The Progressive Ensign

insights and analytics to build an economy that works for all

Category: Executive Compensation

Memo To CEOs: Invest in the Company, Not Yourself

(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. Click on the Index Topic Name at the beginning of each post to see more posts on that topic on PC or Laptop.)

Photo: wikipedia.org

To: CEOs – S & P – 500

From: The Progressive Ensign

Subject: Stock Buybacks Are Out of Control

Date: November 5, 2018

Congratulations, this past quarter you knocked earnings out of the park, profits were higher in particular, though revenues lower and you did well by raising stock prices to new highs in September via stock buybacks.

Source: Standard & Poors – 11/4/18

Ok, you did well on stock compensation too with soaring stock prices.  You can take that trip to Cancun, buy a boat and a villa for extended stays.  You have worked hard, your team has gone all out to make your companies successful, and worked harder.  Remember, while you were traveling and making decisions on sales, financing, product development and marketing they are actually designing, building, shipping, selling and supporting your products and services.

Sources: The Labor Department, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 11/5/18

Next, you have not been making the investments in capital equipment , R & D and innovation to move companies along and be prepared for more overseas competition or increase productivity. Thanks for moving wages higher for less than high school educated workers recently they still aren’t enough to keep up with inflation though. If you can increase productivity we can give workers raises without it hitting the bottom line an increasing cost, and earning would be stabilized or even get better. You wouldn’t need to use financial gimmicks like stock buy backs to take stock off the market, and goose the price so earnings look better on a per share basis.  Between 2010 and 2017 S & P companies spent 51 % of their operating earnings on stock buy backs.  That’s money just hyping stock nothing else.  Note that business investment is continuing to decline with lower highs and investments flat since 1998.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 11/5/18

Your joy ride on $1 trillion of stock buybacks needs to end.  We want to see a plan by the end of the month on how you will use that $1 trillion dollars in meaningful long term ways such as raising wages, job training, purchasing new equipment and systems, and innovating new products.  You are basically taking away the future of your workers and the country for your short term gain. Show by quarter how you will implement the plan and get your businesses actually growing again (in real dollars not financial gimmicks), workers supporting their families in sustainable lifestyle and making America stronger.

P.S. By the way, it is time to end your constant borrowing, rates are going up, and you spent most of the money on stock buybacks or other goodies not investing in the company.  You are mortgaging the future of the business by taking on a record amount of debt.  Please submit a plan for retiring this debt as part of your financial plan for investing in the company by the end of the month.

P.P.S.  For those of you ( a minority) who are not doing stock buybacks, thank you, and you who are spending on capex and raising wages thanks a lot!  Just submit a set of graphs showing your investments so we can show the other CEOs how it is done – as a best practice.

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,

The Rich View Our Government as A Trusted Rule Keeper, The Common Man Not So Much

Image: Your Little Planet

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison saw the need to frame a government such that ‘forced compromises’ would push political leaders to focus on the Common Good.  The institutions that maintain our common good include the federal government three estates:  The Supreme Court, Congress and The Executive.  In addition, the Fourth Estate, a Free Press is crucial for our citizens to have access to fair and impartial reporting about the activity of government officials and their policies. We have spotlighted the key role Education, as the Fifth estate, plays in educating our people to make critical decisions and understand comprehensively the information they receive from a Free Press.

Trust in our federal government has been falling since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

Source: Pew Research Center – 12/14/17

We noted in our first post on the Common Good that there were two factors contributing to the decline in trust:

We see two major factors for the lack of trust.  One, is that economic inequality has been increasing over the last 60 years to the point where it is at the worst it has ever been since 1929.  Americans expect their government to be the rule keeper of a fair shot at economic opportunity not a bastion for the rich and powerful.  As wealthy donors have taken over control of both major parties, the influence of the average citizen has been reduced to nearly nothing except at the ballot box – but not in legislative policy.”

The second major factor is the change in information access and news viewing habits of our society.

In the 1950s and 1960s families gathered around the television set to watch Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley bring them the news for the day.  These news anchors had teams of trained journalists in how to gather news, provide airing of opposing views and investigation to reveal the facts of the story. As cable news programs became popular people drifted away from central network journalist supported news programs toward popular ‘viewpoint news’ programs like Fox News or CNN.  Then, from 1995 until today, the Internet was a catalyst for the growth of blogging, and ‘friend news’ on Facebook which had virtually no formally trained journalists and limited understanding of the difference between facts and opinions.  Opinions spread virally through the Internet often with no foundation in formal fact gathering or fact finding investigation techniques. Today, we even have presidential spokespersons talking about ‘alternative facts’ to justify their policies or opinions.

Trust gaps by income level are increasing around the world with many developed countries showing double digit gaps between the top income quartile and the bottom income quartile and the U.S. with the largest gap:

In the U.S. incomes for the lower 80 % have been largely stagnant for the past three decades since the Reagan years, higher education costs rising to levels never seen before with student loan debt at $1.5 trillion dollars. In short, lower and middle income parents expect their children to have fewer opportunities and to make less money over their lifetime. This growing sense of hopelessness is in part triggering the populist movements we see world-wide. The top quartile trust government institutions the most because they are getting the benefits, tax cuts, relaxed environmental policies to allow their businesses to make as much money as they can, and continued stock buy backs to make even more money instead of increasing worker wages.  Workers see their votes not making a difference as Congress is at the beck and call of Corporate Nation States who make multi-million dollar campaign contributions and the Executive Branch now run by billionaires.

Little wonder the Common Good is not embraced by all people, for the rich they are on top of the economic pyramid. The rich get the laws they want and aren’t interested in sharing their wealth or time to build the Common Good.

Here is what will likely happen, 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.

Consumers Squeezed Between Debt and Stagnant Wages

 

Image: americanprogress.org

The Federal Reserve just reported that consumer debt related to auto and student loans are at the highest level they have ever been since 1970 (2nd chart).  As we have noted wages have stagnated since the Great Recession with 90 % of the income gains going to the top 10 % in income.  The middle class has been left out of the mainstream of the economic recovery over the past 10 years.

Sources: The Federal Reserve Bank – St. Louis, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 5/8/18

While revolving debt from credit cards has fallen (top chart) since the recession, non revolving debt for autos and student loans has soared.   Consumers are caught in a squeeze between debt and flat wages.  The Commerce Department reported on 1st Quarter GDP noted that consumer spending had decelerated during the quarter.  Sentiment surveys have also shown a reduction in buying plans due to trade issues and any benefit from the tax cuts being lost due to rising prices from tariffs.  Banks have posted 7 straight months of an increasing percentage of charge offs on bad loans where consumers are not making payments on non-mortgage debt.

As interest rates go up, payments grow larger per month, with the added tightening of increased prices.  The middle class is caught trying to maintain their standard of living by borrowing money to mitigate flat wages.

Next Steps –

There are two sides to the squeeze – increasing wages and reducing loan payment size and principal.

We have endorsed Sen. Cory Booker’s bill called the Worker Dividend Act to share billions of dollars in stock buyback dollars 50/50 with employees.  We see a need for incentives for employers to share management extreme wealth now at 300 times average worker salary with the line staff.  Or if they can’t do it with incentives we like the City of Portland’s plan to require corporations share their funding above the 150 times level with employees. In our blog about why Wages Are Stuck we outline a series of steps including: placing workers on Boards, ending outsourcing overseas, end H1-B low wage visas, allow repatriated funds be brought back to the US only for wages, productivity or training investments, end stock buybacks and raise employee wages with the funds, breakup anti-competitive oligarchies of huge corporations to create more competition and jobs, balance the recruiting and hiring process for candidates, and offer incentives for employee training and development.

On the loan side, we recommend that student loan rates be brought back to reasonably fair rates as a percentage of the Fed Funds rate, and offer a series of forgiveness programs for universal service, community teaching and caregiving.  For auto loans, we request that the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau evaluate major bank auto loans to ensure they are fair and do not have hidden fees or unusual interest rate riders.

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