The epidemic of stock buybacks is another feature of corrupt corporate capitalism. The buybacks of stock used to be illegal in the U.S. for a sensible reason — a restraint on the greed of obscenely rich corporate executives.
The monster of economic waste—over $7 trillion of dictated stock buybacks since 2003 by the self-enriching CEOs of large corporations—started with a little noticed change in 1982 by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under President Ronald Reagan. That was when SEC Chairman John Shad, a former Wall Street CEO, redefined unlawful ‘stock manipulation’ to exclude stock buybacks.
What could competent management have done with this treasure trove of shareholder money which came originally from consumer purchases? They could have invested more in research and development, in productive plant and equipment, in raising worker pay (and thereby consumer demand), in shoring up shaky pension fund reserves, or increasing dividends to shareholders.
The leading expert on this subject—economics professor William Lazonick of the University of Massachusetts—wrote a widely read article in 2013 in the Harvard Business Review titled “Profits Without Prosperity” documenting the intricate ways CEOs use buybacks to escalate their pay up to 300 to 500 times (averaging over $10,000 an hour plus lavish benefits) the average pay of their workers. This compared to only 30 times the average pay gap in 1978.
By now you may be asking, why don’t the corporate bosses simply give more dividends to shareholders instead of buybacks, since a steady high dividend yield usually protects the price of the shares? Because these executives have far more of their compensation package in manipulated stock options and incentive payments than they own in stock.
Walmart in recent years has bought back over $50 billion of its shares – a move benefitting the Walton family’s wealth – while saying it could not afford to increase the meagre pay for over one million of their workers in the US. Last year the company bought back $8.3 billion of their stock which could have given their hard-pressed employees, many of whom are on welfare, a several thousand dollar raise.
The corporate giants are also demanding that Congress allow the repatriation of about $2.5 trillion stashed abroad without paying more than 5% tax. They say the money would be used to grow the economy and create jobs. Last time CEOs promised this result in 2004, Congress approved, and then was double-crossed. The companies spent the bulk on stock buybacks, their own pay raises and some dividend increases.
There are more shenanigans. With low interest rates that are deductible, companies actually borrow money to finance their stock buybacks. If the stock market tanks, these companies will have a self-created debt load to handle. A former Citigroup executive, Richard Parsons, has expressed worry about a “massively manipulated” stock market which “scares the crap” out of him.
Banks that pay you near zero interest on your savings announced on June 28, 2017 the biggest single buyback in history – a $92.8 billion extraction. Drug companies who say their sky-high drug prices are needed to fund R&D. But between 2006 and 2017, 18 drug company CEOs spent a combined staggering $516 billion on buybacks and dividends – more than their inflated claims of spending for R&D.
Mr. Olenick says “When managers can’t create value in the business other than buying their own stock, it seems like it’s time for a management change.”
Who’s going to do that? Shareholders stripped of inside power to control the company they own? No way. It will take Congressional hearings, a robust media focus, and the political clout of large pension and mutual funds to get the reforms under way.
When I asked Robert Monks, an author and longtime expert on corporate governance, about his reaction to CEOs heavy with stock buybacks, he replied that the management was either unimaginative, incompetent or avaricious – or all of these.
Essentially burning trillions of dollars for the hyper enrichment of a handful of radical corporate state supremacists wasn’t what classical capitalism was supposed to be about.