Buybacks are the Symptom, Shareholder Power the Disease

Jeff Gordon –

People claim to be worried about stock buybacks. In fact, the buybacks are a stand-in for what we can all see: business in this country works for wealthy shareholders, not workers, customers, or communities.

Buybacks are in the news as policymakers contemplate a bailout of several major U.S. airlines, all of which have relatively little cash on hand to weather the current crisis. One reason the airlines have so little cash is that, as Bloomberg reports, they spent 96% of free cash flow buying back shares over the last decade. Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed that no corporation receiving a government bailout should ever again be allowed to conduct buybacks. But the notion that, with fewer buybacks, the airlines would have saved enough to withstand a world-historic economic collapse is fanciful. To see this, we must recognize that the massive stock buybacks of the past decade are a symptom of heightened shareholder power. Efforts to limit or ban buybacks without addressing that power at its source would not lead to the higher wages, productive investments, or rainy-day savings that buyback critics hope for. Moreover, the narrow focus on buybacks distracts from the bigger opportunity presented by the crisis: to reclaim corporations for the public good.

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Promises All the Way Down: A Primer on the Money View

This post is part of a symposium on the Methods of Political Economy.

Elham Saeidinezhad

It has long been tempting for economists to imagine “the economy” as a giant machine for producing and distributing “value.” Finance, on this view, is just the part of the device that takes the output that is not consumed by end-users (the “savings”) and redirects it back to the productive parts of the machine (as “investment”). Our financial system is an ornate series of mechanisms to collect the value we’ve saved up and invest it into producing yet more value. Financial products of all sorts—including money itself—are just the form that value takes when it is in the transition from savings to investment. What matters is the “real” economy—where the money is the veil, and the things of value are produced and distributed.

What if this were exactly backwards? What if money and finance were understood not as the residuum of past economic activity—as a thing among other things—but rather as the way humans manage ongoing relationships between each other in a world of fundamental uncertainty? These are the sorts of questions asked by the economist Perry Mehrling (and Hyman Minsky before him). These inquiries provided a framework that has allowed him to answer many of the issues that mystify neoclassical economics.

On Mehrling’s “Money View,” every (natural or artificial) person engaged in economic activity is understood in terms of her financial position, that is, in terms of the obligations she owes others (her “liabilities”) and the obligations owed to her (her “assets”). In modern economies, obligations primarily take the form of money and credit instruments. Every actor must manage the inflow and outflow of obligations (called “cash flow management”) such that she can settle up with others when her obligations to them come due. If she can, she is a “going concern” that continues to operate normally. If she cannot, she must scramble to avoid some form of financial failure—bankruptcy being the most common. After all, as Mehrling argues, “liquidity kills you quick.” This “survival constraint” binds not only today but also at every moment in the future. Thus, generally, the problem of satisfying the survival constraint is a problem of matching up the time pattern of assets (obligations owed to an actor) with the time pattern of liabilities (obligations an actor owed to others). The central question is whether, at any moment in time, there is enough cash inflow to pay for the cash flows.

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How Finance Structures Global Value Chains

How Finance Structures Global Value Chains

NB: This post is part of a symposium on law and global value chains co-convened with the Institute for Global Law and Policy’s Law and Global Production Working Group.

Tomaso Ferrando–

The Law-in-Global-Value-Chains perspective adopted in the Research Manifesto and introduced the initial blog of this series is based on the recognition that law is endogenous to the production, circulation, accumulation and destruction of value. Whether we are talking about labor, nature, capital or any of the other ‘cheap things’ that are central to the construction of the global system of production, the Manifesto suggests that law has a lot to do with the way in which that ‘thing’ becomes cheap and value is extracted from it..

Yet, not enough attention has been dedicated – so far – to the role of law as the enabler of financial markets, financial instruments and financial actors as value extracting participants to global networks of production. However, financial practices that prioritize the remuneration of capital holders contribute to redefining forms and spaces of production, along with the geographies of value appropriation and the relationships between people, planet and value chains. In the contemporary economy of atomized production and outsourcing, finance is at the core of how global production is organized. The study of law in global value is woefully incomplete without an understanding of the way in which legal structures define the space of operation of financial actors and financial actors utilize law and legal structures to increase the extraction of rent.

There are many ways into the study of how law and finance structure the operation of global value chains. Perhaps uniquely powerful is a focus on something both essential and increasingly fragile: the global food system.

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A Single Federal Usury Cap is Too Blunt an Instrument

NB: This post is part of a debate on the Loan Shark Prevention Act, a bill that would introduce a federal usury cap. Emma Caterine’s response is here.

Anne Fleming–

In May 2019, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiled the Loan Shark Prevention Act, a bill that would cap the cost of consumer credit nationwide. Under the bill, the total cost of a loan, calculated as an annualized percentage rate (APR), could not exceed 15%.

Although high credit card charges are the bill’s main target, payday loans rank among the most expensive forms of consumer credit in the United States. A typical payday loan from a storefront lender costs $15 per $100 borrowed. For a $350 loan that must be repaid in one lump sum in two weeks, the borrower would pay $52.50 in fees. This equates to a 391% APR.

Payday lenders argue that it is misleading to calculate the cost of their products in terms of an APR because payday loans are not marketed for long-term use. But most borrowers cannot repay their loans in full in two weeks. Instead, they pay only the fee and rollover the balance into a new two-week loan. In this way, consumers can end up in a months-long cycle of borrowing, paying hundreds of dollars in fees. This vicious cycle is especially concerning because most borrowers are low-income, just making ends meet. Furthermore, Hispanic and African-American households account for a disproportionate share of payday loan users.

In other words, high-cost credit is a real concern that policymakers must address. But a one-size-fits-all 15% APR cap is a blunt instrument for tackling this problem.

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Is Labor’s Future in Labor’s Capital? A Debate, Part III

This is Part III of a conversation between David H. Webber and Michael McCarthy on the prospect of combating neoliberal corporate governance through the shareholder activities of workers’ pension funds. Workers’ retirement savings make up a substantial share of the capital invested in the public stock market and the private equity market. If shareholder primacy is the dominant paradigm of our financialized economy–-usually a problematic proposition in these pages–-then shouldn’t workers have a say in how these companies are run? Webber and McCarthy are both sympathetic to this idea, but disagree about how well such efforts have worked in the past and how likely they are to work in the future.

You can view the other parts of the debate here.

LPE: We now have several potential obstacles on the table. Let’s take a closer look at some of them. First, the legal obstacle—what does fiduciary law really require, and is this a problem for prioritizing something other than short term financial return in fund governance? Second, politics—what will it take for labor to demand a seat at the table, or a majority of the seats?

David H. Webber: Though I do not view current fiduciary law as an insurmountable barrier to the activism I describe, it could be better. ERISA comes from trust law, though the statute explicitly states one should be cautious in using trust law to interpret it. I have argued that, in many respects, the more flexible fiduciary duties found in trust law’s cousin, corporate law, may be a better fit for pension plans as they exist today than trust law itself. Historically, because shareholders were thought to be comparatively more empowered vis-à-vis corporate boards and managers than beneficiaries were vis-à-vis trustees, more flexible fiduciary duties evolved in the corporate sector.

But I think that in the case of many pension plans, these distinctions have broken down. First, public pension plans now make regular disclosures through Certified Annual Financial Reports, the pension law equivalent of the 10-K. Second, plan participants and beneficiaries get to vote for worker and retiree representatives on boards, and in their capacity as citizens, they also get to vote for the elected officials who serve as employer representatives on those boards. So there is a measure of accountability not found in traditional trusts. Third, on the corporate side, diversified shareholders have effectively lost their capacity to exit. Divesting is expensive, can often hurt you on the way out, and may undermine diversification. Many shareholders are locked in the same way pension beneficiaries are. It may be time for greater convergence between pension law and corporate law, one that takes account of the new institutional realities.

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Is Labor’s Future in Labor’s Capital? A Debate: Part II

This is Part II of a conversation between David H. Webber and Michael McCarthy on the prospect of combating neoliberal corporate governance through the shareholder activities of workers’ pension funds. Workers’ retirement savings make up a substantial share of the capital invested in the public stock market and the private equity market. If shareholder primacy is the dominant paradigm of our financialized economy–usually a problematic proposition in these pages–then shouldn’t workers have a say in how these companies are run?Webber and McCarthy are both sympathetic to this idea, but disagree about how well such efforts have worked in the past and how likely they are to work in the future.

You can view the other parts of the debate here.

David Webber: Though I think he somewhat overstates the case, I agree with Michael’s observation that these pensions have, at times, been used against labor. And not just historically. I discuss (and decry) contemporary examples of this phenomenon in my book, such as pension fund investment in privatization. And it is also true that both private and public sector pensions have been used in favor of labor, as my book demonstrates. Before digging into those issues, I want to clarify some important distinctions between the public and private fund context, respond to some of Michael’s claims about ERISA and fiduciary duty, and point to examples of why, regardless of what has occurred historically, things are changing and have the potential to change further, if acted upon.

First, Michael shifts the focus to private union pension plans. Fair enough. I discussed them above and I’ll return to them below. But the bulk of my discussion focused on public pension plans, and with good reason. In part that’s because they are far larger. The public pension funds of California alone significantly exceed the assets of all private union pension plans combined. But there’s another reason to focus on public pension plans: they are not governed by Taft-Hartley or by ERISA. They are governed by state pension codes. That matters for two issues: board control, and fiduciary duties.

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Is Labor’s Future in Labor’s Capital? A Debate

This is Part I of a conversation between David H. Webber and Michael McCarthy on the prospect of combating neoliberal corporate governance through the shareholder activities of workers’ pension funds. Workers’ retirement savings make up a substantial share of the capital invested in the public stock market and the private equity market. If shareholder primacy is the dominant paradigm of our financialized economy–usually a problematic proposition in these pages–then shouldn’t workers have a say in how these companies are run? Webber and McCarthy are both sympathetic to this idea, but disagree about how well such efforts have worked in the past and how likely they are to work in the future.

You can view the other parts of the debate here.

LPE: Let’s start with where we are now and how we got here. How did we get to a place where some workers get to decide how their retirement assets should be invested, while others don’t? What were the key fights between labor groups, employers, and financial industry players on this question, and what were the outcomes?

David Webber: Worker shareholder power can be found mostly in public sector pension plans, which are publicly-created retirement plans that invest the retirement savings of public-sector workers. These large state, city, and county employee retirement plans hold at least $4 trillion in assets, roughly 10% of the U.S. stock market, and at least a third of “alternative investment vehicles” like private equity. The most famous examples are the California Public Employees’ Retirement System ($350 billion in assets), the California State Teachers Retirement System ($223.8 billion), the New York City Pension Funds ($195 billion), and the New York Common Retirement Funds ($207.4. billion), among many others. Almost all public pension plans have worker representatives on the boards of trustees, the equivalent of worker representation on corporate boards. These workers are elected by other workers (or retirees) who participate in the funds. Sometimes those worker slots are controlled or heavily influenced by unions. Sometimes workers outright control the board; more often they constitute a minority of trustees.

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Money & Memory, Capital & Communion

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Robert Hockett–

Imagine that I incur an obligation to you – an ‘affirmative’ obligation, let’s say. Perhaps it’s through violating some ‘negative’ obligation to you, wronging you in a manner that triggers a right to redress. Perhaps it’s through promising you something. Perhaps it’s through membership in some group, the members of which are expected to ‘pay dues’ of some sort.

In virtue of this obligation, I, the ower, am now ‘liable’ on the new obligation. You, the owner, now ‘hold’ a new asset – the asset that’s my liability. Here is the start of accounting. Of shared ledgers. All accounting at bottom is obligation-accounting, justice-accounting – tracking what’s due and by whom and to whom.

Liabilities that come into existence ex nihilo – by my promising you something ‘gratuitously,’ for example – give salient rise to a two-sided danger, something a lot like the Janus-faced monetary risk of ‘inflation’ and ‘deflation.’ For one can in principle promise more than she can deliver, thereby devaluing her promises in time. Or, fearing this prospect, she can ‘not make any promises,’ thereby impoverishing her life by depriving it of the rich fabric of association and shared action that lends and brings value to life in communion with others.

Promissory inflation and deflation, through devaluation or contraction, deprive life of much of its obligatory content. And life without obligation would be life without liabilities, life without assets. It would in that sense be life without worth, without wealth, without value. It would be life without any vindicatable expectation – life without ‘rights,’ without ‘wrongs,’ without ‘right or wrong.’

How dismal that would be.

Life with real value accordingly requires, not gold (more on which below), but observance of some ‘golden mean’ – the mean between wronging and not acting, the mean between over- and under-committing. And this is as true of us in our collective capacities as it is of us in our individual capacities.

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Predatory Lending and the Predator State

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Raul Carrillo–

Like most advocates of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I didn’t embrace the paradigm because I dig late-night chats about accounting identities. Rather, I found it while pursuing economic justice (following the lead of Angela Harris, Emma Coleman Jordan, and other allies). Today, I fight financial predators — banks, landlords, debt collectors, and agencies engaged in racialized wealth extraction — on the daily. And so, my MMT enthusiasm remains…practical.

Although the commentariat caricatures MMT as a rationalization for U.S. deficit spending, it’s something more powerful — a new interdisciplinary lens, shaped for eyes on the prize of justice. Most importantly, MMT is rooted in legal analysis; its neochartalist foundations help illuminate financial hierarchies — so we can better dismantle them around the world.

As elites literally claim human survival is “too expensive”, it’s crucial for movements to absorb this symposium’s chief insight: money itself, although not always starkly a creature of the “state”, is a creature of law, just like the institutions through which it flows.

When we analyze money as public software, rather than private hardware, we see political economy differently. For example, as Harris argues, any movement for economic justice must overcome the toxic trope of the “undeserving benefit recipient” (and the corollary trope of the put-upon khaki-clad patriarch). In my view, MMT helps us challenge this divide-and-conquer strategy, by undermining the technical premises of “taxpayer citizenship” — the racialized and gendered notion that rights should correspond to one’s nominal contributions to government coffers. When Stephanie Kelton reminds us that “money doesn’t grow on rich people”, she is making an inference LPE readers should appreciate: the wealthy do not get their money by generating it, but by mastering a system that routes tradeable legal claims on real resources that we collectively produce (i.e. “money”) to themselves. As I’ve emphasized, the coercion Robert Lee Hale described leads the rest of us not merely to work, but to work for legal tender, which can settle debts between individuals, but must satisfy debts to the state (most notably, taxes).

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Reclaiming Public Fiscal Power for Transforming Precarity

Reclaiming Public Fiscal Power for Transforming Precarity

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Martha T. McCluskey–

Basic legal ideas about taxation stand in the way of proposals for ambitious fiscal policies to address pervasive economic insecurity among both middle class and lower income households.

The conventional legal framework posits two primary functions for taxation. First, taxes raise revenue to finance government goods and services. Second, taxes redistribute resources, transferring money from some private interests to others based on ideas about distributional equity. Taxes also regulate private economic behavior, but this third function is generally treated as supplementary and subordinate, with economic ordering mainly directed by basic legal rules and the administrative state.

In orthodox law and economics, “optimal” tax policy achieves the two primary goals with the least “distortion” of private value-maximizing decisions in a presumed efficient and equitable market unsullied by taxes. This optimal tax theory aims to replicate a mythical market where money passively realizes and measures an underlying value fixed by barter-like exchanges of real goods, and services.

This seemingly benign conceptual frame implicitly locates economic productivity in a distinct and underlying private market sphere, with government taxing and spending cast as taking value from those who have created it. From this starting point, households can receive public support either as beneficiaries of forced public charity or as responsible consumers willing and able to pay an equivalent amount in taxes. If progressive taxing and spending programs are construed as involuntary, inherently inefficient, transfers of money from productive market winners to support less capable market losers, then that public support will tend to appear to generally inscribe rather than relieve conditions of precarity and powerlessness.

This conventional frame obscures how taxation creates money as a means for generating and distributing economic power and insecurity. Tax theory tends to ignore how law constructs and governs money, treating money as a neutral measure of social contribution.

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