The stock buyback warning: stormy economic times are likely ahead

The Thinker by Rodin

Remember when Trump’s tax cuts were going to put money back into the pockets of working class Americans and create more jobs for them too? Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a load of peanut butter. With gas now around $3 a gallon, whatever new modest tax cuts trickled down to working America are probably being eaten up in higher transportation costs. As for businesses reinvesting their tax cuts in their businesses and bumping up wage rates for employees, well, there’s not much evidence of that. According to this March report from the Roosevelt Institute, just six percent of these corporate tax cuts are going to wage increases and bonuses for employees. Just twenty percent of this money is going toward capital investments that will result in more jobs.

So what are companies doing with the extra money from this enormous windfall? There is little reason for CEOs to spend most of it investing on the long-term futures of their companies. That’s because CEO compensation tends to be based on making short-term profits. These days many CEOs make far more compensation from exercising stock options than they do from a salary.

So we should not be surprised that CEOs are trying to make money the easy way instead. And the easy way is to take these windfall corporate tax cuts and buy back shares of their company’s stock. It’s good for them and it’s good for shareholders. Or so it seems. Experts are questioning if these buybacks are just artificially inflating the price of corporate stocks. One traditional measure is a stock’s price to earning’s (P/E) ratio. The higher the ratio, the longer it takes for earning from owning the stock to be used to buy a new share of company stock. High P/E ratios are a sign that stocks are overvalued and due for a correction. We are now at a P/E ratio about where we were before the Great Recession.

If it were just a handful of companies, this would not be particularly worrisome, but it’s part of a large and broad general trend among American corporations. Bloomberg reports a record $800B in stock buybacks are expected in 2018. So how are these buybacks inflating the value of a company artificially? It’s quite simple. When a company buys back its own stock, the supply of the stock for purchase diminishes. Of course as supply diminishes, price increases for any shares that are traded. If a CEO has $5 million in his company’s stock, by channeling these tax cuts and profits to buybacks, all other factors being equal the price of the stock will go up. So his $5M might easily turn into $6M. And what work had to be done? Simply redirecting these tax cuts and profits to create “buy” orders for his company’s stock.

That’s a whole lot easier than creating new products, expanding into new markets or figuring out how to run the business more efficiently. Shareholders probably aren’t going to complain when they see the value of their investments rise. Smarter CEOs will be systematically selling their stock when its price goes up, so they can capture its inflated wealth. This gives them money in the bank that can’t be taken away and shifts the risks of owning this stock to other stockholders.

Which is why these record stock buybacks really worry me. They do nothing to actually make a company more profitable in the long run and actually add to a company’s vulnerability. They allow more agile competitors (if there are any) to get a leg up on their market. That adds risks to a company’s value. Companies are essentially betting on the profitability of corporate inertia. Traditionally, this has not worked well for companies in the long run.

Stock corrections are inevitable. There was evidence earlier this year that we had reached correction territory, but markets have recovered much of these losses. For now though these tax cuts seem to be juicing the markets instead of your pocketbooks. I get the feeling that a true correction will happen sooner rather than later, in part because of the volatility of the market so far this year. This suggests there is a general nervousness among investors.

Stock buybacks though are a clear symptom of corporate greed. Greed is simply the lust for more wealth, and the truly greedy will want to increase their riches now rather than wait for improbable future profits. Congress is aiding and abetting this greed through these tax cuts in the first place, but also by removing regulations that were put in place after the Great Recession to prevent these things from happening in the future. You can see this through Trump’s attack on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can see it in recently passed legislation that will remove more higher reserve requirements on midsize banks. And you can see it in record consumer debt levels, bigger even than before the Great Recession. I believe that these large stock buybacks are another sign that this financial house of cards is moving toward another correction.

This time we can hope that it won’t be as bad as 2008. It shouldn’t, but who can say? The Trump Administration is being both being reckless and shortsighted, and Congress is fine with this. Their insatiable greed means they simply don’t care about fulfilling their primary function. The primary function of government is to be fiduciaries for the nation, making sure it is properly managed for both the short and long term. To the extent they are interested, it is to convince them that their timeworn strategies that just do the opposite will somehow work in the long term this time.

You would be wise not to take their bet. Rather than practicing greed, you might want to practice prudence instead. My take: this is a good time for less market exposure. I’m not alone. When the Treasury bill rate made it above 3% for the first time in years, it pushed up other interest rates. Many investors saw this as a sign and began moving more money into bonds for the surety of a return.

I don’t think Republican governance is going to change any fundamentals of the economy. Needless to say, I’m limiting my market exposure now and putting more money into bond funds. Maybe you should too.

Greed is a terrible sickness

The Thinker by Rodin

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, the corporate raider Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) informed us that greed is good. His character fit in well with the Reagan years, because this was essentially the mantra of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. If anything since then the Republican Party has become even more extreme on the issue. Not only is greed good, but also by implication being poor is bad and a personal failure. Poor people are just not trying hard enough, which they view as something of a crime.

According to Merriam-Webster, greed is “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed”. “Than is needed” is of course somewhat relative. However, if you have or take more in the way of resources than you need almost by definition someone else gets less than they might otherwise have. Since Reagan was elected, the only constant is that more of our wealth has gone to the richest while the income for the rest of us has at best stayed the same but has generally declined.

It’s clear to me that greed is a terrible sickness, and not something that should be celebrated. It sure appears that those who are truly greedy are never satisfied. They always want more. Since they believe greed is good, they look on greediness as a kind of religion. Witness our president and most of his cabinet of very wealthy people and who seem to have no scruples. Government is for pillaging, which is why last year they gave themselves a tax cut and threw a few scraps out to the rest of us. Their reputed rationale was that tax cuts would pay for themselves, something that has never proven true. I don’t for a minute believe that they believe it. What they do believe is that if you have power then you should use it to enrich yourself, so they did, worsening income inequality and greatly adding to our national debt to line their pockets now.

Greed is bad and should be treated as a mental illness. A truly greedy person should be seeing psychologists to figure out what is the matter with them. There is something very wrong with our president, who clearly subscribes to the religion of greed. To see how greed perturbs someone, look at our EPA secretary Scott Pruitt. The “greed is good” mantra has him so captivated that he has no problem turning the EPA into the Environmental Destruction Agency. Entitlement is assumed. He has a round-the-clock staff of thirty to protect him, flies first class everywhere and built a soundproof booth in his office.

Being wealthy does not necessarily mean that you are greedy. Berkshire Hathaway head Warren Buffet seems to be one of these types: a billionaire many times over who otherwise lives modestly. To be greedy you need to flaunt it and be consumed by the need to become ever richer, and not always through entirely fair means. At its core, greed denies reality. It suggests for example that you will never die because it’s hard to actually spend and enjoy all the money you accumulate. I suspect Warren Buffet enjoys investing because he finds it personally interesting.

Then there are people like the Koch Brothers who are consumed by greed, so much so that they have no problem if their industries create their profits by foisting their pollution costs on the rest of us. That’s how much greed has perturbed their thinking. It’s not like there is another planet nearby that eight billion of us can go and populate. They either can’t see this reality or more likely simply don’t care. These people are very sick people indeed.

For much of my life, I pursued wealth. I wasn’t a fanatic about it but I wanted to be comfortable, particularly in retirement. It was a long and arduous struggle that I eventually achieved. To me, it meant feeling confident that I could maintain my standard of living until I died, that I would never go hungry or be impoverished again and that I no longer had to work to survive. It’s true that much of my wealth is dependent upon a well-earned federal pension, and I still don’t entirely trust that the oligarchy won’t take it away at some point to feed their insatiable greed. But I feel confident enough about it that I don’t worry about it anymore. In any event, I have a comfortable portfolio and plenty of cash assets set aside to handle future expenses. We have no mortgage payment nipping at our heels every month anymore, no college expenses to juggle and little in the way of electricity bills with the solar panels on our roof.

It’s reached the point where our relative wealth feels sort of surreal. What I don’t feel at all is the need to obsessively acquire more wealth. I feel no particular pull to buy a fancy car, for example. I take no particular pleasure in driving and see it as a chore. In January we took a 19-day vacation, 16 days of it on a cruise ship. It was nice but I don’t particularly feel the need for a more lavish vacation or more days dining on gourmet food in Holland America’s dining room. My needs and wants are pretty much satisfied. My financial anxieties are calmed. At my stage of life, people like me should simply enjoy life.

Today the things that give me the most satisfaction are the most prosaic: daily “constitutionals” around my community, doing the crossword puzzle in the paper, having a cat nearby that I can reach out and pet and having a spouse who I love and who loves me. And yet despite the ups and downs in the stock market, our portfolio keeps increasing. To the extent I still work through teaching and consulting (both very part time) it’s for enjoyment and to spread my knowledge to those who might benefit from it. This income is mostly saved, but occasionally it buys some nice stuff. We are planning a New York City trip next and hope to see some popular Broadway shows.

All these rich people could simply enjoy their wealth if they wanted to, rather than suffer from the psychosis that they must ruthlessly acquire more of it through pretty much any means available. A lot of our spare income now is given away to charitable causes. I feel not just a need but also a natural desire to share our wealth. I try to put it toward causes that I believe are productive uses. It goes to places like the Nature Conservancy, so it can buy up natural space for future generations. It goes to Planned Parenthood, so women in particular can make choices over their own bodies and get health care services at affordable prices. It goes to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, so fewer of the people I see holding cardboard signs at intersections have to go hungry. It goes to a local spouse abuse shelter, so mostly women can have a softer landing after from suffering domestic abuse. And increasingly a lot of it goes to arguably non-charitable causes: campaigns of people who seem to be sincere progressives who will work to reduce misery and straighten out the major problems with our politics most of which were caused by the greed is good falsehood.

For the truly greedy, to quote Mr. T., “I pity the fools”. They might want to read some Charles Dickens, particularly A Christmas Carol. Whether overtly or innocently, what they are doing to our planet and the rest of us is intensively evil.