The ‘Tax Cuts for Shareholders’ Act

February 20, 2018

In the six weeks since the passage of the GOP tax plan, officially known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, businesses have been lauded for announcements of wages and bonuses. Yet it’s corporate stock buybacks—the practice of companies spending their cash on buying back their own shares in order to raise share prices overall—that have truly skyrocketed. That’s why it’s time to call the tax bill what it really is: the “Tax Cuts for Shareholders” Act.

This past Wednesday, a $25 billion stock buyback plan announcement belonged to just one company: Cisco. In contrast, Walmart—the country’s largest employer—announced wage increases for workers that will cost the company just $700 million. And stock buybacks are double what they were in January and February of 2017.

Stock buybacks enrich current shareholders—who too often include corporate executives—by reducing the number of stocks for sale and raising the value of the remaining shares. The practice had already been on the rise, but the corporate windfall in the aftermath of the tax bill allows corporations to escalate the practice. That’s why many financial analysts are pointing out that the tax bill will lead to a rise in shareholder primacy.

Recently, Morgan Stanley released a research note presenting their expectations of how companies will utilize the corporate tax windfall at the core of Trump’s tax law. Analysts expect that 42 percent of the tax savings will be passed on to shareholders, in the form of share buybacks and dividends. That’s compared with just 13 percent going to workers through labor compensation.[1]

This data tells the whole story of the GOP tax cut. A lot of money is moving out to shareholders, but not much is trickling down to workers.

Some may ask: We all participate in the stock market, so don’t we all benefit when shareholders do well? Unfortunately, the concentration of wealth tells a different story. According to research by economist Ed Wolff, less than half of all U.S. households own any stocks at all—but of the top 1 percent of Americans, 94 percent own shares, and less than a third of all households have over $10,000 in stocks. Equity ownership is also extremely stratified by race and gender: Only one-third of black households have retirement accounts or own shares directly, while over 60 percent of white families do.

The findings from Morgan Stanley differ by sectors: In manufacturing, analysts predict that nearly 47 percent of the corporate windfall will go to shareholders, while only 9 percent will go to labor—perhaps a reflection of the relatively higher wages in the manufacturing sector. In services, “just” 40 percent will go to shareholders, while 16 percent will go towards labor compensation. Labor compensation, however, will include the highest-paid executives, as well as the average company worker.

Several analyses of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are starting to document the scale of buybacks versus pay increases as a result of the tax bill. Bill Lazonick and Rick Wartzman found that corporations are spending roughly 30 times what they’ll spend on workers on stock buybacks. And Americans for Tax Fairness calculated that just 20 corporations have announced approximately $100 billion in new stock buybacks since the passage of the Senate bill in early December (and this was before the Cisco announcement). Using data from the pro-tax cut Americans for Tax Reform, they found that only 3.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies have announced a wage increase tied to the tax bill.

The political war of words will continue over where the benefits of the tax windfall are going, and proponents of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will continue to elevate a false narrative about who wins under this plan. But when you follow the money, there’s no hiding the truth that Trump’s tax law is designed for company shareholders—not workers.

[1] Analysts also expect that 17 percent will go to capital spending, while 18 percent is spent on mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and 8 percent on debt.