It is no secret that the U.S. economy is increasingly based on fraud and chiseling. Creative accounting, tax schemes, and rent-seeking business models have become the norm rather than the exception. The fraud rife in the mortgage securities market was so horrendous that the resulting financial crisis brought the entire global financial system to the breaking point in 2008. Prior to that, in the early 2000s, a wave of accounting scandals swept through the U.S. economy making firms like Enron and WorldCom household names.
Today, in the wake of reforms such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, Wall Street and Corporate America are supposedly under control and acting responsibly again. Don’t believe it.
According to a new special report from Reuters called “The Cannibalized Company,” Corporate America and Wall Street are back to their old tricks — juicing financial statements and manipulating markets. Corporations are using the capital they are supposed to be allocating to create growth and innovation to artificially pump up their earnings and share price by buying their own stock back.
Almost 60 percent of the 3,297 publicly traded non-financial U.S. companies Reuters examined have bought back their shares since 2010. In fiscal 2014, spending on buybacks and dividends surpassed the companies’ combined net income for the first time outside of a recessionary period, and continued to climb for the 613 companies that have already reported for fiscal 2015.
In the most recent reporting year, share purchases reached a record $520 billion. Throw in the most recent year’s $365 billion in dividends, and the total amount returned to shareholders reaches $885 billion, more than the companies’ combined net income of $847 billion.
As the article notes, companies were not even allowed to pull this scam prior to the practice being legalized in 1982 during the Reagan Era. The reason stock buybacks were banned is not hard to understand — it creates no value for society and distorts markets. But that was before the cult of maximizing shareholder value ascended to dominance in the centers of power in U.S. business and politics.
Stock buybacks do, in the short term, maximize shareholder value. Buying back the stock technically increases the earnings-per-share of the stock and creates artificial scarcity in the market. It’s a good scam to boost a company’s stock price and works even when actual income is weak or flat. So, a lucrative con if you are a CEO whose compensation is tied to increases in the company’s stock price, but your company is not succeeding using established standards.
But where does the capital come from to buy back stock? From the company itself, reducing investment in the business such as research and development.
The analysis shows that spending on buybacks and dividends has surged relative to investment in the business. Among the 1,900 companies that have repurchased their shares since 2010, buybacks and dividends amounted to 113 percent of their capital spending, compared with 60 percent in 2000 and 38 percent in 1990.
This isn’t even crony capitalism; it’s straight up looting by the 1%. They are taking the capital that is supposed to be used for developing and growing the business and siphoning it into their own pockets. And people wonder why America is so unequal today.
It is interesting that while the corporate media and corporate-sponsored politicians whine about U.S. competitiveness regarding education and entitlement programs, they never mention the activities that are actually hollowing out the U.S. economy ensuring a lack of investment in the future — like stock buybacks. Odd.