The Progressive Ensign

insights and analytics to build an economy that works for all

Category: Labor

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 Raises Minimum Wage to $15@hr While Eliminating Bonuses, Stock

 

Photo: kansascity.com

Amazon announced the $15 pay raise today in response to criticism by progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders who recently introduced a bill to tax companies like Amazon 100 % for employees on government assistance.  The company plans to hire over 100,000 seasonal workers this holiday season, the raise will apply to all full – time, part-time and seasonal workers beginning November 1st. The pay move by Amazon comes at a time when retailers are finding it hard to hire clerks and warehouse workers for wages generally under $15 @hr.  Amazon’s move is a challenge to retail firms across the country forcing them to raise wages or lose out in hiring to Amazon.  Sen. Sanders congratulated Amazon in a tweet, noting the raise was a ‘shot heard around the world, certainly for all hourly workers worldwide.

Sources: Amazon, The Wall Street Journal – 10/2/18

While  the $15@hr wage increase made the headlines, the firm took away bonuses and stock awards for warehouse workers.  The company said the wage increase more than makes up for the loss of bonuses and stock awards.  What?  Why is Amazon doing this?  To mitigate the cost of raising wages to $15@hr to bottom line profits.  Amazon needs to think through the message they are sending, do they want the ideas and dedication that bonuses and stock recognize or not?

In addition, the company said it would be lobbying in Washington for a raise of the federal minimum wage which has been stuck at $7.25 for ten years.  Amazon uses a highly profitable server business to provide a cash feed to the retail business while building market share to eliminate competitors.  Amazon raising wages makes it even more difficult for competitors to hire workers and retain them.

Next Steps:

We applaud Amazon for waking up and making this sweeping move to raise hourly wages to a baseline of $15 @ hr.  At the same time we are concerned that with giving the wage increase they are taking away bonuses and stock awards – this policy sends  the wrong message to workers. The wage increase is a strategic move as well, putting its weaker competitors back on their heels and in a worse political position.  Are they going to oppose federal legislation that may come from a Democrat led House to raise the federal minimum wage?  In a mid-term election year where non-supervisory workers have experienced stagnating wages since the 2008 recession Amazon competitors will be hard pressed to make their case to consumers. As politics is more in the spotlight for companies and consumers, brick and mortar retailers’ possible stand against raising wages may hurt sales and hiring.

With Amazon making the first move we agree with Sen. Sanders, who called on other major companies to start paying decent wages to their employees so they support their families, buy cars and purchase a home.

The e-retailer behemoth is in the cross hairs of political criticism in terms of work conditions like few bathroom breaks, to uncertainty with plans to add 40,000 robots over the next five years. The firm’s automation plans will have a significant impact on the workplace for non-college educated workers, we need to be working on a public policy recognizing the impact automation has on worker careers.   Should robots be taxed as some have suggested?  If  so, based on what formula?  How would the funding be used to support retraining and safety net needs for the workers displaced? Amazon has been able to amass a dominant retail position by using revenues from its business to business cloud server profits to mitigate the ecommerce business running at a loss and early development of brick and mortar stores.   We stand by our earlier analysis that the server business – Amazon Web Services (AWS) be spun off from the e-retail business to level the market playing field with other retailers.

Phoenix Gyms Backed By Koch Brothers Help Addicts Become Sober

(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: npr.org

The opioid crisis is continuing to grow worse with deaths from fatal drug overdoses up 10 % this past year reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  The opioid crisis targets mostly young people in city centers and many rural regions across the country.  The wave of addictions through our working age people is damaging our ability to grow our work force to support a robust economy.

Sources: Deutsche Bank, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 9/19/18

The Koch Brothers, known for their backing conservative candidates and policy programs have a foundation arm called Stand Together which has invested $2 million to $3 million in “The Phoenix” gyms of Denver.  Recovering addicts can come to the gym free, to work out, receive coaching and support during their recovery.  Peter Thanos, an addiction researcher at the University of Buffalo, told the Wall Street Journal that persistent exercise has shown to be effective in drug rehabilitation. Drugs hijack the reward system in the brain, Thanos observed. Physical exercise can re direct that reward system.  He commented ‘in theory, you should be able to have an effect on drug-seeking” through exercise.

The political advocacy arm of the Koch network, Americans for Prosperity, is working to cut the funding for Medicaid in Utah and Nebraska.  Yet, Medicaid is the main source of mental health services funding in the U.S.

We applaud the support of the Koch brothers through their foundation of this innovative effort to attack the opioid crisis.  It seems that they need to look at what their advocacy group is doing to undermine the work of the foundation.  Does it not make sense to invest in returning thousands of our young people to become sober, taking jobs, raising families, buying houses and buying or using Koch brothers company products?  Let’s think about the opioid crisis from a long range point of view by investing in addicted people, bringing them back to productive lives.  It does not make sense to hurt this effort, instead we should all be working together to solve all facets of this problem resulting in a higher quality of life and a thriving economy.  We need all the workers we can get to be productive in the declining labor force 25- 55 year age group, otherwise we shall go deeper into debt to support our seniors.

Washington AG Increases Job Mobility for Fast Food Workers

 

Photo: blogs.reuters.com

Washington Attorney General, Bob Ferguson negotiated with seven major fast food franchises including; McDonalds, Arby’s, Carl’s Jr., and Jimmy Johns to delete franchise agreements with parent companies which include a no poach clause.   The no poach clause provided a way for individual franchisee’s to keep managers from other same brand franchisees from hiring their workers.  Two Princeton professors, Krueger and Ashenfelter published a study last year that estimated that no poach clauses affected about 70,000 individual restaurants in the U.S. or about 25 % of all fast food outlets.  The professors noted that the clauses were primarily to keep turnover down, limit competition and job mobility with other same brand franchises.  As a result workers had limited options to negotiate higher wages, work schedules or conditions.

Turnover in the fast food industry ranges from 60 – 70% in up-scale dining restaurants to over 120 % in fast food franchises. Franchisees are faced with constant pressure to raise wages in a low wage industry but face tight profit margins of 3 %:

Source: The Heritage Foundation – 9/4/14

With only 3 % margin to work with it is difficult for a franchise owner to raise wages.  Workers also mention in surveys the need to have more scheduled hours with more notice on the hours they work. With the no poach clauses gone from contracts workers can move to a same brand restaurant and negotiate for better hours and schedules.

We are pleased to see Attorney General Ferguson successfully negotiate with major fast food chains to delete the no poach clause to give workers more negotiating power and flexibility in their job situations.  It seems to us that major chains should have figured out that at least keeping the worker in the same chain was a plus, and the deleting the clause may force owners to treat workers better in order to reduce turnover.  Better managed franchises would rise to the top and have lower turnover rates.  Now on to raising low wages, increasing wages to a livable level is a complex issue that will require all involved; the owners, corporate franchise executives and workers to come up with a plan that will give workers the wages they deserve.

The Elite Makes U.S. A Land of Renters

(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.)

Photo: marketplace.org

Household formations have been trending down over the past 30 years from its peak reached after a continual increase since 1955.  More than a quarter of possible home buyers are unemployed, underemployed, saddled with student debt or living at home with their parents making home buying a challenge. The other possible household formation group is making such low income they are forced into renting as the only budgetary alternative.

Source: Real Investment Advice – 7/13/18

The housing market has shifted drastically toward high end homes for the wealthy, not first time buyers, and multi-unit rental units for investment.  As investors look outside the stock market for high returns rental units have been an excellent income stream with income streams totaling $800 billion per year.

So, while wages for the 80% in income, non – supervisory workers have been stagnant; profits, stock buybacks, executive salaries and other financial gimmicks have provided the top 10 % with 90 % of national income since 2008.  In effect, we have become a nation of renters due to two factors: wages being held down, and inflated assets benefiting the rich.

Source: Real Investment Advice – 7/13/18

Corporate executives do not make their stock price and profit targets by raising wages resulting in reduced profits.  Wages as a cost cut immediately into profits, which a CEO wants to stay clear of having to explain to the Board or shareholders.  Does it really make sense that workers are not getting wage increases in a job market with the lowest unemployment rate in 10 years? Until workers get enough countervailing power in wage negotiations worker wages are likely to stay stagnant. No, executives are allocating profits, offshore and tax cut funds to benefit themselves and shareholders while workers are left out of the economic feast.

Next steps:

We have outlined multiple reasons for lack of wage increases in earlier posts, the bottom line is executives don’t want to give raises beyond inflation.  Proposals like Senator Cory Booker’s Worker’s Dividend Act to share stock buyback dollars with workers is a good start, yet the sustainable solution lies in corporate governance, where activities shareholders required management to give workers their fair share of profits; for example if executives receive a 5 % cut of the profits workers should receive the same 5 % as well.

To give first time home buyers a boost, we need to reduce student loan debt by re financing their rates to the rates that the Federal Reserve offers bank.  After all we are ‘banking in the future’ of our young people.  Where possible student debt could be forgiven for domestic service corps work or working with corporations who hire graduates to reduce their loans as part of the offer package.  Government mortgage  agencies need to support first time buyers with reduced down payment requirements and other incentives.  To incentivize home builders set asides of homes for first time buyers need to be established to create inventory from which a first time buyer can select their home.

Increasing household formations should be a top priority for policy makers and the wealthy alike.  When household formations are moving ahead, furniture, appliances, home improvement hardware, and thousands of product and services are purchased. Plus, when people own a home they have a piece in the future of their neighborhood, schools and community which will increase property values for all.

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.

Workers Struggling Under Credit Card Debt

Photo: finder.com.au

While consumers did pay down their credit card debt by $40 billion during the first quarter of 2018, they still owe a giant $1.021 trillion in revolving debt.  Credit card debt is at the second highest level since 2008, during the Great Recession.  Consumers piled on another $91.6 billion by the end of 2017, at a run rate of 104 % of the average over the past 10 years.

Sources: Marketwatch, WalletHub – 6/13/18

Adding to consumer woes are interest rates that are rising, adding to the servicing costs of credit card, auto loan, and student loan debts. Below the chart shows debt servicing costs as a percentage of disposable income, while mortgage debt servicing is declining consumer servicing costs are rising.

Sources: Federal Reserve, National Bureau of Economic Research, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 6/13/18

Finally, non-supervisory worker’s wages are stuck at 2.5% and when inflation is taken into account are largely flat. As consumers continue to try and maintain their standard of living, they are taking on more revolving debt which is costing more for them to pay. This financial squeeze is sustainable as long as jobs are abundant as they seem to be now, but if the economy turns down and layoffs happen it will be hard times for workers.  A survey published today in the Wall Street Journal blog – The Daily Shot showed executives plan layoffs as the first approach to deal with tightened financial conditions and slow sales.

 Next Steps:

 Workers need to receive a living wage that is not stagnant as wages have been for the past 10 years since the recession. Over 14 % of all workers have not received a raise in the last year versus 11% prior to the recession. Stock buy backs need to end and those funds invested in raising worker wages, increasing productivity and providing job training and development.  Corporations stash over 40 % of their profits in overseas tax sheltered accounts – all those funds need to come back to the US with companies paying their fair share of taxes. Corporations are the beneficiaries of job training and education, and should pick up more responsibility in terms of taxes for apprenticeship programs on par with those in Germany to provide US workers with the advanced skills needed to obtain a good paying job and create a dual track besides college. Today, there are more job openings than candidates available to fill those jobs, we need to invest developing worker’s job skills to close the gap.

Opioids Are Killing Our Young People Reducing Our Labor Force

(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: thetab.com

The Opioid Epidemic is devastating for our young people.  The size of the opioid addiction death wave is so high that it is leading to a sharp decrease in the size of the 24 – 54 year old labor force group.

Sources: JAMA Open Network, Marketwarch – 6/7/2018

A paper recently published in the Journal of the American Medi­­cal Association found that 20 % of all Millennials deaths in 2016 were caused by opioid overdoses.  From 2001 to 2016 opioid deaths have increased by 292­­ %.  Experts believe the dip in the size of the 25 – 54 year old group is in part caused by the opioid epidemic compared to other developed countries.

Source: OECD Employment and Labor Market Statistics – 6/7/18

A comparison to OECD countries finds the U.S. labor force in the key mid-career 25 – 54-year-old group at 5 % less, which converts to millions of our young people left out of the labor force. When our labor force is not growing in this key age segment we are in store for a continuing decline in GDP growth, standards of living and few people to support our retired population. The total labor force even with the recovery since 2008 has been dropping to a 10-year low of 63 % overall:

Source: Department of Labor, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot, 6/3/18

Certainly, more than the opioid epidemic is contributing to our low labor force participation rate including: companies automating many jobs so they are not hiring more workers, workers leaving the work force due to not finding work, a skills mismatch between job openings and candidates with the right skill set and the baby boomer population aging into retirement.

Next Steps:

The opioid epidemic strikes hardest in our Heartland as we recommended in an earlier blog on Heartland Development Centers that among other development investments to fund mental health, addiction and counseling services to help our young people in rural regions of the Midwest and South to return to active productive lives. Every day, families are suffering from the drug addiction crisis and our economy is suffering along with our young people.  Our Congress, corporations, non-government organizations, government and health services groups need to establish a partnership to target the problem of drug addiction head on, with a major funding commitment, the latest strategies in drug rehabilitation, and job training programs which include high quality apprenticeship skills development leading to good paying jobs.

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