will explain how: Back in the 1970s, when the share of total U.S. income that the top 0.1 percent of households got was at a 100-year low, corporate executives received most of their compensation in the form of a salary, just like you. But since the late 1980s, the largest component of income for the top 0.1 percent has been stock-based pay. This shift toward compensation via stock options and grants means that CEOs are directly incentivized to increase the share price of their company’s stock.
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What contemporary capitalism needs to learn from fairy tales
Building better products that lead to higher sales and fatter margins is the traditional way for a CEO to push up the price of his stock. But that’s so old-fashioned. So yesterday. Instead, ever since a former Wall Street CEO in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission back in 1982 loosened the rules that define stock manipulation (beginning to see a historical pattern here?), U.S. corporations have increasingly resorted to stock buybacks to prop up share prices. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review by professor William Lazonkick—“Profits Without Prosperity”—over the past 10 years, America’s largest companies, those making up the S&P 500, have devoted a staggering 54 percent of their profits to buying back shares, reducing the total number outstanding and thus increasing the value of the remaining shares owned by capitalists like me.
A stock buyback, in case you are wondering, is when a public company buys its own shares. “Why on earth would a company do that?” you ask. To push the stock price higher, of course—which benefits senior managers who are all paid in stock—rather than, say, investing in R&D or in building new factories. Or paying you overtime for all those extra hours you work.
Take low-wage king Wal-Mart. Over the past 10 years, according to data compiled from its public filings, Wal-Mart has spent more than $65.4 billion on stock buybacks—about 47 percent of its profits. That’s an average of more than $6.5 billion a year in stock buybacks, enough to give each of its 1.4 million U.S. workers a $4,670-a-year raise. It is also, coincidentally, an amount roughly equivalent to the estimated $6.2 billion Wal-Mart costs U.S. taxpayers every year in food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing and other public assistance to its many impoverished employees.
And further up the wage scale there’s IBM. Once an icon of innovation for its proud legacy of investing in basic research, the 21st-century IBM has instead chosen to spend an astounding $117.5 billion on stock buybacks since 2003—a remarkable 89.4 percent of total profits.