The Big Catch: Pay Us and We’ll Do The Right Thing

Banker Sorry A small group of ultra-wealthy individuals are getting alarmed by the widening income gap in America. [NYT]  Their cries hit some major news outlets and were analyzed in others. [Salon] [NationalMemo] And, as we might expect there’s a catch:  Corporate Welfare.

“There is a way to start. Government can provide tax incentives to business to pay more to employees making $80,000 or less. The program would exist for three to five years and then be evaluated for effectiveness.

The benefits would be huge. People would have more money to spend, and many would no longer need government help. That would mean a reduction in entitlements.” Peter Georgescu, CEO Young & Rubicam

Yes, you and many others read this correctly – CEO’s like Ken Langone (Home Depot founder) and Georgescu and Paul Tudor Jones are worried about the possibilities of either peasants with pitch forks or declining sales.  And, no, there is nothing new here. Nothing that ventures too far from the business model calling for tax breaks, cuts, incentives, etc. for corporations to locate in beautiful downtown West Buffalo Fart. 

If the suggestion weren’t so demonstrably callous it would be ludicrous and risible.  First, there’s nothing preventing companies from doing this without benefit of yet more tax cuts for the already wealthy corporations – or, is there.  Welcome back to the world of Shareholder Value!

Wal-Mart recently announced plans to increase company-wide minimum wage to $9 per hour, and to increase pay to $10 per hour for many employees by February.  And, then it bowed to the First Law of Staffing:

The company has also increased store staffing at peak hours so shoppers move quickly through checkout lines and see stocked shelves, said executives during the company’s quarterly earnings call earlier in August. [MarketWatch]

The old First Law is that you have enough employees if you can satisfy customer demand and maintain acceptable levels of client or customer service.  This should have been good news all around – except it wasn’t.

Those efforts contributed to a 15% drop in second-quarter net income compared with a year earlier, said executives. [MarketWatch]

What did Wall Street do?  The Street didn’t like that drop and punished Wal-Mart accordingly.

walmart stock

That’s right… it didn’t matter to investors if there were happier employees at the giant retailer; it didn’t matter that customers didn’t have to wait in the cashier’s line so long.  It mattered that the second quarter net income report was down on a YOY basis.

This is one of the more egregious contemporary examples of the Shareholder Value Monster trampling on any corporate plans to do what businesses should do best – meet customer demand with an acceptable level of customer/client service.

As long as the Financialists continue to steer the corporate ships details like customer service and employee retention – which used to inform management policy – will take a back seat to the quarterly earnings reports. So, Wal-Mart caved to the financial side and announced to its +/- 4,600 store managers that it would return to “pre-determined” staffing levels (back to the old levels), and cut employee hours to trim expenses.

CEO’s, of such organizations like Wal-Mart, are now trapped in a device of their own creation. If they attempt to offer higher wages (or improve the quality of customer service), both of which have long term benefits;  they are punished by the Shareholder Value oriented short term investors and their stock prices drop. If the stock prices drop so does executive compensation.  Should the stock prices drop too far in the estimation of investors the CEO can be gliding off on his or her Golden Parachute into the corporate sunset.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that the CEOs are anxious to have some taxpayer assistance “doing the right thing” (increasing wages) in the long term because the short-sightedness of the Shareholder Value Theory of Management has translated into a situation in which long term benefits are sacrificed on the altar of short term profitability.

The paycheck pinch: One of the CEO’s angling for government (read: taxpayer) assistance in decreasing the widening income gap is Ken Langone (Home Depot founder). Sales and revenue for Home Depot in 2011 was $68 billion, increasing to $83.1 billion in 2015. 2011 gross income was reported as $21.69 billion, increasing to $27.3 billion in 2015. Its current domestic income tax liability is $3.26 billion, it has a deferred domestic tax liability of $116 million. [Marketwatch]  And, Mr. Langone agrees that corporations should be given tax breaks in order to pay more to the employees of concerns like Home Depot.

There are some 20 Home Depot stores in Nevada, most in the Las Vegas area, some in Reno/Sparks, and a couple in what is understood as rural Nevada, Elko and Pahrump.  There are plenty earning less than $80,000 per year in these operations.  The wages for a sales associate range from $8.67 to $13.95; cashiers earn from $7.93 to $10.83; department supervisors earn between $12.01 to $18.91; and, retail sales associations can make from $8.68 to $17.16.  (See Payscale.com as information updates)

These salaries have tax implications in Nevada as a result of 2015 legislation:

The Modified Business Tax (MBT) is currently imposed on businesses other than financial institutions in the amount of 1.17 percent of wages paid above an exemption level of $85,000 per quarter. Financial institutions pay a higher rate of 2 percent. The MBT rate had been scheduled to decline to 0.63 percent for nonfinancial institutions beginning July 1, 2015. The MBT base has been narrowed significantly since the tax’s introduction in 2003, with exemption level increases in 2011 and 2013.

After significant debate over whether to expand the MBT or adopt a new gross receipts tax, the final plan includes elements of both options. The MBT will increase from 1.17 percent to 1.475 percent for most businesses, effective July 1, 2015. Mining companies will join financial institutions in paying the higher 2 percent tax rate. The MBT base is broadened by reducing the exemption to $50,000 per quarter, increasing the estimated number of MBT taxpayers to 18,607, up from the 13,492 paying the tax at present.[2] An earlier proposal to remove the MBT exemption for employer-provided health care costs was dropped.

After the first year, taxpayers may deduct up to 50 percent of their Commerce Tax payments over the previous four quarters from their MBT liability. Moreover, should total revenue from all business taxes exceed projections by more than four percent, the MBT rate will be adjusted downward, though to a rate no lower than 1.17 percent. [TaxFoundation]

Note the last paragraph, even with a compromise between larger and smaller corporations in Nevada, there’s still a bit of a tax break allowed on the Commerce Tax depending on the “previous four quarters.”  We’re probably not looking at any massive tax breaks in the 2015 legislation, but we need to add these to the $88 million in breaks given to Apple [MJ]  and the state’s generosity to Tesla in the form of $1.25 billion. [RGJ] In the latter deal the understanding was that Tesla would pay an average of $25/hr.

Not to put too fine a point to it, but corporations are quite used to having government entities, be they Apple in Nevada and North Carolina, Tesla in Nevada, or the bargaining in the 2015 Nevada legislature over how to maintain tax revenues, engage in tax-payer subsidies for corporate operations.  Thus, it’s not the least bit surprising the CEOs would ask for tax-payer subsidization for payroll increases.

It would be a reasonable conjecture to conclude that Home Depot and other Big Box firms like Wal-Mart might be willing to adopt staffing policies which increase employee wages and provide for better customer service –IF and ONLY IF there are further tax breaks associated with those policies which will please the short-term oriented Shareholder Value financialists who pull on the purse strings.

Hanging the Wash? Consider what the CEOs are proposing – it’s all good: “The benefits would be huge. People would have more money to spend, and many would no longer need government help. That would mean a reduction in entitlements.”  But wait, there’s some loaded language herein.  Programs like SNAP, and subsidized housing, or similar assistance to low wage earners are NOT entitlements. These are situational support programs for people in need.  Social Security/Medicare, into which people have paid for decades are entitlements – you get what you paid for.

Loaded language aside,  What happens when the corporations raise wages, projected to reduce the number of people receiving social assistance, but the revenues for that social assistance are reduced by the tax breaks given to the corporations in order to support those very same wage increases? The tax payers are on the hook either way – they either pay for the social assistance programs which subsidize low wages,  or they subsidize the tax breaks to corporations to reduce the need for the social programs?  It’s a win-win for the corporations, and a lose-lose for the average American.

2 Comments

Filed under Economy, Nevada economy, Nevada legislature, Nevada politics, nevada taxation, Politics

2 responses to “The Big Catch: Pay Us and We’ll Do The Right Thing

  1. People are willing to stand in line to be checked out if they believe they are saving a few bucks. Wal Mart, K Mart and Target–yes, and even Costco.

  2. True, but there are still timing goals most large retailers want to achieve; see Wall Street Journal http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323798104578453293807869744