Senator Baldwin is Asking the SEC Questions About “Disgorge the Cash”

April 23, 2015

A lot of people were surprised last month when the investment giant BlackRock flagged the rise in stock buybacks and dividend payments as a major economic concern. Its CEO argued that the “effects of the short-termist phenomenon are troubling both to those seeking to save for long-term goals such as retirement and for our broader economy,” and that this was being done at the expense of “innovation, skilled work forces or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth.”

They are right to be concerned. The cash handed back to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends was 95 percent of corporate profits in 2014, climbing from 88 percent the year before and 72 percent in 2010 and expected to go even higher in the future. These numbers are far above historical norms, but they are the culmination of a long process starting in the 1980s. Private investment remains a weak part of the recovery, and it is necessary to investigate the connection between corporate governance and those decisions.

With that in mind, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) has sent a letter to the SEC looking for answers on these issues. In particular, she flags whether the SEC’s mission to “foster capital formation and prevent fraud” is jeopardized by short-termism in the market. It will be good to see how the SEC responds, and which other senators and organizations join in with their concerns.

Personally, I’m happy that it quotes J.W. Mason’s work on profits and borrowing shifting from investment in a previous era to cash leaving the firm now. This issue is a major piece of our Financialization Project here at Roosevelt, and we will continue to develop it in the future.

I think there are two additional things of interest. One is that this relationship is becoming more of an interest for academic and popular scrutiny. Recent, high-level research is showing that as a result of short-termist pressures, “public firms invest substantially less and are less responsive to changes in investment opportunities, especially in industries in which stock prices are most sensitive to earnings news” compared to private firms before the Great Recession.

Second, this looks like a centerpiece agenda item for liberals going into 2016. Larry Summers’s Inclusive Prosperity report for the Center for American Progress discusses concerns over short-termism, noting, “it is essential that markets work in the public interest and for the long term rather than focusing only on short-term returns. Corporate governance issues, therefore, remain critical.”

The problem of short-termism was also in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s big speech on the future of the financial reform agenda, in which she noted we need to change the rules of the economy because we “too often reward short-term risk-taking instead of sustained, long-term growth” and allow CEOs to “manipulate prices in the short-term, rather than investing in the long-term health of their companies.”

And it will be central to work from the Roosevelt Institute about inequality coming next month. (Get excited!)

I’m not sure if the right has a response to this issue. One of their core policy goals, removing all taxes on capital, will certainly make the situation worse, as the Bush dividend tax cuts increased dividends payouts without encouraging any real investment or wage growth. If the Republicans want to have real answers about inequality and stagnation, it’s important that they tackle real questions. And short-termism is one of those essential questions.