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Today’s number: 9 percent

Thursday, Aug 28, 2014

* William Lazonick in the Harvard Business Review

Five years after the official end of the Great Recession, corporate profits are high, and the stock market is booming. Yet most Americans are not sharing in the recovery. While the top 0.1% of income recipients—which include most of the highest-ranking corporate executives—reap almost all the income gains, good jobs keep disappearing, and new employment opportunities tend to be insecure and underpaid. Corporate profitability is not translating into widespread economic prosperity.

The allocation of corporate profits to stock buybacks deserves much of the blame. Consider the 449 companies in the S&P 500 index that were publicly listed from 2003 through 2012. During that period those companies used 54% of their earnings—a total of $2.4 trillion—to buy back their own stock, almost all through purchases on the open market. Dividends absorbed an additional 37% of their earnings. That left very little for investments in productive capabilities or higher incomes for employees.

“Very little” would be 9 percent.

- Posted by Rich Miller        


44 Comments
  1. - Anon - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 8:49 am:

    The economics described in the article is what helped make Rauner such a rich man. That’s why he and other GOP bigwigs like the status quo of historically low taxes and high profits, with the 0.1% (or is it the 0.01%) reap most of the benefits.


  2. - Bill White - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:02 am:

    It’s like the end of a game of Monopoly - one player has all the money, all the good properties, all the hotels and the other 4 or 5 players are bankrupt. Game over.

    All metaphors and analogies are incomplete and inexact, however, I believe this one offers genuine insight into why our economy is struggling.

    Except for the 0.1% - no one has any money to spend. And the 0.1% aren’t spending.


  3. - Apocalypse Now - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:04 am:

    I am very pleased with the returns in the stock market over the last five years. Anyone with a retirement plan should be thankful and happy. Those state retirement plan unfunded liabilities have gotten a lot better over the last five years.
    Overall, millions of people have been helped by this five year boom in the stock market. Only benefiting the 1%. Baloney!


  4. - Left Leaner - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:05 am:

    Figuring that that ol’ trickle down economic “theory” will kick in in 3…2…1…


  5. - Apocalypse Now - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:06 am:

    Ask those millions of people getting dividends and increases in dividends, if they are happy. I would expect, so.


  6. - Grandson of Man - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:06 am:

    That’s why all this crying by those supporting corporate inversions is just wrong. Though the U.S. corporate tax rate is among the highest in the world, it’s still historically low. It used to be higher, as far as the marginal rate. The same goes for other federal income taxes.


  7. - Cook County Commoner - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:07 am:

    “Yet most Americans are not sharing in the recovery.”

    Could it be that “most Americans” may be doing something wrong? Nah. Let’s blame the corporations for the whole mess. That’s so much easier and satisfying than honestly looking at the bad decisions one has made in his or her lifetime.


  8. - Anon - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:14 am:

    Between this trend, student loan debt and a lack of retirement savings for seniors, our nation is headed for a very rough patch over the next 10-20 years.


  9. - VanillaMan - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:20 am:

    Only 3% of Americans polled agree with the statement that our economy has returned to where it was in 2007.

    I wish we had a president to address these economic problems!


  10. - ChrisB - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:23 am:

    Tl;dr version: managers used basic corporate finance to boost their stock prices, because of their short term incentives.

    Stock buybacks are a good thing if you’re an investor. Much better than dividends. They are giving money back to investors at a lower tax rate. It’s also signalling to the market that you expect good cash flows.

    Plus, if I’m an investor, I should hope that the managers are calculating the NPV of these projects to see if they are truly good ideas, and not just blindly throwing money away.

    Why does the HBR think that these is a radical new concepts? Even without the full version, it’s easy to see this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Read the comments for better insight.


  11. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:24 am:

    ===Ask those millions of people getting dividends and increases in dividends, if they are happy.===

    “As of 2010, the richest 5% of U.S. households owned about two-thirds of all outstanding stock”

    http://www.salon.com/2013/09/19/stock_ownership_who_benefits_partner/


  12. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:26 am:

    ===Why does the HBR think that these is a radical new concepts?===

    Because it was a radical concept before strict buyback limits were tossed out.


  13. - Phenomynous - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:29 am:

    “As of 2010, the richest 5% of U.S. households owned about two-thirds of all outstanding stock”

    The fed stimulus and bailout really worked then didn’t it? The current presidents “Mission Accomplished” moment.


  14. - Madison - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:38 am:

    Stock buybacks dress up balance sheets.
    When 70% of GDP is service related, to grow the new economy we have to spur growth through consumption and spending retained earnings and distributing dividends. the consumer is tapped, little borrowingbis happenning.

    Bond markets fortell economic prospects, and yields are falling. to the economy to share we need to increase the velocity of money, which includes but not limited to:
    Taxing retained earnings rather than profits, which forces corporations to raise spending, (hiring) returning money tomshareholders, (dividends) and increasie immigration.

    Yes, its not popular, but they could stem the flow across the border if they chose to, but they choose otherwise, and will tell you they have no solution. Immigrants need cars and homes and food and they will increase consumption without political costs.


  15. - MrJM - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:43 am:

    “Could it be that ‘most Americans’ may be doing something wrong? Nah. Let’s blame the corporations for the whole mess. That’s so much easier and satisfying than honestly looking at the bad decisions one has made in his or her lifetime.”

    Are you seriously suggesting that 99.9% of Americans are “doing something wrong”?

    – MrJM


  16. - Grandson of Man - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:55 am:

    “I wish we had a president to address these economic problems!”

    We do, but he’s being obstructed and denied by Republicans at perhaps an unprecedented or historically significant level.

    Obama’s now resorting to executive orders because Congress is gummed up by obstructionists and House Republicans.

    I wish Republicans in the national legislature would not be hell-bent on blocking this president and would get to work on passing popular legislation, such as a minimum wage increase and a jobs act that would go toward rebuilding infrastructure and education.

    Congressional approval rating is abysmally low, much lower than Obama’s approval rating, and it fits the type of national legislature we currently have.


  17. - Steve - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:55 am:

    Rich, thanks for this excellent post. These are facts. The numbers suggest this stock market rally has been pushed by hot air.


  18. - Sir Reel - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:57 am:

    Buybacks, stashing profits in the bank or overseas, inversions, the list goes on and on .

    America’s economy used to be driven by manufacturing which was driven by engineers and entrepreneurs. Today, financial schemes, manipulation and influence of the tax code, and blaming someone else is our economy.

    No wonder.


  19. - Nearly Normal - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:04 am:

    “Greed is good.”

    Gordon Gekko


  20. - Anon - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:06 am:

    == Could it be that most Americans are oding somehting wrong? ==

    Conservatives like the blame the poor for being poor. It’s all their bad decisions, therefore no reforms in the economy are needed.

    You can’t blame Americans for the structural changes in the economy that mean a shrinking proportion of jobs with good benefits and salaries. There is a significant portion of the working poor who have some college.


  21. - Bill White - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:07 am:

    === The numbers suggest this stock market rally has been pushed by hot air. ===

    I disagree with this. I believe the stock market is being pushed by wage suppression.

    Productivity is up while wages remain stagnant. Those gains are real not illusionary.

    However those gains will not be sustainable into the future unless the purchasing power of the 99.9% is increased.

    = = =

    Perhaps curiously, this might all boil down to whether you believe or disbelieve Say’s Law.


  22. - Steve - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:09 am:

    When the tax code got changed which “encouraged” stock options instead of actual compensation for corporate write-offs for payroll: stock options won. Anyway, just a reminder: most companies in America aren’t in the S&P 500. The average CEO in America makes $177,000 a year.


  23. - Anonymous - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:12 am:

    “bad decisions one has made in their life”

    You mean like continuing to buy groceries at Jewel at the increasing prices that eat away at income versus growing and harvesting wheat and baking bread or raising cattle in our backyard to slaughter to save money? Get real. Only an ostrich with head buried in the sand( or a .1% er) would think 99.9% of Americans are at fault for every economic problem they have. It is pure and simple greed by those who have and want more. The increasingly shuttered storefronts in my suburban middle class city tell me folks don’t have money to support these businesses….the ones they used to frequent. Most 99.9%-ers have made big adjustments in their lifestyles and not for the better. What recovery? The trickle down is not trickling.


  24. - 47th Ward - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:25 am:

    Well, let’s not forget that 9% of $2.4 trillion is still about $200 billion, which is a heck of a lot of money. Why, that’s almost $700 each for the other 300 million Americans.

    $700 each, over a decade. Hard to see why anyone is complaining. A simple “thank you” shouldn’t be too much to ask for. A bunch of ingrates if you ask me.


  25. - Ghost - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:27 am:

    This is where you get the ever expanding split between the wealthy complaining that government is just socialists after their money, and the populace whose wealth is being moved by modern day robber barons into fewer and fewer hands.

    if the companies had expanded provisions for health benefits, increased salaries and left theri defined benefitplans alone instead of converting them to bonuses, people may not be pushing for government programs to fill the void.

    We are slowly following the history of Rome that helped lead to its collapse…concerntrating more and more of the worlds wealth in the hands of a few.

    perhaps it is better to have only 7 houses and pay good wages and provide quality health care…….


  26. - mcb - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:28 am:

    There’s plenty of blame for all of this everywhere. The shuttered storefronts are probably more due to customers heading to Wal-Mart and the other box stores to “save money”. The idea among consumers that we deserve to pay less for things has continued to push our manufacturers out of the country. If you’re a business and your competitors are producing cheaper products overseas, you either follow suit or go under, because customers will choose cheap and foreign far more often.

    At the same time, I think the stockholders are as much to blame for shareholder value theory issues as CEO’s. The CEO takes orders from those who own stock, and they want to see stock prices higher. If they don’t get what they want then it’s time for a new CEO. So the CEO’s are often taking the only option that benefits them, drive up share prices. Because they can either be rich with a happy board, or poor.
    Everyone from consumers, to shareholders, to politicians needs to realize that there’s often a difference between long term good and short term gains.


  27. - phocion - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:33 am:

    Sometimes I tack right, sometimes left, mostly try to stay centered. But this article hit me kinda hard. It’s difficult to defend our current system based on this information. Income disparities are proven to rend the social fabric. I don’t want the government in the redistribution business, but the private sector had better recognize how short-sided their greed is.


  28. - Federalist - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:42 am:

    “Yes, its not popular, but they could stem the flow across the border if they chose to, but they choose otherwise, and will tell you they have no solution. Immigrants need cars and homes and food and they will increase consumption without political costs.”

    Not really. Far too many have little money and any jobs they get here will be low paying. Not a legitimate way to increase the economy when so many citizens in this country are unemployed or underemployed.

    The real reason we have massive legal and illegal immigration is that Democrats rightfully see at least 70% voting for them in future elections (and this has been going on now for several decades so that those future elections are actually now) and the Republican backed business interest types want a never ending supply of cheap labor.


  29. - Anonymous - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 10:56 am:

    Income disparities are now rending social fabric. It sounds alarmist but there seems to be increasing low level anger rather than apathy and a feeling of helplessness. Too many people who are educated and have held good jobs only to have lost them are angry and resentful when there are no opportunities to get their standard of living back, or even close. We are becoming very polarized in so many ways in America and I can’t believe that’s a good thing.


  30. - Sue - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 11:03 am:

    Rich- your assertion that the top 5 % own the vast majority of stocks ignores the well known fact that pension programs (including public plans) own the vast majority of equities issued in the USA. CALPERS/CALSTERS and their fellow funds own more equities then all individuals in the market - Public Plans if well managed are reaping the benefits of the recent stock surge- as a result so are the taxpayers who are on the hook for the unfunded liabilities


  31. - Formerly Known As... - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 11:06 am:

    == “Very little” would be 9 percent. ==

    And you should be grateful for that, peons. /s


  32. - thechampaignlife - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 11:16 am:

    ===That left very little for investments in productive capabilities or higher incomes for employees.===

    If they had made those investments, wouldn’t that have already been reflected in the profits (increased expense, lower profit)? If only 9% is left over for such investments, theoretically that could just mean than those investments have already been made and that is why profits were $50M this year instead of $70M, for example.

    I’m guessing if I read the study it would explain that the figure they are using for profits is before such investment costs are factored in, although that seems and odd way to do accounting.


  33. - CircularFiringSquad - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 11:19 am:

    “am very pleased with the returns in the stock market over the last five years. Anyone with a retirement plan should be thankful and happy. Those state retirement plan unfunded liabilities have gotten a lot better over the last five years.”
    Huh? Did you miss the 4+ years of lost growth due to the predatory lenders and the 2+ years of lost growth due to Silicone Valley hustlers Wake Up


  34. - A guy... - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 11:25 am:

    The only people this will make an ounce of sense to are the people in this stratosphere. For everyone else the theme is “Rich people catch all the breaks”. That’s already out there. Not sure how well it’s doing with the targeted undecideds.


  35. - Cheswick - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 11:48 am:

    When a select few have all the money, the money will become worthless.


  36. - A guy... - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 11:59 am:

    Ches, according to some, we’re already at that moment and money has never been more precious. Hmmm.


  37. - anon, - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 12:31 pm:

    These businesses are financing growth with borrowing at the current very low interest rates. The cost of capital through debt is far lower than equity. This is a win - win - win.


  38. - CapnCrunch - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 1:39 pm:

    “I am very pleased with the returns in the stock market over the last five years. Anyone with a retirement plan should be thankful and happy. Those state retirement plan unfunded liabilities have gotten a lot better over the last five years.”…..

    Good point. Retirees in one of the state’s plans have done well. Over the last 6 years they have enjoyed a 19% increase in their pension income while the cost of living( CPI ) has increased only about 11%.


  39. - Bill White - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 1:44 pm:

    == When a select few have all the money, the money will become worthless. ==

    Germany recently sold two year bonds with a negative yield - give us 1000 EU today and we will give you 999 EU back in two years. Folks are paying Germany a fee to hold their cash.

    Nope there isn’t any excess cash sloshing around in the global market. Not a dime. ;-)

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-07/germany-s-bond-advance-sends-2-year-note-yield-below-zero.html


  40. - Left Leaner - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 1:45 pm:

    ==but the private sector had better recognize how short-sided their greed is==

    They won’t. And here lies one of the key problems.

    Our crumbling infrastructure acts as a good example. CEOs and many 0.1%ers need good roads, railways, waterways and communication systems to actually run their businesses. Many are the same people screaming for lower taxes, doing inversions and creating tax loopholes. Concurrently, they lament that our infrastructure is in bad shape without seemingly realizing that the very taxes they try to escape pay for the infrastructure they demand. CEOs and shareholders squeal with high profits without recognizing their cutting off their own legs.

    Remember the brew-ha-ha over Obama’s “you didn’t built this” comment, where he was referring directly to those roads, rail and waterways? Case.In.Point.


  41. - Federalist - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 2:42 pm:

    Left Leaner,

    But are businesses demand lower taxes for infrastructure? Or just demanding lower taxes for other areas of the government budgets?

    Not certain about that, and I am sure one can find single examples off almost anything.

    Can you can provide a number of crediblespecific examples of such businesses saying cut my taxes to be used for infrastructure?


  42. - redleg - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 4:10 pm:

    Anybody who has followed the creation of the Federal Reserve and the boom/bust periods it has created shouldn’t be surprised.

    It’s fiat people. Stay tuned people because the bottom hasn’t been reached yet.


  43. - Madison - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 6:18 pm:

    Red leg the good standard created enormous depressions in the 19th century, and the silver standard did not help later. When your economy is linked to the price of a commodity (precious metals) and the value of that commodity declines, so does your economy. Even today there are some gold bugs around, but not any solvent ones.


  44. - Anonymous - Thursday, Aug 28, 14 @ 9:04 pm:

    9% ten years wow you could double your cash in a little over a 100 years


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