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If you’ve been paying attention to corporate investing strategies the past few decades, then what companies are doing now with their extra money from the Republican tax plan is no surprise. A handful have given one-time bonuses to workers (fewer have given actual raises), but a significantly higher portion of the extra cash is being designated for stock buybacks and dividend payments.

Dividends are a reward for shareholders, and you can read more about how you can benefit here. Stock buybacks, on the other hand, are when companies buy their own shares—rather than paying those dividends or accruing cash—inflating the firm’s earnings per share in the short term as fewer shares are available to investors. This all means that the company looks more profitable, and then its stock price is artificially inflated.

Rather than benefitting employees, stock buybacks are a boon to hedge funds and the CEOs who rely on inflated share prices for their bonuses. As Bloomberg notes, they weren’t legal until 1982 “after the SEC loosened its definition of stock manipulation.”


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All that aside, you may wonder what the big problem is. According to William Lazonick, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, buybacks are partially to blame for the dearth of gains workers have experienced since the Recession, even as companies rake in record profits and executives get ever richer. Writes Lazonick in the Harvard Business Review:

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.

[T]he 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.

One of the major talking points of the tax cuts was that you and I and everyone we know would benefit, and workers would finally see gains as benevolent corporations used their newfound bounty to invest in their employees. This is the corporate tax cut that would finally help the Average Joe.

But no, it turns out that isn’t really happening. Here’s a nice visual from Bloomberg:

In February of this year alone, U.S. firms announced $153.7 billion in buybacks, a one-month record. Not that they want you to know that. Throughout December 2017 and into the new year, companies were in a PR frenzy, making public proclamations of all the good that was to come thanks to their new tax cuts. It all sounded great: New plants! More money! Jobs for everyone! Here’s a breakdown of some of the tax bill spin from Comcast, courtesy of Bloomberg’s Stephen Gandel:

Comcast Corp., for instance, said it would spend $50 billion over the next five years, which the company contends will create thousands of jobs, all thanks to the tax bill. Not so fast. That’s roughly how much Comcast has spent on capital expenditures in the past, long before the tax gains rolled in.

Overall, Gandel estimates that “roughly 60 percent of the gains from the tax bill are going to shareholders, compared with 15 percent for employees,” including increases in salaries and benefits. It’s a continuation of a trend that’s been happening since the late ‘80s, according to Lazonick, in which the largest component of income for the top 0.1 percent “has been compensation, driven by stock-based pay. Meanwhile, the growth of workers’ wages has been slow and sporadic.”

In that way, buybacks help drive inequality. As Bloomberg’s Joe Nocera writes, “surely [giving raises] would be a better use of capital than buying back stock. It might even make the company more productive. Instead, companies and their shareholders are dividing the spoils that labor made possible—without allowing workers to share in the wealth.”

Remember that as companies use the GOP tax cuts to enrich their executives with inflated profits, workers are left with a $1,000 bonus and no 401(k) match.



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