The race for shareholder profits the washington post 1

The Washington Post (February 25, 2019)
The race for shareholder profits has left workers in the dust …
A relentless focus on maximizing shareholder value has contributed to stagnant middle-class
wages in the United States and fueled the rise of a society increasingly divided between haves
and have-nots, according to a new working paper published by the Roosevelt Institute, a
progressive economic think tank.
“Nearly fifty years of increasing focus on shareholder payments has cost American workers the
chance to do well when corporations do well,” the study’s author, Lenore Palladino, said in a
statement. “The misguided assumption that corporate prosperity should benefit only
shareholders has hurt the ability of employees to bargain for a share of that prosperity — which
they help create — and held back a growing economy.”
The paper traces the rise of what Palladino calls “shareholder primacy,” which she defines as “a
legal and economic framework for corporate governance that claims that the sole purpose of
corporate activity is to maximize wealth for shareholders.” As Palladino tells it, in the decades
immediately following World War II, managers held considerable decision-making power in the
dominant publicly traded companies. Because of their positions in their companies, managers
tended to make decisions with an eye toward maintaining good, or at least stable, relations
with their employees.
The Washington Post (February 25, 2019)
“Firms invested in and depended on a stable labor force,” Palladino writes, “and unions held
enough power to secure significant gains for their members.”
That began to change in the 1970s. “As economic growth slowed and inflation rose,
shareholders became dissatisfied with low and steady dividends,” Palladino writes. Buoyed by
the efforts of such conservative intellectuals as the economist Milton Friedman, who wrote that
the responsibility of corporate executives is to “conduct the business in accordance with
[business owners’, i.e. shareholders’] desires, which generally will be to make as much money
as possible,” shareholders began demanding a greater share of the profits generated by the
businesses they invested in. The interests of employees were relegated to a secondary concern.
The fruits of that revolution are on display in the chart at the top of this article, showing how
worker compensation became decoupled from worker productivity starting in the 1970s.
Before then, productivity and pay had risen in tandem: Employees were producing more output
and getting paid accordingly. But afterward pay lagged behind a steep rise in productivity.
The chart below, for instance, shows inflation-adjusted hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers, a subset of the labor force often used as a proxy for the middle class. In
real terms, those wages peaked in 1972 at $23.85, then eroded until the mid-1990s. The
subsequent two decades have seen a gradual rebound, although as of January those wages still
had not equaled their 1972 peak.
The Washington Post (February 25, 2019)
What did corporations do with their profits if they were not investing in their workers?
Palladino produces data showing much of that money was instead diverted to shareholders via
two methods: dividends (payouts of profit on a per-share basis) and stock buybacks, which
usually have the effect of boosting stock prices for existing shareholders.
According to Palladino’s data, from 1972 to 2016, the value of these shareholder payouts rose
from 1.8 percent of all publicly traded companies’ assets to 3.1 percent. Over that same time,
wages’ share of company assets fell by roughly half.
“These shifts are consistent with a story of rising shareholder power and declining employee
bargaining power,” Palladino writes.
This relationship is not necessarily causal, of course. Palladino points out that many factors can
play a role in wage stagnation, “including globalization, rising market power and decreased
antitrust enforcement, the decline in the number of workers covered by a collective bargaining
agreement, financialization and the rising proportion of national income earned by the financial
sector, and fissuring of the workplace,” to name a few.
Other research has shown, for instance, that a focus on shareholder value can cause
employment to shrink as managers seek ways to cut costs, and that the relationship between
shareholder payments and employee wages is on some level zero-sum: You cannot boost one
without cutting the other. If nothing else, the data charted by Palladino shows the era of
shareholder primacy has not been a particularly good one for American workers.
The Washington Post (February 25, 2019)
“The rise of shareholder primacy has contributed to America’s high-profit, low-wage economy,
in which the wealthy few capture much of value created by working people,” Palladino
Defenders of practices like stock buybacks disagree with analyses like Palladino’s. They
maintain, for instance, that returning profits to shareholders allows those shareholders to
invest those funds in other companies with greater cash needs, benefiting workers in those
companies. Cash from buybacks “is not disappearing into the vaults of billionaires,” as Benn
Steil and Benjamin Della Rocca of the Council on Foreign Relations recently put it, “but is being
reinvested in firms that do have good uses for it — like capital investment and worker
Some economists also argue that, somewhat paradoxically, buybacks prevent firms from
becoming too shareholder-focused by putting more of a company’s value under the control of
its executives. “A common concern about the public corporation is that it is owned by millions
of dispersed shareholders, whose stakes are too small to motivate them to look beyond shortterm earnings,” according to Alex Edmans of the London Business School. CEOs and remaining
shareholders “have the incentive to look beyond earnings and instead look to a company’s
long-term growth opportunities and intangible assets.”
In an interview, Palladino said that it is not just workers who are potentially harmed by an
excessive focus on shareholder value. Customers lose when companies forgo investment in new
or more affordable products to pay their shareholders.
The practice even puts small shareholders, including people holding retirement investments in
401(k) accounts, at risk, Palladino says. Buybacks, for instance, directly benefit only people who
subsequently sell their stock in the company, which long-term retirement investors typically do
not do. And overspending on dividends and buybacks can put a company in a financially
precarious situation if a recession hits.
“If, in the next downturn, corporations do not have the funds on hand to maintain operations in
leaner times, or have loaded up on debt that they then can’t repay, or simply aren’t making the
kinds of investments that will make them grow and innovate over time, who is going to be
affected?” Palladino asks. “Those of us who are counting on the stock market for our long-term
economic security.”
Christopher Ingraham

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