President Obama should be lauded for using his State of the Union address to champion policies that would benefit the struggling middle class, ranging from higher wages to child care to paid sick leave. “It’s the right thing to do,” affirmed the president. And it is. But in appealing to Americans’ innate sense of justice and fairness, the president unfortunately missed an opportunity to draw an important connection between rising income inequality and stagnant economic growth.
As economic power has shifted from workers to owners over the past 40 years, corporate profit’s take of the U.S. economy has doubled—from an average of 6 percent of GDP during America’s post-war economic heyday to more than 12 percent today. Yet despite this extra $1 trillion a year in corporate profits, job growth remains anemic, wages are flat, and our nation can no longer seem to afford even its most basic needs. A $3.6 trillion budget shortfall has left many roads, bridges, dams, and other public infrastructure in disrepair. Federal spending on economically crucial research and development has plummeted 40 percent, from 1.25 percent of GDP in 1977 to only 0.75 percent today. Adjusted for inflation, public university tuition—once mostly covered by the states—has more than doubled over the past 30 years, burying recent graduates under $1.2 trillion in student debt. Many public schools and our police and fire departments are dangerously underfunded.
The answer is as simple as it is surprising: Much of it went to stock buybacks—more than $6.9 trillion of them since 2004, according to data compiled by Mustafa Erdem Sakinç of The Academic-Industry Research Network. Over the past decade, the companies that make up the S&P 500 have spent an astounding 54 percent of profits on stock buybacks. Last year alone, U.S. corporations spent about $700 billion, or roughly 4 percent of GDP, to prop up their share prices by repurchasing their own stock.
In the past, this money flowed through the broader economy in the form of higher wages or increased investments in plants and equipment. But today, these buybacks drain trillions of dollars of windfall profits out of the real economy and into a paper-asset bubble, inflating share prices while producing nothing of tangible value. Corporate managers have always felt pressure to grow earnings per share, or EPS, but where once their only option was the hard work of actually growing earnings by selling better products and services, they can now simply manipulate their EPS by reducing the number of shares outstanding.
So what’s changed? Before 1982, when John Shad, a former Wall Street CEO in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission loosened regulations that define stock manipulation, corporate managers avoided stock buybacks out of fear of prosecution. That rule change, combined with a shift toward stock-based compensation for top executives, has essentially created a gigantic game of financial “keep away,” with CEOs and shareholders tossing a $700-billion ball back and forth over the heads of American workers, whose wages as a share of GDP have fallen in almost exact proportion to profit’s rise.
To be clear: I’ve done stock buybacks too. We all do it. In this era of short-term-focused activist investors, it is nearly impossible to avoid. So at least part of the solution to our current epidemic of business disinvestment must be to discourage this sort of stock manipulation by going back to the pre-1982 rules.
This practice is not only unfair to the American middle class, but is also demonstrably harmful to both individual companies and the American economy as a whole. In a recent white paper titled “The World’s Dumbest Idea,” GMO asset allocation manager James Montier strongly challenges the 40-year obsession with “shareholder value maximization,” or SVM, documenting the many ways that stock buybacks and excessive dividends have reduced business investment and boosted inequality. Almost all investment carried out by firms is financed by retained earnings, Montier points out, so the diversion of cash flow to stock buybacks has inevitably resulted in lower rates of business investment. Defenders of SVM argue that investors efficiently reallocate the profits they reap from repurchased shares by investing the proceeds into more promising enterprises. But Montier shows that since the 1980s, public corporations have actually bought back more equity than they’ve issued, representing a net negative equity flow. Shareholders aren’t providing capital to the corporate sector, they’re extracting it.
Meanwhile, the shift toward stock-based compensation helped drive the rise of the 1 percent by inflating the ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation from twenty-to-one in 1965 to about 300-to-one today. Labor’s steadily falling share of GDP has inevitably depressed consumer demand, resulting in slower economic growth. A new study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that rising inequality knocked six points off U.S. GDP growth between 1990 and 2010 alone.
It is mathematically impossible to make the public- and private-sector investments necessary to sustain America’s global economic competitiveness while flushing away 4 percent of GDP year after year. That is why the federal government must reorient its policies from promoting personal enrichment to promoting national growth. These policies should limit stock buybacks and raise the marginal rate on dividends while providing real incentives to boost investment in R&D, worker training, and business expansion.
If business leaders hope to maintain broad public support for business, they must acknowledge that the purpose of the corporation is not to enrich the few, but to benefit the many. Once America’s CEOs refocus on growing their companies rather than growing their share prices, shareholder value will take care of itself and all Americans will share in the benefits of a renewed era of economic growth.