The Progressive Ensign

insights and analytics to build an economy that works for all

Category: Corporate Power

Corporations Are Taking Worker Wages To Increase Profits

 

Image: csmonitor.com

Eight-three percent of all workers are ‘non-supervisory’ workers in the Federal Reserve classification of types of workers, yet they have not seen a fair cut of the profits since 2000.  Corporations have used financial engineering techniques like stock buybacks where funds are used to buy corporate stock and goose the price up. J.P. Morgan estimates that with dollars repatriated from the tax cut bill, that stock buybacks will hit a new record of $800 billion for 2018.  This $800 billion is absolutely wasted on driving stock prices up while not investing in employee wages, capital expenditures, research and development, instead stock buy backs increase executive compensation tied to stock price.

Source; Real Investment Advice – 6/29/18

Since before the Great Recession wages have been stagnant for working class people, the 80 % of the workforce that make corporations prosper.  The wages to profits ratio arc shows a continuing decline since the 1980s – interestingly when the GOP was telling us that ‘trickle down’ economics would bring economic prosperity to all.  Instead working class families are having to take two or three jobs and borrow on their credit cards just to keep their household finances afloat.

Next Steps:

The country is run by Corporate Nation States who make the contributions, fund the campaigns and essentially buy off the legislative influence that counts in the U.S.  Each year corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington DC lobbying alone, i.e. Amazon has 94 lobbyists keeping DOJ anti-trust lawyers distracted, the FCC at bay on drones and lobby other interests to keep its juggernaut growing.

It is time we wake up to what is happening from Supreme Court decisions that favor American Express over merchants, to the GOP tax cut bill, to relaxing the Dodd-Frank rules on banking Corporate Nation States are running this country.  The basic economic trends in America are not going to change unless we have corporate reform.  Will this reform come in the form of legislation like Sen. Booker’s Dividend Reform Act or letters from investment banks to corporate CEOs like Blackrock CEO Larry Fink sent recently.  We are not sure, but we need to take a path that takes on the dominant power of Corporate Nation States or we are going to see the middle class wiped out and our economy with it. After all, as we pointed out in a recent post on the Common Good, when the working class has little money to spend the rich will lose too.  The working class has earned a fair share of the profits. Fair share means when profits go up by 5 % wages go up by at least 5 % otherwise the economy deteriorates like it is today deeply in public and corporate debt.

in the end the rich will need to see that it is in their interest to build the Common Good, by contributing to our institutions of government and common people or they will lose what they already have and probably a lot more.”

Building An Economy for the Common Good

(Editor Note: Insight Bytes focus on key economic issues and solutions for all of us, on Thursdays we spotlight in more depth Solutions to issues we have identified. Fridays we focus on how to build the Common Good. Please right click on images to see them larger in a separate tab.)

Image: Your Little Planet

In the past week, American Express won a gag order over merchants when the Supreme Court handed down a decision that allowed the huge financial services company to require all their merchants not to tell their consumers other cards had cheaper swipe fees.  Amazon announced the acquisition of Pill Pack a mail order pharmacy company, which sent financial shock waves through the drug store industry. So, it goes on, a Corporate Nation State (CNS) like American Express  or Amazon have their way limiting consumers choices to reduce costs and to take over the drug marketplace with no fair market rules in place.

Are these two companies focused on building the common good, fair play rules in the marketplace, doing what is right for consumers and taking social responsibility for the impact of their decisions?  No.  There is no countervailing power when Congress, The Supreme Court and the Executive branch are all doing the bidding of CNS organizations.

Corporations run our federal government by donating hundreds of millions of dollars (they have no campaign donation limits) each year to congressional campaigns through super PACs. Some CNS entities have large lobbying offices in Washington, like Amazon with 94 lobbyists knocking on Representative and Senator doors every day!  Do we have an army of lobbyists twisting arms for our interests?  No.

Where can we look for corporate reform to build the common good?  Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, a $6.3 trillion institutional investment corporation, sent a letter to 1000 CEOs of companies they invest in telling them that beyond profits they would be evaluated on how well they are taking care of the environment, responding to climate change, having a diverse workforce, and fairness with their employees. We applaud Mr. Fink’s move, and look to more investors to call upon corporate management to be held accountable for their social responsibilities.

There are corporate accountability frameworks that have been receiving widespread acceptance and government support. In the European Union a group called the Economy for the Common Good (ECG), has over 2400 corporate endorsers and almost 10,000 individuals support their effort to require corporations report on a Common Good Balance Sheet their social responsibility activities. The EU has adopted a non-binding directive requiring companies of 500 employees and ‘public interest’ to report on human rights, diversity, labor rights, the environment, health and anti-corruption measures. The report is not included with the corporate annual report and is therefore not audited.

The Common Good Balance Sheet is divided into four key accountability areas: human dignity, solidarity and social justice, environmental sustainability, and transparency and co-determination:

Source: Economy for the Common Good – 6/29/18

The ECG is now working to make actual changes in corporate behavior by focusing on gaining support for these eight issues:

  • universal (all values and relevant issues)
  • legally binding
  • measurable and comparable (e. g. using points)
  • externally audited
  • generally understandable (for the public)
  • public (on all products, websites, shop doors)
  • developed in a participatory process
  • linked to legal incentives (taxes, tariffs, …)

The first phase has been completed of their initiative to gain EU nonbinding support next they look for a binding EU directive by 2020 followed by integration financial reporting.

We need to find corporate leaders in the US that see the vision of an Economy for the Common Good, embrace it and implement its ideas in their day to day operations – while measuring the results to show it is a better way to run a business.  A business can build an economy that works for all and still be a thriving profitable enterprise.

Supreme Court Empowers American Express To Gag Merchants

Photo: consumerist.com

Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, wrote in the majority opinion released yesterday, “two-sided platforms, differ from traditional markets in important ways. Since card companies deal with both merchants and consumers.” He continued “people challenging actions as anticompetitive must take account of the effect on both sets of market participants.”  The majority did not see the restraint in trade by American Express requiring merchants to only offer their card, and not tell customers that Visa and Mastercard had cheaper swipe fees.

The majority was by only one vote 5-4,  with Justice Stephen J. Breyer reading his minority opinion summary, an unusual step, when he said, “I particularly fear the interpretive impact of the majority’s discussion of what it calls ‘two-sided platforms,’ in an era when that term might be thought to apply to many internet-related goods and services that are becoming ever more important.”

The bottom line is this: American Express can gag its merchants legally from telling their customers that American Express fees are higher than other cards and they will have to raise prices as a result.  Plus, the implication is that other cards are not available for customers to pay for their purchases.

American Express has a huge market share in credit card networks:

Source: valuepenguin.com – 2017

Yes, that’s right Amex did .695 trillion dollars in transactions in 2016! While Visa does have a larger share, American Express is essentially gaging its merchants about the costs of transactions and restraining trade.

Next Steps:

We are frustrated and disappointed that SCOTUS has sided with a Corporate Nation State, American Express, to support continuing to build their financial empire at the cost of retailers optimally running their businesses. Think of retailer’s position – caught in an Amazon competitive whirl wind, Internet global access to products and constantly trying to gain the attention of shoppers to come into their store.

The American Express ‘steering clause’ is clearly a restraint of trade, we need court decisions focused on creating a level playing field for all companies to do business.  Congress needs to pass a law making it clear that these ‘two sided’ platforms are just another form of distribution so a product or services provider cannot restrain the distributor from exercising his business rights and doing what is right for their customer.

Amazon’s Growing Corporate Power In Washington – Threat to Capitalist Democracy

Source: e-brand.biz

An oligarchy is defined by Wikipedia as, “a form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people”.  One of the Elite is corporate tycoon Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder, who is thought to be the wealthiest person in the world with net worth estimated at $141 billion.  He wields great corporate power leading an innovative company, pioneering e-retailing when many said it couldn’t be done building a $177 billion empire in e-Commerce, web services, grocery, and just about everything you can buy in a store you can get from Amazon.  Amazon owns 43 % of the e-Commerce market, and has been responsible for a complete transformation of brick-n-mortar retailing causing the loss  of thousands of jobs.  The company name is synonymous with going out of business as some store owners declare they have been ‘Amazoned’.

Amazon has one of the largest lobbying forces in Washington, 94 strong:

Sources: The Center for Responsible Politics, The Wall Street Journal, 6/20/18

Amazon spent $13 million on lobbying and is one of the top spenders on lobbying along with Google, AT & T and Oracle.

The Amazon corporate power juggernaut keeps rolling.  The e-Commerce giant owns 50 % of the book print sales market for publishers, with Barnes and Noble in the teens and independent book sellers about 6 – 8 percent. Ten years ago, independent book stores held a 30 % share of the book print sales market until Amazon drove them out of business, with convenience and not being required to pay sales taxes to states (though the Supreme Court just ruled last week that e-Commerce firms must pay sales taxes). Now, in an ironic twist the firm has 3 brick- n-mortar stores and is opening 5 more in 2017- so Amazon drives the competition out of business, with low cost prices and no taxes then starts opening brick n-mortar-stores.  Is that fair? In audio books Amazon owns Audible the No. 1 provider of audio books where last year listener – readers heard over 2 billion hours of programming.  The Kindle subscription business holds 14 % of the e-reader market and is the fastest growing segment increasing 4 % in 2016

Amazon is humongous compared to its competitors with brick-n-mortar stores:

Source: visualcapitalist.com – 12/30/16

Amazon is larger than the next 8 competitors and it is killing their businesses by amortizing its cut rate prices with profits from its Business to Business cloud enterprise – Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Source: Geekwire – 10/1/16

Without AWS Amazon would not be able to take profit from the B to B side of the business and fund the cut rate prices driving other stores out of business. While it may seem like this is capitalism ‘creative destruction’ at its best, this condition strikes us as unfair competition. Add a tax cut giveaway to corporations like Amazon, and the juggernaut keeps picking up speed at the expense of workers and democracy.

Next steps:

  1. One Lobbyist Limit – The Company is a citizen according to the Supreme Court in Citizens United, then good it has one lobbyist representative to Congress.
  2. Sunshine Contractor Monitoring – Amazon and the top 100 government contractors would have to contribute to a web site noting their business with the Federal Government, revenue from the contracts, agencies working with, number of government staff working with Amazon, Amazon staff size working on projects, where they are located, and all contacts with Congress, Executive branch staff – date, time, attends, discussion top, money involved, follow up. All these details would be available to the public on a web site 24/7.  These disclosure are a ‘annual report’ to the people of the US about what the top 100 contracts are doing for our federal government, and us and how they are contributing to our government and society goals.
  3. Campaign Contribution limits – $2700 per corporation if they are a person, that is all a citizen is allowed to contribute, and the Supreme Court found corporations were citizens, so Amazon has the same limit as a citizen.
  4. Corporate Reform – top 2 corporations in an industry sector must have a minority number of outside board members elected by all the shareholders. Employees can form ‘councils’ along the line of the German worker council models.  Salaries for executives would be limited to 50 times the average worker in the firm (consumer discretionary sector the average for CEOs is 350 times, Bloomberg, Feb 1 2018)., Stock buy backs need to end, or be phased out as they are artificially raising the price of stock on major exchanges by 20 – 15 % experts estimate just to line the pockets of executives and major shareholders, the funds are not going to wage increases, productivity investments or job training.
  5. Anti – trust – Amazon needs to be broken up into a corporate web business – Amazon Web Services, and grocery business (Whole Foods never should have been approved) spun off. The e-Commerce business needs to stand on its own, plus we need to look for other ways to create fair- play markets possibly separating services from distribution,

Blackrock CEO To Corporations: Focus on Social Responsibility Too, Are They Listening?

Image: ipleaders.in

Laurence Fink, CEO of Blackrock with $6.3 trillion of assets under management sent a letter to one thousand CEOs outlining that in the future they will be evaluating companies on their societal impact not just profits.  Blackrock manages major index funds which require that they invest in firms included in the index even when they don’t like the direction management is taking the company or take actions that are detrimental to their employees or community.  Fink tells executives that a new age has arrived where shareholders and company management need to be more actively engaged. Plus, companies need to take the long term view related to rising automation,  slow wage growth and climate change and explain their plans to shareholders.

Next Steps: 

We applaud Fink’s focus on social responsibility by corporations.  As he notes governments maybe way behind in the seeing the needs of society and solving those problems.  Corporations can even add value, as Deloitte observes in five ways: creating new market opportunities, taking regulatory relationships from reactive to proactive, retaining top talent, enhancing brand value,  and building sustainable supply chains. Now, let’s make this a priority on Wall Street.  Fink in an interview on NPR’s Marketplace today, clarifying that Blackrock was not Wall Street.  We have a ways to go with Wall Street expectations for quarterly results – we can hope that Wall Street was listening to a major investor like Blackrock.

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