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Corporate Dysmorphia: Why “Business Needs Certainty” Is Destructive

If you read the business and even the political press, you’ve doubtless encountered the claim that the economy is a mess because the threat to reregulate in the wake of a global-economy-wrecking financial crisis is creating “uncertainty.” That is touted as the reason why corporations are sitting on their hands and not doing much in the way of hiring and investing.

This is propaganda that needs to be laughed out of the room.

I approach this issue as as a business practitioner. I have spent decades advising major financial institutions, private equity and hedge funds, and very wealthy individuals (Forbes 400 level) on enterprises they own. I’ve run a profit center in a major financial firm and have have also operated a consulting business for over 20 years. So I’ve had extensive exposure to the dysfunction I am about to describe.

Commerce is all about making decisions and committing resources with the hope of earning profit when the managers cannot know the future. “Uncertainty” is used casually by the media, but when trying to confront the vagaries of what might happen, analysts distinguish risk from “uncertainty”, which for them has a very specific meaning. “Risk” is what Donald Rumsfeld characterized as a known unknown. You can still estimate the range of likely outcomes and make a good stab at estimating probabilities within that range. For instance, if you open an ice cream store in a resort area, you can make a very good estimate of what the fixed costs and the margins on sales will be. It is much harder to predict how much ice cream you will actually sell. That is turn depends largely on foot traffic which in turn is largely a function of the weather (and you can look at past weather patterns to get a rough idea) and how many people visit that town (which is likely a function of the economy and how that particular resort area does in a weak economy).

Uncertainty, by contrast, is unknown unknowns. It is the sort of risk you can’t estimate in advance. So businesses also have to be good at adapting when Shit Happens. Sometimes that Shit Happening can be favorable, but they still need to be able to exploit opportunities (like an exceptionally hot summer producing off the charts demand for ice cream) or disaster (like the Fukushima meltdown disrupting global supply chains). That implies having some slack or extra resources at your disposal, or being able to get ready access to them at not too catastrophic a cost.

So why aren’t businesses investing or hiring? “Uncertainty” as far as regulations are concerned is not a major driver. Surveys show that the “uncertainty” bandied about in the press really translates into “the economy stinks, I’m not in a business that benefits from a bad economy, and I’m not going to take a chance when I have no idea when things might turn around.”

The “certainty” they are looking for is concrete evidence that prevailing conditions have really turned. But with so many people unemployed, growth flagging in advanced economies, China and other emerging economies putting on the brake as their inflation rates become too high, and a very real risk of another financial crisis kicking off in the Eurozone, there isn’t any reason to hope for things to magically get better on their own any time soon. In fact, if you look at the discussion above, we actually have a very high degree of certainty, just of the wrong sort, namely that growth will low to negative for easily the next two years, and quite possibly for a Japan-style extended period.

So why this finger pointing at intrusive regulations, particularly since they are mysteriously absent? For instance, Dodd Frank is being water down in the process of detailed rulemaking, and the famed Obamacare actually enriches Big Pharma and the health insurers.

The problem with the “blame the government” canard is that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The pattern businesses are trying to blame on the authorities, that they aren’t hiring and investing due to intrusive interference, was in fact deeply entrenched before the crisis and was rampant during the corporate friendly Bush era. I wrote about it back in 2005 for the Conference Board’s magazine.

In simple form, this pattern resulted from the toxic combination of short-termism among investors and an irrational focus on unaudited corporate quarterly earnings announcements and stock-price-related executive pay, which became a fixture in the early 1990s. I called the pattern “corporate dysmorphia”, since like body builders preparing for contests, major corporations go to unnatural extremes to make themselves look good for their quarterly announcements.

An extract from the article:

Corporations deeply and sincerely embrace practices that, like the use of steroids, pump up their performance at the expense of their well-being…

Despite the cliché “employees are our most important asset,” many companies are doing everything in their power to live without them, and to pay the ones they have minimally. This practice may sound like prudent business, but in fact it is a reversal of the insight by Henry Ford that built the middle class and set the foundation for America’s prosperity in the twentieth century: that by paying workers well, companies created a virtuous circle, since better-paid staff would consume more goods, enabling companies to hire yet more worker/consumers.

Instead, the Wal-Mart logic increasingly prevails: Pay workers as little as they will accept, skimp on benefits, and wring as much production out of them as possible (sometimes illegally, such as having them clock out and work unpaid hours). The argument is that this pattern is good for the laboring classes, since Wal-Mart can sell goods at lower prices, providing savings to lower-income consumers like, for instance, its employees. The logic is specious: Wal-Mart’s workers spend most of their income on goods and services they can’t buy at Wal-Mart, such as housing, health care, transportation, and gas, so whatever gains they recoup from Wal-Mart’s low prices are more than offset by the rock-bottom pay.

Defenders may argue that in a global economy, Americans must accept competitive (read: lower) wages. But critics such as William Greider and Thomas Frank argue that America has become hostage to a free-trade ideology, while its trading partners have chosen to operate under systems of managed trade. There’s little question that other advanced economies do a better job of both protecting their labor markets and producing a better balance of trade—in most cases, a surplus.

The dangers of the U.S. approach are systemic. Real wages have been stagnant since the mid-1970s, but consumer spending keeps climbing. As of June, household savings were .02 percent of income (note the placement of the decimal point), and Americans are carrying historically high levels of debt. According to the Federal Reserve, consumer debt service is 13 percent of income. The Economist noted, “Household savings have dwindled to negligible levels as Americans have run down assets and taken on debt to keep the spending binge going.” As with their employers, consumers are keeping up the appearance of wealth while their personal financial health decays.

Part of the problem is that companies have not recycled the fruits of their growth back to their workers as they did in the past. In all previous postwar economic recoveries, the lion’s share of the increase in national income went to labor compensation (meaning increases in hiring, wages, and benefits) rather than corporate profits, according to the National Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the current upturn, not only is the proportion going to workers far lower than ever before—it is the first time that the share of GDP growth going to corporate coffers has exceeded the labor share.

And businesses weren’t using their high profits to invest either:

Companies typically invest in times like these, when profits are high and interest rates low. Yet a recent JP Morgan report notes that, since 2002, American companies have incurred an average net financial surplus of 1.7 percent of GDP, which contrasts with an average deficit of 1.2 percent of GDP for the preceding forty years. While firms in aggregate have occasionally run a surplus, “. . . the recent level of saving by corporates is unprecedented. . . .It is important to stress that the present situation is in some sense unnatural. A more normal situation would be for the global corporate sector—in both the G6 and emerging economies—to be borrowing, and for households in the G6 economies to be saving more, ahead of the deterioration in demographics.”

The problem is that the “certainty” language reveals what the real game is, which is certainty in top executive pay at the expense of the health of the enterprise, and ultimately, the economy as a whole. Cutting costs is as easy way to produce profits, since the certainty of a good return on your “investment” is high. By contrast, doing what capitalists of legend are supposed to do, find ways to serve customer better by producing better or novel products, is much harder and involves taking real chances and dealing with very real odds of disappointing results. Even though we like to celebrate Apple, all too many companies have shunned that path of finding other easier ways to burnish their bottom lines. and it has become even more extreme. Companies have managed to achieve record profits in a verging-on-recession setting.

Indeed, the bigger problem they face is that they have played their cost-focused business paradigm out. You can’t grow an economy on cost cutting unless you have offsetting factors in play, such as an export led growth strategy, or an ever rising fiscal deficit, or a falling household saving rate that has not yet reached zero, or some basis for an investment spending boom. But if you go down the list, and check off each item for the US, you will see they have exhausted the possibilities. The only one that could in theory operate is having consumers go back on a borrowing spree. But with unemployment as high as it is and many families desperately trying to recover from losses in the biggest item on their personal balance sheet, their home, that seems highly unlikely. Game over for the cost cutting strategy.

And contrary to their assertions, just as they’ve managed to pursue self-limiting, risk avoidant corporate strategies on a large scale, so too have they sought to use government and regulation to shield themselves from risk.

Businesses have had at least 25 to 30 years near complete certainty — certainty that they will pay lower and lower taxes, that they’ will face less and less regulation, that they can outsource to their hearts’ content (which when it does produce savings, comes at a loss of control, increased business system rigidity, and loss of critical know how). They have also been certain that unions will be weak to powerless, that states and municipalities will give them huge subsidies to relocate, that boards of directors will put top executives on the up escalator for more and more compensation because director pay benefits from this cozy collusion, that the financial markets will always look to short term earnings no matter how dodgy the accounting, that the accounting firms will provide plenty of cover, that the SEC will never investigate anything more serious than insider trading (Enron being the exception that proved the rule).

So this haranguing about certainty simply reveals how warped big commerce has become in the US. Top management of supposedly capitalist enterprises want a high degree of certainty in their own profits and pay. Rather than earn their returns the old fashioned way, by serving customers well, by innovating, by expanding into new markets, their ‘certainty’ amounts to being paid handsomely for doing things that carry no risk. But since risk and uncertainty are inherent to the human condition, what they instead have engaged in is a massive scheme of risk transfer, of increasing rewards to themselves to the long term detriment of their enterprises and ultimately society as a whole.

 

By: Yves Smith, Salon, August 14, 2011

August 15, 2011 Posted by | Big Business, Big Pharma, Businesses, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Economic Recovery, Economy, Financial Institutions, Financial Reform, GOP, Government, Health Reform, Ideologues, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Lawmakers, Media, Middle Class, Minimum Wage, Politics, Press, Public, Pundits, Regulations, Republicans, Right Wing, Unemployed, Unemployment, Wall Street, Walmart, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No Limits To Hypocrisy: Boehner Claims To Be “Worried About The Country”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), as expected, is now fully invested in a temporary debt-ceiling extension. He’ll accept $1 trillion in cuts — with no revenue — now, and then consider another extension next year after additional negotiations over taxes and entitlements.

Democrats want one debt-ceiling vote, seeing no need to put the country through this twice in less than a year. Take note of how Boehner responds to this.

Boehner suggested Sunday that by trying to put the next debt ceiling debate off for so long Obama was trying to gain political advantage.

“I know the president is worried about his next re-election, but, my God, shouldn’t we be worried about the country?” Boehner asked.

It’s entirely possible that the House Speaker really is this dumb. With this in mind, I’m trying to think about how to ask the questions in a way John Boehner can understand. How about this:

1. How would the country benefit from two votes on raising the debt ceiling, instead of one?

2. If Republicans are sincerely concerned about economic “uncertainty,” why tell investors, job creators, and international markets that default is a possibility early next year?

3. If getting one debt-ceiling revision through Congress is necessary but difficult, why make lawmakers go through this twice?

Hearing John Boehner claim the high road, claiming to be “worried about the country,” might be the most hilarious thing I’ve seen in a while. We are, after all, talking about a House Speaker who allowed his caucus to launch an insane hostage strategy, threatening to crash the economy on purpose, and then refused to compromise, even after President Obama handed him an overly-generous offer.

“My God, shouldn’t we be worried about the country”? What a good question, John. Why don’t you answer it?

 

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, July 24, 2011

July 25, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Teaparty, Voters | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

American Businesses: Success Is Because Of Government, Not In Spite Of It

While big business whimpers about high statutory tax rates, the effective tax rate paid by most corporations in America is often far lower than most other developed nations (thanks to loopholes and accounting tricks). Meanwhile, corporate tax receipts accounted for 30 percent of US federal revenues in the mid-1950s. In 2009, they made up just 6.6 percent of federal revenue streams.

In other words, not only are big corporations funding a smaller percentage of our shared social safety net, they’re paying a smaller percentage into funding the future infrastructure that they desperately need.

Imagine if big business got its way and corporate taxes were slashed even further. How would businesses suffer?

What would Oprah and Henry Ford have done?

Imagine if, when Henry Ford wanted to start the Ford Motor Company, he had to not only drill for oil himself but also oversee the laying of pipelines and production infrastructure across government-owned land so his cars could have gas to make them go. And when the American auto industry was expanding in the 1940s and 50s creating jobs throughout the nation, imagine if Chrysler and General Motors had to not only build their own factories and assembly lines but actually plan and construct the roads and interstate highways for cars to drive on.

Imagine if Oprah had to regulate the television spectrum for herself and that at random, bandwidth pirates could intrude on broadcasts of the Oprah Winfrey Show because there was no Federal Communications Commission monitoring ownership of and access to the public airwaves.

Imagine if every restaurateur today had to invest in his or her own food safety teams to make sure the meat served isn’t toxic. Imagine if every small business in remote rural communities had to generate its own electricity on site because the government wouldn’t have helped fund the expansion of power lines to those distant places. Imagine if every corporation had to educate its entire workforce from childhood to adulthood because there were no public schools.

Bill Gates would have had to run phone lines.

What if, when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he couldn’t get a patent from the United States government to protect his idea? Or for that matter, if there had been no laws to protect private property and no law enforcement, Bell might have had to sit up all night with a gun guarding his invention – instead of going out in the world and figuring out how to use it. When Bill Gates wanted to start Microsoft, consider if instead of drawing on the government-created infrastructure of the original Internet (which he accessed early on in high school through the publicly funded University of Washington), Mr. Gates not only had to invent Windows, but also invent the entire World Wide Web and run the wiring for the phone lines that originally connected all his potential consumers.

When Warren Buffet launched his investing career that ultimately earned him billions, imagine if in addition to hiring lawyers to run his business, Mr. Buffett had to hire judges, too, and create entire court systems to oversee and enforce the types of binding contracts on which the stock market relies. For that matter, imagine if Buffet had to print his own currency and negotiate its value against the currencies of all other individual investors.e infrastructure of private sector success

Taxes fund the infrastructure of private sector success

Businesses in the United States don’t succeed in spite of our government, in many ways, they succeed because of our government. Through our taxes, we fund the legal and economic infrastructure of private sector success. By definition, those businesses that get the most out of that infrastructure are those that should give the most back.

At a time when economic conservatives want to slash spending that helps the poor and middle class rather than raise the already-low effective taxes of big business, it’s shameful that corporations like General Electric and Bank of America effectively pay no taxes. In the context of the larger American story, where successful businesses of today support the public infrastructure for the businesses of tomorrow, saying that corporations should pay even less is downright un-American.

By: Sally Kohn, AlterNet, July 22, 2011

July 24, 2011 Posted by | Bank Of America, Big Business, Budget, Businesses, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Economic Recovery, Economy, Federal Budget, General Electric, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Politics, Regulations, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Increases, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Domestic Budget Extremists: Republicans, Zealots and The Threat To Our Security

If China or Iran threatened our national credit rating and tried to drive up our interest rates, or if they sought to damage our education system, we would erupt in outrage.

Well, wake up to the national security threat. Only it’s not coming from abroad, but from our own domestic extremists.

We tend to think of national security narrowly as the risk of a military or terrorist attack. But national security is about protecting our people and our national strength — and the blunt truth is that the biggest threat to America’s national security this summer doesn’t come from China, Iran or any other foreign power. It comes from budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home.

House Republicans start from a legitimate concern about rising long-term debt. Politicians are usually focused only on short-term issues, so it would be commendable to see the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party seriously focused on containing long-term debt. But on this issue, many House Republicans aren’t serious, they’re just obsessive in a destructive way. The upshot is that in their effort to protect the American economy from debt, some of them are willing to drag it over the cliff of default.

It is not exactly true that this would be our first default. We defaulted in 1790. By some definitions, we defaulted on certain gold obligations in 1933. And in 1979, the United States had trouble managing payouts to some individual investors on time (partly because of a failure of word processing equipment) and thus was in technical default.

Yet even that brief lapse in 1979 raised interest payments in the United States. Terry L. Zivney, a finance professor at Ball State University and co-author of a scholarly paper about the episode, says the 1979 default increased American government borrowing costs by 0.6 of a percentage point indefinitely.

Any deliberate and sustained interruption this year could have a greater impact. We would see higher interest rates on mortgages, car loans, business loans and credit cards.

American government borrowing would also become more expensive. In February, the Congressional Budget Office noted that a 1 percentage point rise in interest rates could add more than $1 trillion to borrowing costs over a decade.

In other words, Republican zeal to lower debts could result in increased interest expenses and higher debts. Their mania to save taxpayers could cost taxpayers. That suggests not governance so much as fanaticism.

More broadly, a default would leave America a global laughingstock. Our “soft power,” our promotion of democracy around the world, and our influence would all take a hit. The spectacle of paralysis in the world’s largest economy is already bewildering to many countries. If there is awe for our military prowess and delight in our movies and music, there is scorn for our political/economic management.

While one danger to national security comes from the risk of default, another comes from overzealous budget cuts — especially in education, at the local, state and national levels. When we cut to the education bone, we’re not preserving our future but undermining it.

It should be a national disgrace that the United States government has eliminated spending for major literacy programs in the last few months, with scarcely a murmur of dissent.

Consider Reading Is Fundamental, a 45-year-old nonprofit program that has cost the federal government only $25 million annually. It’s a public-private partnership with 400,000 volunteers, and it puts books in the hands of low-income children. The program helped four million American children improve their reading skills last year. Now it has lost all federal support.

“They have made a real difference for millions of kids,” Kyle Zimmer, founder of First Book, another literacy program that I’ve admired, said of Reading Is Fundamental. “It is a tremendous loss that their federal support has been cut. We are going to pay for these cuts in education for generations.”

Education programs like these aren’t quick fixes, and the relation between spending and outcomes is uncertain and complex. Nurturing reading skills is a slog rather than a sprint — but without universal literacy we have no hope of spreading opportunity, fighting crime or chipping away at poverty.

“The attack on literacy programs reflects a broader assault on education programs,” said Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic member of Congress from Connecticut. She notes that Republicans want to cut everything from early childhood programs to Pell grants for college students. Republican proposals have singled out some 43 education programs for elimination, but it’s not seen as equally essential to end tax loopholes on hedge fund managers.

So let’s remember not only the national security risks posed by Iran and Al Qaeda. Let’s also focus on the risks, however unintentional, from domestic zealots.

By: Nicholas Kristoff, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 23, 2011

July 24, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Consumer Credit, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Education, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Homeland Security, Ideologues, Ideology, National Security, Politics, Public, Republicans, Right Wing, States, Teaparty, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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