Friday, June 26, 2015

OECD: Activist Shareholders Are Bad for Investment

[Cross-posted from the new blog at Please comment there, and update your bookmarks -- at some point soon I'm going to stop updating this blog.]

The OECD has just released its new Business and Finance Outlook for 2015. A lot of interesting stuff there. We'll want to take a closer look at the discussion of the problems that low interest rates pose for pension funds and insurance companies -- I've thought for a while that this is the most convincing form of the "reaching for yield" argument. But what I want to talk about now is the OECD's apparent endorsement of the "disgorge the cash" thesis.

Chapter 2, "Corporate Investment and the Stagnation Puzzle," has a very interesting discussion of shareholder activism and its effects on investment. The starting point is the puzzle that while participants in financial markets are willing to accept unprecedentedly low returns, the minimum returns on new investment projects remain high, as evidenced by depressed real investment despite sustained low interest rates. I think this apparent puzzle is, precisely, a rediscovery of Keynes' liquidity premium. (Perhaps I will return to this in a subsequent post.) There are a number of ways to think about this, but one dimension is the pressure corporate managers face to avoid investment projects unless the returns are rapid, large, and certain.
Stock markets currently reward companies that favour dividends and buybacks and punish those that undertake more investment … which creates higher hurdle rates for investment.
Here in one sentence is the disgorge the cash argument.
Private sector companies in market-based economies allocate capital spending according to shareholder value. Earnings may be retained for capital spending and growth, but only if the return on equity exceeds the cost of equity. If this is not the case then … they will choose to use their operating cash flow in other ways (by issuing dividends, carrying out cash buybacks…) … and in the limit may close plants and shed labor.
The bolded sentence is puzzling. Is it description or prescription? (Or description of a prescription?) The rest of the section makes no sense if you think either that this is how corporate investment decisions are made, or if you think it's how they should be made. Among other reasons, once we have different, competing discount rates, the "return on equity" no longer has a well-defined value, even in principle. Throughout, there's a tension between the language of economic theory and the language of concrete phenomena. Fortunately the latter mostly wins out.
The last decade has seen the rising importance of activist investors who gain the support of other investors and proxy advisors to remove management, to gain influential board seats and/or to make sure that company strategy is in the best interest of shareholders… The question arises as to whether the role of such investors is working to cause short-termism strategies [sic] at the expense of long-term investment, by effectively raising the hurdle rate… Activists… favour the short-term gratification of dividends and share buybacks versus longer-term investment. Incumbent managers will certainly prefer giving in to shareholders desire for more ‘yield’ in a low-interest world to taking on the risk of uncertain long-term investment that might cause them to be punished in the share market. ... 
To test this idea, an index of CAPEX/(CAPEX + Dividends & Buybacks) was created for each company, and the following investment strategy was measured: sell the highest quartile of the index (capital heavy firms) and buy the lowest quartile of the index (Dividend and Buyback heavy firms). … Selling high capital spending companies and buying low CAPEX and high buyback companies would have added 50% to portfolio values in the USA, 47% in Europe, 21% in emerging economies and even 12% in Japan (where activists play little role). On balance there is a clear investor preference against capital spending companies and in favor of short-termism. This adds to the hurdle rate faced by managers in attempting to undertake large capital spending programmes — stock market investors will likely punish them. … it would be fairly logical from a management point of view to return this cash to shareholders rather than undertake uncertain long-term investment projects... The risks instead would be born more by host-country investment in capacity and infrastructure.
This is a useful exercise. The idea is to look at the ratio of investment to shareholder payouts, and ask how the stock price of the high-investment firms performed compared to the high-payout firms, over the six years 2009 through 2014. What they find is that the shares of the high-payout firms performed considerably better. This is  important because it undermines the version of the disgorge argument you get from people like Bill Lazonick, in which buybacks deliver a short-term boost the share price that benefits CEOs looking to cash in on their options, but does nothing for longer-term investors.  In Lazonick's version of the story, managers are on one side, shareholders, workers and the rest of society on the other. But if high-payout firms perform better for shareholders over a six-year horizon (which in financial-market terms is almost geologically long term) then we have to slice things differently. On one side are shareholders and CEOs, on the other are us regular people.

The other thing that is notable here is the aggregating of dividends and buybacks in a single "shareholder payout" term. This is what I do, I think it's unambiguously the right thing to do, but in some quarters for some reason it's controversial. So I'm always glad to find another authority to say, a buyback is a dividend, a dividend is a buyback, the end.

Another way to see these two points is to think about so-called dividend recapitalizations. These are when a private equity firm, having taken control of a business, has it issue new debt in order to fund a special dividend payment to themselves. (It's the private equity firm that's being recapitalized here, not the hapless target firm.) The idea of private equity is that the acquired firm will be resold at a premium because of the productive efficiencies brought about by new management. The more or less acknowledged point of a dividend recap is to allow the private equity partners to get their money back even when they have failed to deliver the improvements, and the firm cannot be sold at a price that would allow them to recoup their investment. Dividend recaps are a small though not trivial part of the flow of payments from productive enterprises to money-owners, in recent years totaling between 5 and 10 percent of total dividends. For present purposes, there are two especially noteworthy things about them. First, they are pure value extraction, but they take the form of a dividend rather than a share repurchase. This suggests that if the SEC were to crack down on buybacks, as people Lazonick suggest, it would be easy for special dividends to take their place. Second, they take place at closely held firms, where the managers have been personally chosen by the new owners. It's the partners at Cerberus or Apollo who want the dividends, not their hired guns in the CEO suites. It's an interesting question why the partners want to squeeze these immediate cash payments out of their prey when, you would think, they would just reduce the sale price of the carcass dollar for dollar. But the important point is that here we have a case where there's no entrenched management, no coordination problems among shareholders -- and Lazonick's "downsize-and-distribute" approach to corporate finance is more pronounced than ever.

Back to the OECD report. The chapter has some useful descriptive material, comparing shareholder payouts in different countries.
[In the United States,]  dividends and buybacks are running at a truly remarkable pace, even greater than capital expenditure itself in recent years. There has been plenty of scope to increase capital spending, but instead firms appear to be adjusting to the demands of investors for greater yield (dividends and buybacks). … [In Europe] dividends and buybacks are only half what United States companies pay … While there is no marked tendency for this component to rise in the aggregate in Europe, companies in the United Kingdom and Switzerland … do indeed look very similar to the United States, with very strong growth in buybacks. … [In Japan] dividends and buybacks are minuscule compared with companies in other countries. …
Here, for the US, are shareholder payouts (gray), investment (dark blue), and new borrowing (light blue, with negative values indicating an increase in debt; ignore the dotted "net borrowing" line), all given as a percent of total sales. We are interested in the lower panel.


As you can see, investment is quite stable as a fraction of sales. Shareholder payouts, by contrast, dropped sharply over 2007-2009, and have since recovered even more strongly. Since 2009, US corporations have increased their borrowing ("other financing") by about 4 percent of sales; shareholder payouts have increased by an almost exactly equal amount. This is consistent with my argument that in the shareholder-dominated corporation, real activity is largely buffered from changes in financial conditions. Shifts in the availability of credit simply result in larger or smaller payments to shareholders. The OECD report takes a similar view, that access to credit is not an important factor in variation in corporate investment spending.

The bottom line, though the OECD report doesn't quite put it this way, is that wealth-owners strongly prefer claims on future income that take money-like forms over claims on future incomes exercised through concrete productive activity. [1] This is, again, simply Keynes' liquidity premium, which the OECD authors knowing or unknowingly (but without crediting him) summarize well:
It was noted earlier that capital expenditures appear to have a higher hurdle rate than for financial investors. There are two fundamental reasons for this. First, real investors have a longer time frame compared to financial investors who believe (perhaps wrongly at times) that their positions can be quickly unwound.
From a social standpoint, therefore, it matters how much authority is exercised by wealth-owners, who embody the "M" moment of capital, and how much is exercised by the managers or productive capitalists (the OECD's "real investors") who embody its "P" moment. [2] Insofar as the former dominate, fixed investment will be discouraged, especially when its returns are further off or less certain.
Second, managers … operate in a very uncertain world and the empirical evidence … suggests that equity investors punish companies that invest too much and reward those that return cash to investors. If managers make an error of judgement they will be punished by activist investors and/or stock market reactions … hence they prefer buybacks.
Finally, it's interesting what the OECD says about claims that high payouts are simply a way for financial markets to reallocate investment spending in more productive directions.
It is arguable that if managers do not have profitable projects, it makes sense to give the money back to investors so that they can reallocate it to those with better ideas. However, the evidence … suggests that the buyback phenomenon is not associated with rising productivity and better returns on equity.
Of course this isn't surprising. It's consistent with the academic literature on shareholder activism, and on the earlier takeover wave, which finds success at increasing payments to shareholders but not at increasing earnings or productive efficiency. For example, this recent study concludes:
We did not see evidence that targets’ financials improved... The targets’ leverage and payout, however, did seem to increase, suggesting that the activists are unlocking value by prompting management to return additional cash to shareholders.
Still, it's noteworthy to see a bastion of orthodoxy like the OECD flatly stating that shareholder activism is pure extraction and does nothing for productivity.  

UPDATE: Here's James Mackintosh discussing this same material on "The Short View":


[1] It's worth mentioning here this interesting recent Australian survey of corporate executives, which found that new investment projects are judged by a minimum expected return or hurdle rate that is quite high -- usually in excess of 10 percent -- and not unresponsive to changes in interest rates. Even more interesting for our purposes, many firms report that they evaluate projects not based on a rate of return but on a payback period, often as short as three years.

[2] The language of "M and "P" moments is of course taken from Marx's vision of capital as a process of transformation, from money to commodities to authority over a production process, back to commodities and finally back to money. In Capital Vol. 1 and much of his other writing, Marx speaks of the capitalist as straightforwardly the embodiment of capital, a reasonable simplification given his focus there and the fact that in the 1860s absentee ownership was a rare exception. There is a much more complex discussion of the ways in which the different moments of capital can take the form of distinct and possibly conflicting social actors in Capital Vol. 3, Part 5, especially chapter 27.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Myth of Reagan's Debt

[Cross-posted from the new blog at]

... or at least don't blame him for increased federal debt.

Arjun and I have been working lately on a paper on monetary and fiscal policy. (You can find the current version here.) The idea, which began with some posts on my blog last year, is that you have to think of the output gap and the change in the debt-GDP ratio as jointly determined by the fiscal balance and the policy interest rate. It makes no sense to talk about the "natural" (i.e. full-employment) rate of interest, or "sustainable" (i.e. constant debt ratio) levels of government spending and taxes. Both outcomes depend equally on both policy instruments. This helps, I think, to clarify some of the debates between orthodoxy and proponents of functional finance. Functional finance and sound finance aren't different theories about how the economy works, they're different preferred instrument assignments.

 We started working on the paper with the idea of clarifying these issues in a general way. But it turns out that this framework is also useful for thinking about macroeconomic history. One interesting thing I discovered working on it is that, despite what we all think we know,  the increase in federal borrowing during the 1980s was mostly due to higher interest rate, not tax and spending decisions. Add to the Volcker rate hikes the deep recession of the early 1980s and the disinflation later in the decade, and you've explained the entire rise in the debt-GDP ratio under Reagan. What's funny is that this is a straightforward matter of historical fact and yet nobody seems to be aware of it.

 Here, first, are the overall and primary budget balances for the federal government since 1960.  The primary budget balance is simply the balance excluding interest payments -- that is, current revenue minus . non-interest expenditure. The balances are shown in percent of GDP, with surpluses as positive values and deficits as negative. The vertical black lines are drawn at calendar years 1981 and 1990, marking the last pre-Reagan and first post-Reagan budgets. overall_primary
 The black line shows the familiar story. The federal government ran small budget deficits through the 1960s and 1970s, averaging a bit more than 0.5 percent of GDP. Then during the 1980s the deficits ballooned, to close to 5 percent of GDP during Reagan's eight years -- comparable to the highest value ever reached in the previous decades. After a brief period of renewed deficits under Bush in the early 1990s, the budget moved to surplus under Clinton in the later 1990s, back to moderate deficits under George W. Bush in the 2000s, and then to very large deficits in the Great Recession.

 The red line, showing the primary deficit, mostly behaves similarly to the black one -- but not in the 1980s. True, the primary balance shows a large deficit in 1984, but there is no sustained movement toward deficit. While the overall deficit was about 4.5 points higher under Reagan compared with the average of the 1960s and 1970s, the primary deficit was only 1.4 points higher. So over two-thirds of the increase in deficits was higher interest spending. For that, we can blame Paul Volcker (a Carter appointee), not Ronald Reagan.

 Volcker's interest rate hikes were, of course, justified by the need to reduce inflation, which was eventually achieved. Without debating the legitimacy of this as a policy goal, it's important to keep in mind that lower inflation (plus the reduced growth that brings it about) mechanically raises the debt-GDP ratio, by reducing its denominator. The federal debt ratio rose faster in the 1980s than in the 1970s, in part, because inflation was no longer eroding it to the same extent.

To see the relative importance of higher interest rates, slower inflation and growth, and tax and spending decisions, the next figure presents three counterfactual debt-GDP trajectories, along with the actual historical trajectory. In the first counterfactual, shown in blue, we assume that nominal interest rates were fixed at their 1961-1981 average level. In the second counterfactual, in green, we assume that nominal GDP growth was fixed at its 1961-1981 average. And in the third, red, we assume both are fixed. In all three scenarios, current taxes and spending (the primary balance) follow their actual historical path. counterfactuals

 In the real world, the debt ratio rose from 24.5 percent in the last pre-Reagan year to 39 percent in the first post-Reagan year. In counterfactual 1, with nominal interest rates held constant, the increase is from 24.5 percent to 28 percent. So again, the large majority of the Reagan-era increase in the debt-GDP ratio is the result of higher interest rates. In counterfactual 2, with nominal growth held constant, the increase is to 34.5 percent -- closer to the historical level (inflation was still quite high in the early '80s) but still noticeably less. In counterfactual 3, with interest rates, inflation and real growth rates fixed at their 1960s-1970s average, federal debt at the end of the Reagan era is 24.5 percent -- exactly the same as when he entered office. High interest rates and disinflation explain the entire increase in the federal debt-GDP ratio in the 1980s; military spending and tax cuts played no role.

After 1989, the counterfactual trajectories continue to drift downward relative to the actual one. Interest on federal debt has been somewhat higher, and nominal growth rates somewhat lower, than in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the tax and spending policies actually followed would have resulted in the complete elimination of the federal debt by 2001 if the previous i < g regime had persisted. But after the 1980s, the medium-term changes in the debt ratio were largely driven by shifts in the primary balance. Only in the 1980s was a large change in the debt ratio driven entirely by changes in interest and nominal growth rates.

 So why do we care? (A question you should always ask.) Three reasons.

First, the facts themselves are interesting. If something everyone thinks they know -- Reagan's budgets blew up the federal debt in the 1980s -- turns out not be true, it's worth pointing out. Especially if you thought you knew it too.

Second is a theoretical concern which may not seem urgent to most readers of this blog but is very important to me. The particular flybottle I want to find the way out of is the idea that money is neutral,  veil --  that monetary quantities are necessarily, or anyway in practice, just reflections of "real" quantities, of the production, exchange and consumption of tangible goods and services. I am convinced that to understand our monetary production economy, we have to first understand the system of money incomes and payments, of assets and liabilities, as logically self-contained. Only then we can see how that system articulates with the concrete activity of social production. [1] This is a perfect example of why this "money view" is necessary. It's tempting, it's natural, to think of a money value like the federal debt in terms of the "real" activities of the federal government, spending and taxing; but it just doesn't fit the facts.

Third, and perhaps most urgent: If high interest rates and disinflation drove the rise in the federal debt ratio in the 1980s, it could happen again. In the current debates about when the Fed will achieve liftoff, one of the arguments for higher rates is the danger that low rates lead to excessive debt growth. It's important to understand that, historically, the relationship is just the opposite. By increasing the debt service burden of existing debt (and perhaps also by decreasing nominal incomes), high interest rates have been among the main drivers of rising debt, both public and private. A concern about rising debt burdens is an argument for hiking later, not sooner. People like Dean Baker and Jamie Galbraith have pointed out -- correctly -- that projections of rising federal debt in the future hinge critically on projections of rising interest rates. But they haven't, as far as I know, said that it's not just hypothetical. There's a precedent.  

[1] Or in other words, I want to pick up from the closing sentence of Doug Henwood's Wall Street, which describes the book as part of "a project aiming to end the rule of money, whose tyranny is sometimes a little hard to see." We can't end the rule of money until we see it, and we can't see it until we understand it as something distinct from productive activity or social life in general.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The End of the Supermanager?

[I am transitioning my blog over to my new site, but for now I will continue to crosspost stuff here.]

Everyone is talking about this new paper, Firming Up Inequality. It uses individual-level data from the Social Security Administration, matched to employers by Employer Identification Number (EIN), to decompose changes in earnings inequality into a within-firm and a between-firm component. It's a great exercise -- marred only modestly by the fact that the proprietary data means that no one can replicate it -- exactly the sort of careful descriptive work I wish more economists would do.

The big finding from the paper is that all the rise in earnings inequality between 1982 and 2012 is captured by the between-firm component. There is no increase in the earnings of a person in the top 1% of the earnings distribution within a given business, and the earnings of someone at the median for that same business. The whole increase in earnings inequality over this period consists of a widening gap between the firms that pay more across the board, and the firms that pay less.

 I'm not sure we want to take the results of this study at face value. Yes, we should be especially interested in empirical work that challenges our prior beliefs, but at the same time, it's hard to square the claims here with all the other evidence of a disproportionate increase in the top pay within a given firm. Lawrence Mishel gives some good reasons for skepticism here. The fact that the whole increase is accounted for by the between-firm component, yet none by the between-industry component, is very puzzling. More generally, I wonder how reliable is the assumption that there is a one to one match between EINs and what we normally think of as employers.

 That said, these findings may be pointing to something important. As a check on the plausibility of the numbers in the paper, I took a look at labor income of the top 1 percent and 0.01 percent of US households, as reported in the World Top Incomes Database. And I found something I didn't expect: Since 2000, there's been a sharp fall in the share of top incomes that come from wages and salaries. In 2000, according to the tax data used by Piketty and his collaborators, households in the top 0.01 percent got 61 percent of their income from wages, salaries and pensions. By 2013, that had fallen to just 33 percent. (That's excluding capital gains; including them, the labor share of top incomes fell from 31 percent to 21 percent.) For the top 1 percent, the labor share falls from 63 percent to 56 percent, the lowest it's been since the 1970s.

 Here is the average income of the top 0.01 percent over the past 40 years in inflation-adjusted dollars, broken into three components: labor income, all other non-capital gains income, and capital gains.

Average income of top 0.01% of US households, from World Top Incomes Database. 3-year moving averages.

As you can see, the 1990s look very different from today. Between 1991 and 2000, the average labor income of a top 0.01% household rose from $2.25 million to $10 million; this was about 90 percent of the total income increase for these households. During the 1990s, rising incomes at the top really were about highly paid superstars. Since 2000, though, while average incomes of the top 0.01% have increased another 20 percent, labor income for these households has fallen by almost half, down to $5.5 million. (Labor income has also fallen for the top 1 percent, though less dramatically.) So the "Firming" results, while very interesting, are perhaps less important for the larger story of income distribution than both the authors and critics assume. The rise in income inequality since 2000 is not about earnings; the top of the distribution is no longer the working rich. I don't think that debates about inequality have caught up with this fact.

 Fifteen years ago, the representative rich person in the US was plausibly a CEO, or even an elite professional. Today, they mostly just own stuff.