Do Shareholder Payouts “Allocate Capital”?

With my colleagues at the Roosevelt Institute, I’m working on a long-delayed followup to the Disgorge the Cash paper.

One of the issues we are addressing is this: Aren’t higher shareholder payouts just a way of channeling funds from mature, slow-growing firms to fast-growing sectors that need capital? This has always been one of the main arguments in support of the shareholder revolution. Michael Jensen:

With all its vast increases in data, talent, and technology, Wall Street can allocate capital among competing businesses and monitor and discipline management more effectively than the CEO and headquarters staff of the typical diversified company. KKR’s New York offices and Irwin Jacobs’ Minneapolis base are direct substitutes for corporate headquarters in Akron and Peoria.

Can the data shed light on the claim that high shareholder payouts are just a way that capital markets reallocate scarce funds from stagnant established firms to up-and-coming innovators?

One line of evidence against this claim is presented in my original Disgorge paper, though not explained as clearly as it could have been. As the table below — reproduced from the paper — shows, the correlations of investment with profits and borrowing have weakened not just at the level of the individual firm, but for the corporate sector as a whole. If markets were mainly reallocating capital from the industries of yesterday to the industries of tomorrow, we would expect an inflow of funds into the corporate sector to be associated with a rise in investment somewhere, even if not in the firms that initially received them. But this is not the case — or at least, it is less the case than it used to be. The weakening of the aggregate relationship between cashflow from operations and borrowing, on the one hand, and investment, on the other, suggests that higher payouts from one business are not translated into more investment funding for another.


Now I want to present two more lines of evidence that point in the same direction.

First, we can compare sources and uses of funds for corporations in general with the same sources and uses for corporations in high-technology industries. Second, we can look at smaller and younger firms specifically, and ask if they account for a higher share of investment than in the old days of managerialism, when investment was more internally financed. In the next two posts that’s what I’ll do.