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This Thanksgiving: How To Talk About The Economy Without Getting Into An Argument

man yelling with megaphone

Is your family one of those families… where Thanksgiving dinner always ends up in a political argument?

First thing to remember is that arguing won’t get you anywhere. Research shows that when the people you’re talking with hold strong beliefs, arguing with them only makes it harder for them to change those beliefs. And “when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. … when faced with doubt, people shout even louder.”

Political scientists call it the “backfire” effect – and if you’re an activist, you need to know about it (and remember it). Also remember that there are neurological differences between “Republican” and “Democratic” brains… and there are behavioral differences… although scientists are still trying to figure out exactly what those differences mean.

no_megaphoneSo what are you supposed to do? If you’re, say, sitting around the Thanksgiving table when Great Uncle Chester starts berating your college-graduate niece about the fact that she’s living at home rather than in her own apartment…?

Start by finding common ground. There’s always something to agree on, if you just look hard enough. Even if it’s just a gentle restatement of what the other person said. “Yes, Uncle Chester, we all agree that college graduates should be able to find jobs that allow them to support themselves.”

Then, add a little reality in there. “But that doesn’t seem to be happening in the current economy. There are a whole lot of twenty-somethings who are still living at home.”

Try to use personal examples rather than just facts. “I remember what my neighbor’s son went through, when he graduated two years ago. It took him 18 months to find a job, and even then he earned barely enough for him to make his student loan payments.”

When you talk about facts, try to frame them as a question, not a statement. “Don’t you think that the economy has changed from when you graduated college? Remember how working in a bank used to be a highly-respected job? Did you know that, these days, almost one-third of bank tellers need food stamps?”

Don’t push too hard. With Uncle Chester, you might not be able to persuade him of anything other than that he should stop berating your niece. (And if you push any further, the conversation might get loud and become a “nobody’s going to win this” argument.)

But continue the conversation, if your audience seems receptive. “Did you know that, these days, banks are paying billions of dollars to stockholders, rather than paying their tellers a decent wage?”

— — — —

no_megaphoneDo you have a second cousin Mildred who insists that “cutting taxes for job creators” is the answer to everything?

Find something you both agree on. “Nobody likes paying taxes.”

Add a personal story. “I remember when we got President Bush’s ‘tax refund checks’ back in 2001 and 2008. It was nice to get the money, but I didn’t invest it. I don’t know anybody who invested it. Most people either kept the money in the bank or used it to pay down debt.”

Then, a little reality. “Did you know that Congress has been cutting taxes on ‘job creators’ since Ronald Reagan was President? Back then, they used to call it ‘supply side economics.’ But it didn’t fix the economy; all it did was create a huge budget deficit. So after a few years President Reagan gave up on the idea and increased taxes again.”

Is Mildred still listening? If she looks interested, rather than angry, give her a few more facts. “Did you know that corporations are spending literally trillions of dollars buying back their own stock? Rather than building new factories or hiring new employees, they’re buying back shares of their own stock in order to keep stock prices high.”

Is she still listening? “And corporations are even borrowing money – bonds they will be paying back for decades – in order to give money to their stockholders now. So I don’t think CEOs would really invest money from tax cuts in ‘job creation.’ Don’t you think they would just pay it out to stockholders?”

Is she still listening? “I wonder what would happen to our tax rates, if corporations were paying taxes at the same rate they used to, before the SEC started allowing companies to buy back their own stock. Don’t you think that we might be paying less in taxes?”

— — — —

no_megaphoneDo you have a brother-in-law who isn’t bothered by increasing inequality? Who thinks CEOs actually deserve to receive 373 times as much as their employees are paid?

Then you ought to read this Pacific-Standard magazine article about a recent International Monetary Fund report.

And you can start the conversation with something like, “We all agree that economic growth is a good thing.”

Then add a little reality. “Did you know that income inequality actually hurts our country’s economic growth?”

Add a story. “Gosh, I wonder if this is why Macy’s is having such a hard time. None of my friends are planning to do their Christmas shopping there.   It seems like everybody is shopping discount stores or making their gifts, this year.”

Use questions. “How can the economy recover, if ordinary people don’t have money to spend? Did you know that one in ten American jobs is in retail? What’s going to happen to that sector of the economy if wages stay stagnant?  What’s going to happen to the rest of the economy?”

Know your audience, and either stop (before things get loud) or keep going. “Did you know that increasing the income share to the bottom 20% – even just by a tiny bit – helps the whole economy grow?”  “Do you think that’s why the economy grew more, back when income was a bit more equal?”

— — — —

no_megaphoneAnd if the conversation turns to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty… please be thoughtful and careful about what you say.

Personally, I’m tired of politicians pitting people against each other. And factory employees in Singapore are working to feed their families, just like we are.

The problem with the TPP isn’t overseas workers, it’s how much power the treaty would give to corporations. It’s how much power the treaty would give to big banks. It’s the idea of America giving up our right to enforce our laws, when those laws are inconvenient to multinational corporations. It’s the idea of turning over even more of our country’s sovereignty to international “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) tribunals.  Read more about how the TPP empowers corporations on the Public Citizen website.

So please, if you’re opposing the TPP, don’t talk about how overseas workers are taking “our” jobs. The real problem is how much it will benefit corporations.

The real problem is that corporate profits are at all-time highs… while labor’s share of that bounty is pretty close to its all-time low.

And the TPP is likely to make that problem worse, not better.

But that’s not the fault of the migrant workers in a Malaysian electronics factory.

— — — —

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope the conversation around your dinner table is a peaceful one.

— — — —

no_fearBut if the conversation turns to Paris and Syrian refugees, please be especially careful. Fear is one of the most basic human emotions… it’s also one of the most destructive… and one of the easiest to manipulate.

Journalist Naomi Klein is the author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” She’s done a lot of research into how corporatists use disasters to push through political change. Read her work about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina here.

“For more than three decades, [economist Milton] Friedman and his powerful followers had been perfecting this very strategy: waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the ‘reforms’ permanent. In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He observed that ‘only a crisis— actual or perceived—produces real change.’ ”

I think of her work every time someone mentions the Bush tax cuts. Back in 2001, the federal government had a budget surplus; and in the first few weeks of September, the Washington Post did a poll that found 57% of Americans wanted the Bush tax cuts reversed, in order to preserve that surplus. Then 9/11 happened. And a decade and a half later, we still haven’t gotten tax rates restored to Clinton-era levels… and the federal debt has increased by $12.4 trillion.  (And we’re being told we need to cut Social Security, rather than restore the tax rates that President Bush cut even further “while citizens were still reeling from the shock” of 9/11.)

The Paris attacks renewed the atmosphere of fear that I remember after 9/11… and we’ve already seen how some politicians want to use that fear to change government policies. The good news is: my Facebook feed is full of people pushing back against these proposals, questioning them and using historical analogies to say “This is not what America stands for.” The bad news is: Facebook feeds are determined by an algorithm that tends to reinforce what people already believe.

So… when the conversation turns to Paris, and ISIS, remember the advice above.  Arguing isn’t going to help. You need to find some way to help the people you’re talking with step away from their fear, and step into the reality that their fear allows them to be manipulated. Find something to say that you both agree on – most people agree that refugees should be vetted before being resettled – and work from there.

Big Banks: Paying Billions (of Borrowed Money) to Stockholders

NASDAQ Watch Photo by Kowloonese used under CreativeCommons license via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Kowloonese; used by CreativeCommons license via Wikimedia Commons


The “new economy” in a nutshell:
full-time employees need government assistance because their wages are so low. Businesses are shrinking, not growing. And corporations are borrowing money to pay it out to stockholders… because, well, that’s what the system is designed to reward.

The more I look, the more I see it. The same pattern, almost everywhere. It’s not limited to just a few rogue companies. It’s not limited to just a few industries.

And it’s not getting any better.

Here’s the view, from the financial sector.

Remember that study showing that almost one-third of bank tellers receive food stamps, Medicaid or other public assistance? The authors calculated that taxpayers pick up the tab for almost $900 million in government aid – just to bank tellers – each year. That study didn’t break those costs out by particular employer, but…

— — — —

Bank Teller Counting Money for Customer --- Image by © Duncan Smith/Corbis via Flickr

© Duncan Smith/Corbis via Flickr. Used under CreativeCommons license.

According to Glassdoor, Bank of America tellers receive an average wage of $12 per hour – or, just about poverty-line wages for a hypothetical full-time employee supporting a family of four.

And the corporation just announced another set of layoffs, bringing the total to

  • about 14,300 jobs eliminated in the past year
  • about 69,000 jobs eliminated in the past five years.

But owners of the bank’s common stock are doing OK. So far this year, the corporation has distributed $3.1 billion to shareholders, through dividends and stock buybacks. And there will be even more money going to stockholders in December.

Can’t help noticing, though… Bank of America has issued a lot of bonds this year – more than $25 billion. Which means the corporation now has more than $270 billion in long-term debt that it has to pay off between now and 2047.

Yes, Bank of America is borrowing money at the same time it’s paying money out to stockholders.

(Which, yes, is sort of like running up your credit card to buy Christmas presents for people who already have everything.)

Wondering how stock prices are affected by the amount of money paid to shareholders?  Last year, Bank of America announced it would increase dividends and start buybacks – but then discovered an accounting mistake and had to withdraw those plans. And stock prices fell by 6.3%.

Want to know why corporate executives care so very much about short-term stock prices?  Look at the way Bank of America compensates its CEO. On the 13th of every month, Brian Moynihan receives the cash equivalent of 17,747 shares of common stock. In August, the per-share price was $17.62; for 17,747 shares, that works out to a payment of $312,702. In September, the per-share price was $16.04; that works out to $284,662. In October, the per-share price was only $15.52; that works out to $275,433. Don’t you think CEO Moynihan notices, when his monthly payment drops by ten or twenty thousand dollars?

But there’s good news for him: this month – after that latest set of layoffs was announced – the per-share price is back up above $17.  (Even though the Bank is $270 billion in debt and its credit ratings are, ahem, less-than-stellar… and it borrowed almost another $3 billion since CEO Moynihan’s October payment.)

— — — —

bankerAccording to Glassdoor, J.P. Morgan bank tellers also receive an average wage of $12 per hour… which is still, yes, about the poverty line for a hypothetical full-time employee trying to support a family of four.

And the corporation is, ahem, “cutting costs” by eliminating another 5,000 jobs. (Last year, they cut 7,900 jobs.)

But… stockholders are doing OK. The corporation just raised its dividend and is buying back $6.4 billion worth of its own stock. (That’s in addition to almost $18 billion in buybacks between 2010 and 2013.)

And CEO Jamie Dimon just got tagged as “the Best Big Bank CEO, Measured by Shareholder Returns.” Between buybacks and stock dividends, Dimon has “generated a total shareholder return of 119.5%” in the last decade.

Even though… can’t help noticing… J.P. Morgan had, at last report, $434.4 billion in long-term debt (which was an increase of $8.3 billion from the previous quarter). And it will be paying off debt through 2049.

I’m sure somebody at JP Morgan can explain why it makes sense to pay billions out to stockholders at the same time the corporation is borrowing billions. (And I’m sure somebody at the Federal Reserve Bank can explain why regulators approved this plan.)

And yes, folks high up the corporate ladder are doing OK, too. Their compensation includes mechanisms like restricted stock units and stock appreciation rights, which ensure they’re paying attention to share prices.  For instance, Managing Director Mary Erdoes just received stock appreciation rights equal to 200,000 shares of JP Morgan stock… on a day when the stock closed at $67.39 a share.   (Yep, some people get paid according to how high the stock price goes.)

Meanwhile… 5,000 JP Morgan employees will be looking for new jobs… and employees who still have their jobs get poverty wages and need government benefits to make ends meet.

— — — —

US states by poverty rate

States by 2013 poverty rate

And I’m betting that if I looked, most of the other Big Banks would show this same paying-low-wages-to-employees while cutting-rather-than-expanding-the-business while borrowing-against-future-revenues so they can pay-more-money-to-stockholders pattern.

It’s not just a few employers.

It’s not just a few industries.

Borrowing money in order to pay it to shareholders is the same basic thing Bain Capital was doing, back before journalists started writing about it, when Mitt Romney ran for President.

Only, this is on a bigger scale.

These are corporations that employ hundreds of thousands of people. And they’re borrowing against future revenue, in order to pay stockholders today.

While their executives rake in millions in compensation.

And their employees need government assistance just to get by.

— — — —

Read my last post, “McDonalds: Paying Billions (of Borrowed Money) to Stockholders” here.

Read my series about Verizon as a case study of what’s wrong with the economy, starting here.

 

McDonald’s: Paying Billions (of Borrowed Money) to Stockholders

Photo by Annette Bernhardt via Flickr

Photo by Annette Bernhardt via Flickr

Right there, in the USNWR story “Why McDonald’s stock is blowing the competition away,” was the clearest example yet of how our economy doesn’t work for anybody but the folks at the very, very top.

The company will cut $500 million [in costs] by 2018… it has a goal of having 4,000 stores refranchised in three years… it’s returning $30 billion to shareholders, an increase from $20 billion, through dividends and share buybacks and funded by taking on more debt.

And because of this strategy…

The famed restaurant chain has seen its stock jump by 17 percent since September.

Yes, McDonald’s. The corporation that costs taxpayers an estimated $1.2 billion a year in public assistance, because so many of its workers need government help to make ends meet. One of the employers who provoked the Fight for 15.

Yes, McDonald’s. The corporation whose per-share book value has dropped by 20% over the past decade … while its financial leverage (debt level) has more than doubled. The corporation that just saw its credit rating downgraded again, because Moody’s is concerned about “the company’s recent announcement that it intends to increase its returns to shareholders, the vast majority of which will be funded with additional debt.”

The corporation that has only $5.7 billion in net tangible assets (roughly $6.24 per share).

Yet the stock price hit $114 per share this week.

Because McDonald’s will be distributing an additional $10 billion to shareholders, “the vast majority of which will be funded with additional debt.”

(Even while its employees need $1.2 billion a year in food stamps and other assistance.)

— — — —

Image by Rose Lincoln, 1199SEIU

Image by Rose Lincoln, 1199SEIU

McDonald’s long-term debt will, as Moody’s noted, “limit its financial flexibility” for decades to come. Remember, the corporation eventually has to pay all that debt back, plus interest.  So basically, the corporation is using future revenues to pay stockholders now.

Moody’s expects the corporation to borrow even more as it increases its payments to stockholders.  At the same time, McDonald’s is selling off its assets, by “refranchising” 4,000 stores.

And Wall Street rewarded this strategy.  The stock price hit a record high this week… because McDonald’s will be distributing $30 billion, rather than only $20 billion, to shareholders.

And some McDonald’s executives took advantage of that record highChief Administrative Officer Peter Bensen reportedly exercised stock options to buy 15,870 shares – and then sold them the same day – making what I calculate to be a $1.2 million personal profit. Executive Vice President Richard Floersch exercised stock options to buy 23,910 shares, and then sold them – making a profit that I calculate at more than $1.3 million.  Executive Vice President Kevin Ozan also exercised stock options, buying 3,463 shares and then selling them at what I calculate to be almost $268,000 in profit.

And Executive Vice President David Fairhurst sold every share of McDonald’s stock he owned, that day of the record high.

Meanwhile… McDonald’s employees are receiving $1.2 billion in annual government assistance, because their wages are so low they can’t make ends meet.

And the financial press is trumpeting the fact that McDonald’s will be “cutting costs” – usually a euphemism for employee layoffs or wage reductions – by half a billion dollars.

— — — —

And no, I’m not the only one who thinks that our economy is being ruined by this fixation on short-term payouts to stockholders.

— — — —

Read “What Mitt Romney taught us about America’s Economy” here.

Read my series about Verizon as a case study of what’s wrong with the economy, starting here.

Nightmare on Wall Street? Are Stock Buybacks Creating Another ‘Financial Bubble?’

An American flag festooned with dollar bills and corporate logos flies in front of the Supreme Court during oral arguments in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.  Image by JayMallin.com

Image by JayMallin.com

Some blog posts are easy to forget. But the one I wrote last week is beginning to give me nightmares.

Here’s why: the stock market keeps hitting record highs. But the so-called “economic recovery” – which started in June 2009 – is just beginning to “trickle down” to us average Americans.

And oh, such a sloooooow trickle! “Although the economic recovery officially began in June 2009, the recovery in household income did not begin to emerge until after August 2011. …Median income in February 2014 [was only] 3.8 percent higher than in August 2011.”

And we’re not anywhere near “recovered” from the damage caused by the last two recessions. “The February 2014 median was [still] 6.2 percent lower than the median of $56,586 in January 2000.”

So in last week’s blog post, I took a look at the research UMass Professor Bill Lazonick and his team have done, about how top US corporations have been distributing their net income to shareholders rather than reinvesting money in their business (or workers).

What Professor Lazonick found: since 2004, the surveyed companies have returned 86% of net income to stockholders through dividends and stock buybacks. In 2013, those companies spent an average of $945 million just buying back their own stock. Repeat: $945 million is the average. That’s per company. In one year.

So I took a closer look at that, using a couple of companies as case studies. I keep hoping that I’m completely wrong. I’m not an economist, I’m not an expert. I’m just a blogger who looks at things from my own personal perspective.  And when I looked, here’s what I found:

FedEx:

  • CEO Fred Smith owns more than 15 million shares of FedEx (not counting shares held by his wife, his family holding company or his retirement plan.)
  • Last October, FedEx announced plans to buy back 32 million shares – more than 10% of its stock.
  • FedEx borrowed $2 billion to help pay for that stock repurchasing program. Those bonds run from 10 to 30 years.
  • In the past year, FedEx stock has gained over 44 percent. That translates into a huge increase in net worth for Mr. Smith… somewhere between a half-billion dollars (as of my post last week) and $600 million (the stock price kept going up). Yeah… FedEx borrowed $2 billion… and its CEO personally benefited by a half-billion-plus.
  • But maybe there’s a reason why FedEx stock soared by 44%? Let’s see… according to the International Business Times, its ground shipping business grew by 13% and it is trimming employee benefit costs by 13%; and so the overall corporate profits grew by 24%.
  • Corporate profits grew by 24%… but the stock price grew by 44% (benefiting “company executives who receive stock-based compensation”).
  • But of course there are fewer shares of stock now than there were last year, because of the buyback program. So I looked at the company’s “market cap” – or, the total value of all the outstanding shares. And that also grew: from $39.03 billion when the stock buyback was announced last October… to $50.35 billion as of Friday. So the market cap grew by $11.32 billion – or about 29% – during roughly the same time that profits grew by only 24%.
  • Let me recap: The company grew its business a bit, while at the same time cutting employee costs. It borrowed to buy back stock, enriching its CEO. And Wall Street rewarded this behavior. Stock value grew – at a much faster rate than the company’s profits were rising.

wall_streetThat difference between 24% growth in profits and 29% growth in market value? Isn’t that just a “Wall Street bonus” for taking part in this borrow-and-buyback scheme?  But why is Wall Street is rewarding FedEx for moving toward a “loot the company” model of business behavior?

It’s not just FedEx.

One analysis, from June 2014:

Since the end of 2012, using the DOW (NYSEARCA:DIA) companies as a large cap company market proxy, share buybacks in dollar volume have exceeded the actual level of after tax profits recorded by the 30 companies in the index. What this means is that somewhere in the DOW there must be more than a handful of companies, which are either borrowing money or deferring capital expenditures in a potentially harmful manner for the sole purpose of buying their shares back in the market to boost share price.

From last week’s Wall Street Journal:

Companies are buying their own shares at the briskest clip since the financial crisis, helping fuel a stock rally amid a broad trading slowdown.

Corporations bought back $338.3 billion of stock in the first half of the year, the most for any six-month period since 2007, according to research firm Birinyi Associates. Through August, 740 firms have authorized repurchase programs, the most since 2008.

No, it’s not just FedEx.

Cisco:

Back in February, Cisco announced an $8 billion bond issue “to help finance stock buybacks after the shares lost almost 6 percent over six months.”

  • Cisco CEO John Chambers owns about 2 million shares of Cisco stock.
  • Cisco stock was trading at $22.12 when that bond issue/buyback was announced. Now, it’s trading at $25.20. Do the math: that’s about a 14% increase in per-share price; and more than a $6 million increase in Mr. Chambers’ net worth.
  • Cisco’s market cap was $113.95 billion when the bond issue/buyback was announced.   Now, it’s $128.7 billion. Do the math: that’s about a 13% increase in Wall Street’s assessment of the company’s total value.
  • But what’s going on with the actual company?   Last month, Cisco released an earnings statement “that illustrated its troubles as one of the tech industry’s giants competing in a rapidly changing environment.”  Profits are down, compared to last year. And it is planning to eliminate 6,000 jobs.
  • Let me recap: Profits are down, layoffs are pending. But the company borrowed $billions to buy back stock, enriching its CEO and other executives.   And Wall Street rewarded this behavior.

Want to know what worries me most about Cisco? It looks like Cisco’s CEO is selling his stock. According to the filings, he owns a lot less Cisco stock now than he did when the bond issue/buyback was announced. Doesn’t he have any faith in his corporation’s long-term prospects?

It’s not just Cisco.

Bloomberg News:

American companies have seldom spent more money than they are now buying back shares. The same can’t be said for their executives. … While companies are pouring money into their own stock because they have nothing better to do with it, officers and directors aren’t… Insiders buying stock have dropped 8 percent from a year ago, poised for the fewest in more than a decade.

wall street bullAnd even worse? That perspective that companies “have nothing better to do” with their money than buy back stock.

As of a couple of weeks ago:

In total, US companies have announced USD309bn worth of share repurchases year-to-date, up from USD259bn for the same period a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Do the math. Nine months of stock buybacks equals about 6 million median-wage American jobs.

Let me rephrase that.

The money that US corporations are spending buying back their own stock “because they have nothing better to do with it” could give a $52,000-a-year job to two-thirds of unemployed Americans.  

Or: a job paying more than twice minimum wage to all unemployed Americans.

Instead… Cisco’s cutting 6,000 jobs. FedEx is cutting employee benefits. And who knows what all the other companies in Professor Lazonick’s survey are doing?

Here’s the thing: buying back stock doesn’t add any intrinsic value to a company. It’s not a new product line, it’s not a new factory, it’s not any kind of investment in the company’s future. All it does is concentrate the stock ownership. Same everything else – just fewer shares of stock. (Sort of like ultra-concentrated dish soap… same basic thing, just in a smaller bottle.)

So, aren’t these rising market caps at least somewhat artificial? Why should a company be worth more, just because it has fewer shares of stock?

Cisco may have declining profits… but its market cap is growing. FedEx may be growing, but its market cap is growing faster. Why?

Here’s the other thing: To accomplish this concentration of stock ownership… corporations are bonding untold billions of dollars. (Yes, that’s another thing I couldn’t find tracked anywhere.)

So yeah, they’re borrowing against the future… to improve stock prices today.

soap bubbleAnd Wall Street is encouraging this.

There’s a technical term for those sorts of artificial increases: they’re called “bubbles.”

And that’s why I’m starting to have nightmares.

I’m wondering when this latest Wall Street bubble is going to burst.

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