shares, enough to buy its arch-rival BP. The phenomenon is less extreme in other countries, but is becoming popular even in conservative corporate cultures. Led by firms such as Toyota and Mitsubishi, Japanese companies are buying back record amounts of their own shares.”

Yes, stock buybacks can artificially elevate share prices, and give quick bucks to the short term investors.    Someone needs to flash on a yellow caution light.

“In 2013, 38% of firms paid more in buy-backs than their cashflows could support, an unsustainable position. Some American multinationals with apparently healthy global balance sheets are, in fact, dangerously lopsided. They are borrowing heavily at home to pay for buy-backs while keeping cash abroad to avoid America’s high corporate tax rate.” [Economist]

Yet when we have a corporate compensation system which rewards share value why would the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, or IBM, or any other major corporation NOT focus on share prices? Even if they are in peril of having lopsided ledgers. Even if they are extracting more value than they are creating?  Even while they are avoiding America’s corporate taxes? The GAO calculates the actual tax rate paid by these corporations at 12.6%. [CNN]

So, instead of creating value (building new plants, new equipment, new products, paying taxes, or raising wages and salaries) the companies are busy trying to extract value at the risk of making themselves uncompetitive. The financialists, focused as they are, on short term investments, in debt incrusted corporations, are far more interested in value extraction than in value creation, and that’s how we get profitability without prosperity.

Capitalism requires value creation, a balance of consumers and producers, and the accumulation of assets. Financialism is focused on value extraction, feeds on the notion that one firm’s debt is another M&A firm’s asset, and demands that “costs” whether for plant upgrades, employee wages, or research and development not impinge on the “tax advantaged ways to return profits to shareholders.”   The Economist closes the argument: “shareholder capitalism is about growth and creation, not just dividing the spoils.”

The creation of value means investing in more products, better products, more goods, better goods, more services, better services – and now we’re back to the point at which we need to restart the conversation about how to increase aggregate demand for these goods and services – by increasing the minimum wage.

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