The conventional wisdom is clear—our economic policies should aim at boosting profits. Success will translate into investment and jobs. Unfortunately for us, the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Profits are up and so is the stock market, but investment, job creation, and wages all remain flat. Corporate managers are just not interested in investing firm profits in new plant and equipment. They have a better use for them, one that more directly speaks to their interests as well as those of the stock holders they represent.
William Lazonick, writing in the Harvard Business Review, offers one important explanation for what is happening and why:
The allocation of corporate profits to stock buybacks deserves much of the blame [for the trends noted above]. Consider the 449 companies in the S&P 500 index that were publicly listed from 2003 through 2012. During that period those companies used 54% of their earnings—a total of $2.4 trillion—to buy back their own stock, almost all through purchases on the open market. Dividends absorbed an additional 37% of their earnings. That left very little for investments in productive capabilities or higher incomes for employees.
Why are such massive resources being devoted to stock repurchases? . . . . Stock-based instruments make up the majority of [corporate executive] pay, and in the short term buybacks drive up stock prices. In 2012 the 500 highest-paid executives named in proxy statements of U.S. public companies received, on average, $30.3 million each; 42% of their compensation came from stock options and 41% from stock awards. By increasing the demand for a company’s shares, open-market buybacks automatically lift its stock price, even if only temporarily, and can enable the company to hit quarterly earnings per share (EPS) targets.
As a result, the very people we rely on to make investments in the productive capabilities that will increase our shared prosperity are instead devoting most of their companies’ profits to uses that will increase their own prosperity—with unsurprising results. Even when adjusted for inflation, the compensation of top U.S. executives has doubled or tripled since the first half of the 1990s, when it was already widely viewed as excessive. Meanwhile, overall U.S. economic performance has faltered.
The Pharmaceutical industry is a case in point.
In response to complaints that U.S. drug prices are at least twice those in any other country, Pfizer and other U.S. pharmaceutical companies have argued that the profits from these high prices—enabled by a generous intellectual-property regime and lax price regulation—permit more R&D to be done in the United States than elsewhere. Yet from 2003 through 2012, Pfizer funneled an amount equal to 71% of its profits into buybacks, and an amount equal to 75% of its profits into dividends. In other words, it spent more on buybacks and dividends than it earned and tapped its capital reserves to help fund them. The reality is, Americans pay high drug prices so that major pharmaceutical companies can boost their stock prices and pad executive pay.
The takeaway here is that boosting profits is not the means to promote the general interest. If we want more and better jobs we need appropriate public sector investments to stimulate and restructure our economy as well as new labor supporting workplace and wage policies.