Conventional wisdom says that the job crisis stems from a mismatch in the labor market or lack of business confidence. But in his special ND20 series, "Breaking Through the Jobless Recovery", economist William Lazonick points the finger at stock manipulation.
Where have all the good jobs gone? As I outlined last week, the disappearing act of decently-paid and stable "middle class" employment opportunities in the US economy over the last three decades is the result of the triple-whammy of plant closings ("rationalization"), the end of career employment with one company ("marketization), and offshoring ("globalization").
In a world of rapid technological change and global development, our economy, with its heritage of capabilities for knowledge creation by government, academia, and business, should have been able to replace these lost jobs with even better ones. Through a combination of business and government investment, a "knowledge economy" can generate plenty of opportunities for educated and experienced workers, and many US corporations have been and remain world leaders in innovation.
And yet the jobs aren't here. Because increasingly, over the past three decades, the executives who run major US business corporations have become far more concerned with allocating corporate resources to boost their companies' stock prices than to invest in innovation in the United States.
The main instrument for boosting stock prices is the stock buyback (or stock repurchase). With the prior approval of the company board for a program of buybacks of, say, $10 billion, over, say, four years, executives can then do open market repurchases at their discretion. Stock buybacks can be very useful for meeting the quarterly earnings-per-share targets so closely watched by Wall Street analysts. Buybacks can also help to offset a stock-price decline from bad news such as a failed product. Or they may be used to counter short sales by stock-market speculators, as was done by Wall Street banks just prior to the 2008 financial meltdown.
In other words, buybacks can be used to manipulate the stock market.
In the United States, stock buybacks are huge. From 2000 through 2009 S&P 500 companies -- which account for about 75 percent of the market capitalization of all US publicly-listed corporations -- spent more than $2.5 trillion on stock buybacks, equal to 58 percent of their net income. In addition, these companies distributed dividends equal to 41 percent of net income over the decade, bringing the total payout ratio (buybacks plus dividends) to 99 percent. The average buybacks per S&P 500 company more than quadrupled from less than $300 million in 2003 to over $1.2 billion in 2007, before falling to around $700 million in 2008 and $300 million in 2009. Average buybacks rebounded to $600 million in 2010, however. And they're on pace to total at least $700 million per company in 2011, or $350 billion for the S&P 500 as a whole.
Executives like to say that buybacks are financial investments that signal confidence in the future of their company as measured by its stock-price performance. In fact, however, companies that do buybacks never sell the shares at higher prices to cash in on these investments. To do so would be to signal to the market that its stock price had peaked, something that no executive would ever do. But at the same time, these same executives use the stock boosts from buybacks to enrich themselves by exercising their very ample stock options and immediately selling the acquired stock to lock in the gains. And guess what? The gains from exercising stock options represent the most important component of outsized executive pay.
In short, as US business corporations have profited from the trends of rationalization, marketization, and globalization, top executives have used those profits to engage in a massive manipulation of their stock prices at the expense of job creation and innovation. From this perspective, the primary cause of the current jobless recovery is neither a mismatch in the labor market nor a lack of business confidence -- two conventional arguments for explaining the sluggishness of reemployment operating, respectively, on the supply-side and the demand-side of the labor market.
The "mismatch" argument is that the skills that workers possess do not match the skills that employers need. But this argument does not explain how, for the vast majority of workers, a "match" is made. The prime reason why the US economy gets a match between the capabilities of labor supplied and labor demanded is because business corporations invest in the capabilities of the types of workers whom they require. From this perspective, a so-called mismatch results from a failure of business corporations to make these investments in the training -- both formal and on-the-job -- of the US labor force. On top of that, as globalization continues, already-educated and trained US workers undergo permanent job loss in their areas of specialization. Valuable human capital quickly atrophies. The decline of middle-class jobs stems from the changed employment practices of US business corporations, exacerbated by their financialized behavior that leads them to favor buybacks over job creation.
It is this financialized corporate behavior, not a lack of business confidence, that stands in the way of a renewal of high-quality employment opportunities in the US economy. Highly profitable US corporations are currently sitting on almost $1 trillion in cash, even after a sharp rebound in stock repurchases in 2010 and the first quarter of 2011. Rather than manifesting a lack of business confidence, these cash hoards reflect a desire by corporate executives to have funds available for stock repurchases in the years ahead as companies compete through an escalation of repurchases to boost their stock prices as was the case in 2003 to 2007.
The globalization of the labor force for educated and experienced workers is here to stay. But, for the sake of sustainable prosperity, the financialized business corporation has to go. In the absence of a change in corporate financial behavior, the future of the US economy is more booms, busts, and jobless recoveries, with each boom more speculative, each bust more devastating, and each recovery more jobless than the one before.
William Lazonick is director of the UMass Center for Industrial Competitiveness and president of The Academic-Industry Research Network. His book, Sustainable Prosperity in the New Economy? Business Organization and High-Tech Employment in the United States (Upjohn Institute 2009) was awarded the 2010 Schumpeter Prize.