Blogging’s been light here lately. Sorry. In the meantime, you should read this:
if you combine net equity offerings—which, given the heavy schedule of buybacks over the last quarter century, have been negative most of the time since 1982—takeovers (which involve the distribution of corporate cash to shareholders of the target firm), and traditional dividends into a concept I call transfers to shareholders, you see that corporations have been shoveling cash into Wall Street’s pockets at a furious pace. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, nonfinancial corporations distributed about 20% of their profits to shareholders…. After 1982, though, the shareholders’ share rose steadily. It came close to 100% in 1998, fell back to a mere 25% in 2002, and then soared to 126% in 2007. That means that corporations were actually borrowing to fund these transfers. …
So what exactly does Wall Street do? Let’s be generous and concede that it does provide some financing for investment. But an enormous apparatus of trading has grown up around it—not merely trading in certificates, but in control over entire corporations. I think it’s less fruitful to think of Wall Street as a financial intermediary than it is to think of it as an instrument for the establishment and exercise of class power. It’s the means by which an owning class forms itself, particularly the stock market. It allows the rich to own pieces of the productive assets of an entire economy. So, while at first glance, the tangential relation of Wall Street, especially the stock market, to financing real investment might make the sector seem ripe for tight regulation and heavy taxation, its centrality to the formation of ruling class power makes it a very difficult target.
For a long while [after 1929], shareholder ownership was more notional than active. … But when the Golden Age was replaced by Bronze Age of rising inflation and falling profits, Wall Street … unleashed what has been dubbed the shareholder revolution, demanding not only higher profits but a larger share of them. The first means by which they exercised this control was through the takeover and leveraged buyout movements of the 1980s. By loading up companies with debt, they forced managers to cut costs radically, and ship larger shares of the corporate surplus to outside investors rather than investing in the business or hiring workers. … [In the 1990s,] the shareholder revolution recast itself as a movement of activist pension funds… the idea was to get managers to think and act like shareholders, since they were materially that under the new regime.
But pension fund activism sort of petered out as the decade wore on. Managers still ran companies with the stock price in mind, but the limits to shareholder influence have come very clear since the financial crisis began. Managers have been paying themselves enormously while stock prices languished. … The problem was especially acute in the financial sector: Bank of America, for example, bought Merrill Lynch because its former CEO, Ken Lewis, coveted the firm, and if the shareholders had any objections, he could just lie to them… It was as if the shareholder revolution hardly happened, at least in this sense. But all that money flowing from corporate treasuries into money managers’ pockets has quieted any discontent.
I do have some doubts about that last paragraph, tho — I suspect that “especially acute” should really be “limited to.” I don’t think it’s as if the shareholder revolution never happened — there still is, you know, all that money flowing into money managers’ pockets — but more a matter of quis custodiet ipsos custodes. If the function of finance is as overseers for the capitalist class — and I think Doug is absolutely right about this — then, well, who’s going to oversee them. Intrinsic motivation, norms and conventions, is really the only viable solution to this sort of principal-agent problem, and the culture of finance doesn’t do it.
Jim Crotty is also very worth reading on this. And I think he’s clearer that this kind of predatory management is mostly specific to Wall Street.