Dr. William Lazonick, co-founder and president of The Academic-Industry Research Network, sits down with Real Vision’s Max Wiethe to dissect the evolution of the stock market and the modern American economic system. Citing Boeing as an example, he contends that the stock market is being used to loot previously innovative corporations as insiders and outsiders alike are incentivized to push stock prices higher. He also argues that American competitiveness is being sapped as companies prioritize stock buybacks over investing in research and development, building new infrastructure, and paying off debt. Lazonick explains how this focus on short-term profits has led to unstable employment, sagging productivity growth and a loss of international competitiveness. Filmed on December 6, 2019 in New York.
The BlackRock CEO auditions to be the next Treasury Secretary.
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink is among the world’s most powerful investment managers, but it seems he longs for more influence. To wit, he has assumed a role as self-styled conscience of the business world in telling CEOs how to run their companies.
“We believe that sustainability should be our new standard for investing,” he wrote to clients in his annual letter this week. He added that “all investors—and particularly the millions of our clients who are saving for long-term goals like retirement—must seriously consider sustainability in their investments.”Mr. Fink gets attention because BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager, with some $7.43 trillion in client assets. He is now threatening to vote against corporate directors and management if they don’t do what he says, and he is especially exercised about climate change. He is demanding that companies disclose climate risks, and wants to see their plans to operate under scenarios in which warming is limited to fewer than two degrees Celsius this century.
Corporations in which BlackRock invests will also have to comply with the rules from a “Sustainability Accounting Standards Board” on issues such as labor practices and workforce diversity. “Disclosure should be a means to achieving a more sustainable and inclusive capitalism,” Mr. Fink writes.
Like his friends at the Business Roundtable, Mr. Fink is big on “stakeholder” capitalism. “Each company’s prospects for growth are inextricable from its ability to operate sustainably and serve its full set of stakeholders,” he says. If he means serving employees, customers, suppliers and communities, he is merely saying what any successful company already does. But our guess is that by stakeholders Mr. Fink really means regulators and politicians.
The giveaway is that Mr. Fink says BlackRock will divest its actively managed funds from corporations that generate 25% or more of their revenues from coal production. “We don’t yet know which predictions about the climate will be most accurate,” Mr. Fink acknowledges, but “even if only a fraction of the projected impacts is realized, this is a much more structural, long-term crisis.”
He might be right, but then estimates of future temperature increases are based on climate models that have overstated warming to date. Mr. Fink wants to make corporations plan for unknown temperature increases as well as climate regulations that are even less certain.
Coal is an easy target since its share of American power is declining. But the International Energy Agency projects that oil and coal demand will stay flat through 2040 and natural gas consumption will increase 40% even if all countries keep the promises they made in the 2015 nonbinding Paris climate accord. The U.S. is predicted to account for 85% of the increase in global oil production over the next decade thanks to shale drilling.
All of which means that fossil fuels still have a long shelf life, especially in developing countries. There are 170 gigawatts of coal-plant capacity under construction across the world, which is more than what currently exists in Europe. So what happens if Mr. Fink’s political and climate predictions prove wrong? His clients will pay the price.
BlackRock is a fiduciary and as such is legally obligated to act in its clients’ best interest. This is ostensibly why BlackRock has voted against more than 80% of the climate resolutions on proxy ballots by activist shareholders. But suddenly Mr. Fink is prioritizing the interests of liberal politicians and pressure groups.
We can’t help but wonder if Mr. Fink, after a profitable life in business, is auditioning to be Treasury Secretary in, say, the Warren Presidency. His “stakeholder” notions sound similar to her plans to put American corporations further under the government’s thumb.
CEOs who take Mr. Fink seriously might note that his political and moral importuning isn’t satisfying progressives. “BlackRock will continue to be the world’s largest investor in coal, oil and gas,” the Sierra Club said in response to Mr. Fink’s letter.
Businesses will never be able to appease the climate absolutists. The best way they can prepare for climate risks and serve their stakeholders is to succeed as a business and create the wealth and broad prosperity that will make the world better able to adapt to whatever happens. That’s real “sustainablility.”
The leaders of some of America’s biggest companies are chipping away at the long-held notion that corporate decision-making should revolve around what is best for shareholders.
The Business Roundtable said Monday that it is changing its statement of “the purpose of a corporation.” No longer should decisions be based solely on whether they will yield higher profits for shareholders, the group said. Rather, corporate leaders should take into account “all stakeholders”—that is, employees, customers and society writ large.
It is a major philosophical shift for the association, which counts the chief executives of dozens of the biggest U.S. companies as its members. The group, led by JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO James Dimon, is a powerful voice in Washington for U.S. business interests.
The Business Roundtable’s old statement of purpose espoused economist Milton Friedman’s decades-old theory that companies’ only obligation is to maximize value for shareholders.
“Each of our stakeholders is essential,” the new statement says. “We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.”
A company’s position on the question of corporate purpose can influence issues as diverse as worker pay and environmental impact. It plays a central role in discussions about stock buybacks, corporate spending and how companies respond to activist investors agitating for moves meant to boost returns.
I recently asserted that Kevin Hassett deserved a failing grade for his “analysis” projecting that the Trump administration proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent would raise the wages of an average American family between $4,000 to $9,000. I chose harsh language because Hassett had, for what seemed like political reasons, impugned the integrity of people like Len Burman and Gene Steuerle who have devoted their lives to honest rigorous evaluation of tax measures by calling their work “scientifically indefensible” and “fiction.” Since there have been a variety of comments on the economics of corporate tax reduction, some further discussion seems warranted.
The analysis from Hassett, chief of the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), relies heavily on correlations between corporate tax rates and wages in other countries to argue that a cut in the corporate tax rate would boost returns to labor very substantially. Perhaps unintentionally, the CEA ignores our own historical experience in their analysis. As Frank Lysy noted, the corporate tax cuts of the late 1980s did not result in increased real wages. Actually, real wages fell. The same is true in the United Kingdom, as highlighted by Kimberly Clausing and Edward Kleinbard. These examples feel far more relevant to the corporate tax issue analysis than comparisons to small economies and tax havens like Ireland and Switzerland upon which the CEA relies.
There has been a lot of back and forth, but notably no one has defended the $4,000 claim as a “very conservatively estimated lower bound,” let alone endorsed the plausibility of the $9,000 claim. In fact, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page published two very optimistic versions of what the wage increase could be, which were below CEA’s lower bound.
Casey Mulligan and Greg Mankiw also do not defend CEA’s numbers, but do make use of simple academic abstract models that do not capture the complexities of a policy situation to argue that wage increases could be larger than the tax cut. The inadequacy of their analyses illustrate why well-resourced, team-based institutions with a strong culture of attention to detail like the Congressional Budget Office, the GAO, the Joint Tax Committee Staff or the Tax Policy Center are so important.
Mankiw’s blog is a fine bit of economic pedagogy. It asks students to gauge the impact of a corporate rate reduction on wages in a so called “Ramsey” model or equivalently in a small fully open economy, with perfect capital mobility. Even with these assumptions, he does not get answers in the range of the CEA’s estimates.
As a device for motivating students to learn how to manipulate oversimplified academic models, Mankiw’s blog is terrific as one would expect from an outstanding economist and one of the leading textbook authors of his generation. As a guide to the effects of the Trump administration’s tax cut, I do not think it is very helpful for three important reasons... By far the highest quality assessment of corporate tax issues has been provided by Jane Gravelle, writing under the auspices of the Congressional Research Service. It looks at all the literature. It recognizes that the issues are complex and cannot be captured by a single model or regression equation. It does not start with a point of view. Unfortunately it provides little support for claims that corporate rate cuts will raise revenue, help the middle class or spur rapid wage growth... During my years in government, I served with 7 CEA chairs — Martin Feldstein, Laura Tyson, Joe Stiglitz, Janet L. Yellen, Martin Baily, Christy Romer and Austan Goolsbee. I observed all of them fighting with political figures in their Administrations as they insisted that CEA analysis had to be of a kind that would be respected and validated by outside economists. They refused to cheerlead for Administration policies at the expense of their professional credibility. I cannot imagine any of them releasing an estimate as far from the professional mainstream as $4000 to $9000 wage increase from a corporate rate cut claim. Chairman Hassett should for the sake of his own credibility, that of the Administration he serves and the institution he leads, back off.