Why this economy is so rotten to the core.
Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO at Gallup, which incessantly surveys what consumers and companies are up to every moment of the day, nailed it when he lashed out at his fellow CEOs, for their way of doing business.
Their companies are “failing to grow organically,” he said in a blog post. Instead of investing in growth-producing activities, CEOs go out and buy other companies, particularly their competitors.
Buying competitors – effectively getting rid of competition – takes pressure off these companies to innovate and perform, and they’re all hoping to gain some pricing power with these strategies. This has worked miracles in healthcare, where prices have shot up as consolidation has become a pandemic strategy, no matter how large and unwieldy the company, or how concentrated and monopolistic the sector.
“Shockingly, boards of directors encourage this,” Clifton wrote, adding:
Acquisitions is the current growth strategy of Forbes Global 2000 companies. As a result, the number of publicly listed companies traded on U.S. exchanges has been cut in half in the past 20 years – from about 7,300 to 3,700.
According to the World Bank, the number of listed companies on all global exchanges – currently 44,000 – has flatlined since 2006, with a recent two-year decline.
The herd is getting pretty small. At some point, this acquisition strategy hits a wall. It makes you wonder how long we’ll need the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq.
In a perfect, growing world, the market would have doubled the number of big public companies instead of halving it.
So there’d be about 15,000 US-listed companies by now, not 3,700. They’d be smaller and nimbler. There’d be more competition too, more innovation, more emphasis on investment in productive activities and people to achieve organic growth.
And this organic growth is precisely what is missing in the US economy. Acquisitions contribute nothing to the overall economy. In fact, they’re often sold to investors on the pretext of “efficiencies” and “synergies” – so layoffs, shutdowns, product consolidations, and the rest of the Wall Street lexicon liberally used to twist these acquisitions into a positive light for investors.
But beyond huge compensation packages for the executives of the acquirer and the target – at least someone is getting more spending money even if they don’t spend it – acquisitions are a net negative for the economy.
The Microsoft-Nokia fiasco is a textbook example of an acquisition being a net negative for the economy that has now come full circle … After Losing $11 Billion on $9.4-billion Nokia Buy & Axing 27,650 Jobs, Microsoft Dumps Consumer Smartphones.
And despite the endless acquisitions, Microsoft’s sales and profits are shrinking. IBM and many other companies are in the same miserable category: they’re tech companies, and they’re supposed to be innovators. But with a razor-sharp and relentless focus on financial engineering, they’re binge-buying other companies and paying what Clifton calls “unrecoverably high prices for acquisitions.” And their total revenues continue to shrink.
Organic growth, however, is a net positive for the economy. But that’s hard to do. It’s a lot easier to connive with Wall Street and buy each other out.
So S&P 500 companies are now in the middle of reporting Q2 earnings in what is shaping up to be another quarter of earnings declines – the fifth in a row. And revenues have a chance of hitting a sixth quarterly decline in a row. Not only is there no organic growth. There is organic decline!
The acquisitions strategy simply doesn’t produce results, except for executive compensation packages, which get fatter and fatter, as are the compensation packages of board members. So maybe it’s not so “shocking” that “boards of directors encourage this.”
Every aspect of Corporate America has become financialized. Financial engineering – with everyone’s knowing consent and even encouragement, a phenomenon we’ve come to call “consensual hallucination” – is the top corporate strategy to support the top corporate goal: inflate the stock price at any and all costs. Nothing else matters. Not even sales and profits. Just the stock price. That’s a perversion of a perversion.
So if companies aren’t tied up buying the shares of each other, they’re buying their own shares. In 2014 and 2015, US companies blew $1.1 trillion on share buybacks, according to FactSet data. In the first quarter this year, share buybacks amounted to $166 billion, up 15% from last year. And to finance these buybacks, even as revenues and earnings are declining, companies are issuing bonds and loading up on debt – without adding productive activity to deal with this debt.
That’s the genius of share repurchases: They drive up stock prices. And debt. Wall Street loves them – and makes money off fees coming and going.
But imagine what companies could have done with the nearly $3 trillion they blew on share repurchases since 2010, and with the many trillions they blew on buying each other out. It might have actually produced a vibrant economy.
But enough is enough. Erstwhile bond bull Jeffrey Gundlach makes a U-turn and goes “maximum negative” on Treasuries – and just about everything else. Read… “Stock Markets Should be Down Massively,” but Investors “Hypnotized that Nothing Can Go Wrong”
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Would some sort of confiscatory inheritance tax or income tax decrease the incentive for this Kind of thing? I remember the days of confiscatory taxes and I choose to play Golf on Wednesday afternoon rather than pay uncle Sam 90% of what I would earn working that afternoon. It did tend to cut down on unnecessary surgery which seems pretty similar to what these executive do. I mean why do surgery with the work and risk it entails if Uncle Sam is going to take the Fee anyway
Taxation is theft. Stealing more money from the private economy does nobody any good. More govt does not cure too much govt.
The root of the problem is that corporations are govt created privileges. In a truly free market, large corporations would not exist. Without central banking, fictionalization would not exist. The answer isn’t punishing everyone with more taxes. The answer is taking away the unfair privileges.
Btw, the accountants reading this can verify that they call the inheritance tax optional. The wealthy don’t pay much in taxes no matter what idiotic laws are passed. They own congress. The tax code targets the deca-millionaire entrepreneurs who are competition for the wealthy and the middle class w2 income earners who are sitting ducks.
“”” Buying competitors – effectively getting rid of competition “””
The root of the problem is the FED.
The Free Money no interest causes many unintended consequences.
It permits share buybacks, permits roll ups like Valeant, permits automation and robotics which decrease employment.
The current administration is killing the US
Globalization means you ship your intellectual property abroad, and the jobs with it.
And the low interest free money means the US corporations do stupid and terrible things for LONG TERM life, short term gain for LONG TERM LOSS.
So, corporations are a government-created fiction, eh? I’ll go part-way with you on that: they are government-licensed. But to say that they would not exist in a free market? What kind of business enterprises would exist, then? Would partnerships exist?
Corporations were in existence before central banking, going back to the Dutch East India Company in the 1600’s. The only thing that a corporate structure does that other business structures do no do is to allow the business to exist apart from its owners (shareholders), so that the shareholders can sell their ownership interests without having to get permission from the other owners. It also allows the business to operate without having to have full consent for all operational decisions being subject to a vote of all the owners. These are the reasons why a corporation is treated by the law as a separate entity from its owners. So why is it that you are upset about corporations existing, as opposed to other business structures?
As for the wealthy not paying much in taxes: Then why do the top 1% of income-earners pay over 20% of all income taxes?
Your last sentence is answered by bringing back the words of Willie Sutton, bank robber, when asked why he robbed banks replied “Because that’s where the money is”.
Kevin: Poor people don’t have any money.
Why the top 1%? Because they have all the money. How much of the total national income do the top 1% receive? I have a feeling it is more than 20%……..
Because of the vast amount of money they harvest from the rest of humanity !
Taxation is NOT “theft”! It is absolutely vital if a nation is to survive. The right of a government to tax is roughly equal to your right to breathe! I do not know where you are getting this nonsensical Anarchist baloney but I wish you would try THINKING about what you are blithely proclaiming.
Hopefully not from “Satan Herself” , Alissa Conner nee Rosenbaum, aka Ayn Rand. For those of you who are believing Christians, try entering “Ayn Rand Antichrist” into GOOGLE and see what comes up. You might find it interesting. By the way, the Church of Satan really does claim her as one of their ideological founders.
Businesses didn’t make the wrong decision with 100% of the $3T (about $450B/yr) of acquisitions and share buy-backs. Example: Berkshire Hathaway’s $34B purchase of Burlington Northern railroad has been very productive.
98.6% of the time, private decisions by business owners are better than REAL stupid, inexperienced, unelected, unaccountable government bureaucrats confiscating private capital and pissing it away on their political favorites of the day. Remember Obama’s almost $1T stimulus from his first year in office? We still don’t know where all that went (and taxpayers lost money on GM). How’d you feel about Lois Learner running your business from the IRS?
Frankly, if businesses can’t find productive uses for capital (hello Apple – we’re talk about you) they should return the money to shareholders in the form of dividends (not buy backs).
“Frankly, if businesses can’t find productive uses for capital (hello Apple – we’re talk about you) they should return the money to shareholders in the form of dividends”
Or, God forbid, increase workers pay.
Chip, half of the stimulus was tax cuts which did not stimulate anything.
Exactly how did you come up with that 98.6% figure?
This is what happens when the overall pie is shrinking.
Of course to be expected when you expect infinite growth in a finite world
But, since mainstream media only looks at the dollars, and the number of them keeps growing thanks to magic federal tricks, everything is AWESOME.
No, this is what happens when central planners meddle too much with the economy. Time and time again certain people keep blaming “resource shortages” for various ills that were actually caused by government. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the 70’s with natural gas shortages. We were assured by the intellectual elite that the problem was we were running out, because central planners can do no wrong with their heavy regulation and price controls. Once the regulation and price controls went away, so did the shortages. Coincidence? I think not.
Lack of toilet paper and bed sheet shortages in Venezuela due to government meddling and price controls as well. I’m guessing on behalf of special interest criminal enterprise.
This isn’t a growth policy anymore, it could’ve been an environmental preservation policy but it appears that may not be the intent either. Must be confiscation of assets, simple theft?
You know, the real problem is that the foxes are guarding the hen house. The big corporations have managed to relieve themselves from virtually all accountability by dominating the government with money. The horrendous mess we are in is the result of too little regulation and not too much.
The snag with buying companies as a means of growing is that you also buy emotional baggage. Cultural differences can make or break the success of an acquisition.
God, do I love this website.
This has been going on a long time. Cisco and msft ,et al have been buying up other companies for decades. Huge share buy backs are the real story lately and its all around cheap money, exec comp packages and the lack of real growth opportunities.
Don’t worry folks. It’s all good. Whoever is elected for President, Jamie Dimon has some great ideas to grow the economy.
We should probably elect Jamie Dimon, he’s not as dishonest as Hillary or as divisive as Trump. And he certainly understands how the government works – he pulls the strings now. But would he take the pay cut ?
He’ll just change-out those old presidential cuff-links …. for new ones!
Jamie and Lloyd of Government Sachs had many private dinners with Obama in WH back in 2009 and 2010 then the bromance soured.
And Hillary was reported to have paid (BRIBED) $675k for the 3 speeches she gave to Government Sachs, for which she refused to release the transcripts but the attendees said it was very pro-banker.
My friend and investment advisor has a few metrics that he uses to look at stock values and a corporation’s health, but his first check is revenue. By this ‘test’, most US companies are failing.
Revenue? Whatever happened to good ol GAAP P&L?
Take a look at TSLA and poster child of billions of sales who reported to lose $15k per each car sold not to mention reported to have high cash burn rate with half billion in Q2 alone.
Tesla is a poster child of what is wrong with the stock market.
There is something evil here in our homeland. When our heroes of industry and finance, of governance and protection contrive to destroy the base of capitalism and democracy, and we, the public, and we, the investors, allow this to knowingly happen, then we do, in fact, get what we deserve.
Humans are the only animal that will knowingly kill themselves. We are killing ourselves. Our wealthy ‘heroes’ will afford to buy water and food when all you can do is share a used needle to easy the pain.
You think we are allowing this? Then you must think we have control of it.
We do not control any of these big corporations or the government they have purchased.
We do not deserve to be fleeced.
I agree Bobcat, but unfortunately any vote for the two party duopoly does give away control. We, the voters, have allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into thinking that there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans, but there is not. The repeal of Glass-Steagall was done hand in hand by both.
After an initial veto in May 1999, Clinton had it rewritten, and lo and behold, it passed the Senate 90 to 8, and the House 3623 to 57 in early November. I hope the readers of WolfStreet will take this into consideration this November when they cast their ballots.
Meme Imfurst has a good point about killing ourselves: a vote for HRC or Trump will knowingly kill our economic freedoms.
Readers may want to checkout Pam and Russ Martens’ reporting on their website
for an enlightening on how the duopoly caters to Wall Street’s fleecing of the citizens.
The US voting public has been presented with political candidates who would have reined in Wall Street, preserved Glass Steagall, etc. George McGovern for example. He won, what, two states?
The Democrats learned a sad lesson from that debacle. At best US voters are middle of the road. At worst they are hard right/fascist. The elimination of campaign finance limits completed the process. Support for Wall Street, the banksters, etc. is baked into our two party system.
Support for Wall Street might be baked into our two party system, unless the deep state cuts you off for something like playing with dynamite. Credit default your country like the Tea Party nearly did. Also, if you nominate a grandiose hustler backed by the international deep state, they will drop you like a snake. Remember that snake story? And…
“Hillary will say anything, and change nothing.” Barack Obama
So, wonder why they’re all over there with her?
Yeah, but the American public has voted with gross stupidity for decades when they bothered to vote at all. They allowed this to happen through culpable ignorance and apathy.
If you were a billionaire — a person who benefited tremendously from ‘the system’ — why would you support policies that enrich you — yet guarantee that ‘the system’ will eventually implode — quite likely leaving you far worse off than you would have otherwise been.
In fact imploding the system might leave you penniless.
What do the elites fear so much that is forcing them to enact policies that keep the system operating for a while longer — but that are ultimately going to tear it apart.
Very good point! It is beyond my comprehension too. Then again, why did the French Aristocracy of the Old Regime ignore the growing signs of trouble until it was far too late? There is a profound weakness of human nature at work here!
The monarchy did not purposely set out to destroy the base of their power….
The elites clearly understand that what they are doing will blow up the economy …. surely anyone with half a brain realizes that printing trillions of dollars will end badly … that allowing the purchase of homes with no money down and Liar Loans will end badly….
What do they fear?
The causes of the French revolution can be attributed to several intertwining factors:
Cultural: The Enlightenment philosophy desacralized the authority of the King and the Church, and promoted a new society based on “reason” instead of traditions.
Social: The emergence of an influential bourgeoisie which was formally part of the Third Estate (commoners) but had evolved into a caste with its own agenda and aspired to political equality with the clergy (First Estate) and the aristocracy (Second Estate).
Financial: France’s debt, aggravated by French involvement in the American Revolution, led Louis XVI to implement new taxations and to reduce privileges.
Political: Louis XVI faced virulent opposition from provincial parliaments which were the spearheads of the privileged classes’ resistance to royal reforms.
Economic: The deregulation of the grain market, advocated by liberal economists, resulted in an increase in bread prices. In period of bad harvests, it would lead to food scarcity which would prompt the masses to revolt.
I think a lot of people are sensing something is very wrong with our economic system. Charles Hugh Smith points out that ‘centralization’ only works as long as there is growth. When growth ceases it creates needless complexity and economic ‘friction’.
One has to wonder if it is more ‘efficient’ for McDonalds to control global hamburger sales or just a way to centralize all the profit that could go to thousands of locally owned and operated hamburger stands.
Sears catalogue was doing what Amazon does 100 years ago so, other than having computer technology, exactly how ‘innovative’ is Amazon?
Do Walmart and Costco or Nestle and Proctor and Gamble do anything but limit our choices and consolidate the distribution of consumer goods?
Amazon does do the same thing the Sear’s catalogue did a century ago, but they do it better. Sear’s could have been Amazon but they were complacent and lost their vision.
I haven’t eaten at a McD’s in over 20 years. The food was terrible even back then, but it was good when it started. I generally avoid fast food but last week I tried a fast food burger place that was as good as McD’s was in the beginning. I won’t even mention their name because some Wall St. guy might read this, buy them, and destroy them too.
As far as the major brands go, most are no longer worth the premium prices. The tape doesn’t stick, the detergent doesn’t clean, and the prices are unwarranted.
“Charles Hugh Smith points out that ‘centralization’ only works as long as there is growth.”
I think i would have put the quotation marks around the word ‘works’ instead of ‘centralization.’ Seems Smith might have it muddled. Centralization kills growth, rather some mysterious lack of growth kills centralization.
Up until the 1920’s you could buy “Hashish Candy” from the Sears Catalog. It was described as “fun for the whole family” I’ll bet it was too! ^,..,^
As a consumer I stay away from companies and products involved in these takeovers because I know I will be the one paying for the stupidity of the deal. I can’t think of one of these mergers that has turned out well.
Carl Ican just announced he is closing his Atlantic City casino at the end of the summer. This article coincides nicely with this news, as that casino provides a glaring example of the end game of M&A. They acquired, mortgaged, and bankrupted it into oblivion. They are killing the economy one deal at a time.
Interesting how IEP ripped higher just prior, looks like a trap was being set.
I have observed this anti (anti trust sentiment) since the early 80’s. It has steamrolled along faster and faster under the globalization theme and will continue until the collapse. Corporations have simply gotten to big and now wield all the power and influence. More so than governments.
Why would anyone take the risk and exert the effort to start a business today with the idea of taking it public? The federal, state and local rules and regulations are a legal quagmire that not only delay and impede the entrepreneur but penalize financially for regulatory missteps.
The number of people sitting at home waiting on government checks grows while the working folks generating the tax revenues shrinks.
Horatio Alger is dead.
The article encapsulates neatly our era of corruption. Corruption in thought and deed limits survival for society. There is ugly desperation in these transactions of so many executives and board members worldwide to save themselves even at the foreseeable expense of the entity. There are only so many entities that can fail until the society underpinning them collapses into chaos. They know this; we know this. Governments, corporations and institutions actively rot and fail before our eyes because their fundamental structures depend on moral clarity and that no longer exists in any collective way. The collapse it would seem is not ten years away; the only question at this point is how long and how bad it will continue. Our individual preparations for it, or not, will tell the tale.
I think IBM is the poster child for this.
The (pro-forma, strictly no-GAAP) results are downright ugly.
In Q2 IBM spent:
$800 million on share buybacks
$1.3 billion on dividends
$2.8 billion on acquisitions
And a measly $1 billion on capital expenditures. You can well understand why IBM is increasingly seen as a relic of a bygone past and not the highly innovative company it once was.
But wait, it gets worse. Against an outflow of $5.9 billion, IBM pulled in $3.4 billion, meaning the company has an effectively negative cash flow… to the tune of $2.5 billion.
To this it must be added in just one year IBM managed to increase its debt load by over 30%, going from owing the greater foo… I mean investors, $33 billion to almost $45 billion today.
I am sure this charade will last far far longer than any of us can imagine, but unless one has been trained in “financial wizardry” in a prestigious and expensive university it’s apparent this is not sustainable.
Financial repression can help service that debt, but that’s all. The big inflation flareup economists invoked and which mercifully failed to materialize (this doesn’t mean we don’t get out good old 4-7% yearly increases) won’t wipe that debt out: even 10% yearly inflation cannot help if you add 30% to the pile a year. At that point you can only hope the US Federal Reserve will start buying old bicycles as the ECB and the BOJ are frantically doing.
The irony is that non-GAAP #s are welcomed and not ever questioned by the banksters as part of the corrupt duo criminals and the sheeples get excited by the liars paraded thru CBNC to spread more lies.
The funny thing is if you and I started using pro forma accounting instead of GAAP (or in my case PCG) we’d probably end in big troubles, and rightly so.
I worked for IBM right out of college (mech. engineering) and was very proud to be affiliated with them – it was a big honor (early 80s), though I soon went on to other things. Since then, things at IBM have gone downhill so much that my friends who are still with them are all trying to take early retirement or get out however they can. IBM has become notorious for doing just enough layoffs at a time that they don’t have to report them, and also with reorganizing jobs so you’re out, but not really laid off. This is an attempt to keep their shareholders from knowing what’s really going on – the whole company has poor morale and their technology is antiquated, but the big companies are so invested in it that they can’t switch w/o it costing a fortune, so they all muddle on.
I was at the Uni when the IBM decline started.
The computing center was located in our department’s basement and the director doubled as a programming language teacher.
One morning there was a big commotion as a large packing crate was delivered to the computing center: it was stamped “Silicon Graphics”. These were the years when SGI grew form being a $5 million company to being a $3 billion reality.
That marked the end of IBM at the Uni. The director sadly commented he had grown up with IBM and loved it as much as a good friend, but for many applications the center needed to run that SGI was just… better. He sounded uncredulous IBM could not beat an upstart from Delaware.
He was smart to get out while he could.
The Atlana Fed is now forecasting Q3 growth to be at 3.7% As an aside, US earnings have been flat to down for 5 consecutive quarters yet they reportedly keep hiring.
Feels like the dawning of the virtual reality economy in full swing.
I’m in the south and the economy here is much better than Florida. I see help wanted ads often at stores and other businesses. Construction is still active both residential and commercial. Back to school shopping is visible in the mall and the thrift shops. I can’t really say the Atlanta Fed is wrong, I have read that oil is hurting, but I don’t really see it.
I do think that the election has caused a lot of money to be purposely pumped into the economy. I think the elites have been scared off by the rejection of the establishment by the voters. My husband tells me everybody he talks to at work is a Trump supporter.
There was a time when widespread investor negativism was a pretty reliable indicator that stocks were at a buy point.
No longer. Why?
In days gone by, stocks were an expression of free enterprise.
No longer. Why?
Ask the Fed.
And while you’re at it, ask the Fed why they have helped put finis to a period of nearly 100 years of the greatest prosperity in history.
You won’t get an answer.
“There was a time when widespread investor negativism was a pretty reliable indicator that stocks were at a buy point.”
Because the stock market is no longer by investor sentiment.
In days gone by, stocks were an expression of free enterprise.
Because the central banks are the market.
And while you’re at it, ask the Fed why they have helped put finis to a period of nearly 100 years of the greatest prosperity in history.
Because we have reached the end of organic growth, the only thing left is fraud.
They should have hired H1Bs as CEOs, Central Bankers and members of Boards of Directors. At least they wouldn’t have been innovative enough to crash economies like this.
Because shopping is fun. Looking at oneself critically is not.
With capital and technology being portable, they will seek out the lowest labor costs. A lot of people wish to believe that a president can reverse that reality. But, how realistic is that belief? The American worker wishes to make a good livable wage. Manufacturing once provided that. It seems to me the question on the table is, how much are Americans willing and able to pay for goods? For many years now, we have shown no inclination to pay higher prices for American produced goods. How much of an increase in cost of living can the average American family tolerate?
An economy that works for the many, rather than just the few, can not be conjured up out of thin air. Our present circumstances have evolved over more than 40 years and will not be turned on a dime. Change will require a lot of heavy lifting and a commitment of that effort for decades, not just four years at a time? Are we ready, willing and able to foster such fundamental change?
I have watched the disintegration of our country since the 70s when I entered the workforce. Breaking into trucking at age 26 was difficult to say the least. Sometimes I thought I was a lumper with a truck. Now they’ll hire anyone who can fog a mirror. If you could afford to hire a lumper they were mostly black men who hung around the gate, hoping for a gig today. The business is mostly Mexican now, highly organized and mostly in house. They charge as much now to pull off 20 skids as much as we used to make fingerprint the whole load, and the Comcheks I write for a floor load are astronomical. Time marches on. When I started you check called once a day, and only called otherwise if there was a problem. Now I’m tracked 24 hours a day, and the E-log is a tyrant. Even when a load has some time on it dispatch is hounding you for an ETA. This seems like overkill to me, since there is always some load sitting around that wasn’t covered when it should have been. I try to go with the flow, but sometimes I have to dig in my heels and remind them about, you know, laundry and a shower. At some point this will all come unspun. I don’t know what will take it down, financial crisis or robotics, but until then I stand on my own two feet. Just stubborn I guess. Excelsior!
They are serious about the robots… http://www.vox.com/2016/8/3/12342764/autonomous-trucks-employment
Yes, the real story about human employment problems is headed our way. Globalization is giving way to mechanization. Robots will be used instead of people. who will politicians blame then? How will unemployed be “retrained” and to do what? This is the social chaos coming our way.
“unrecoverably high prices for acquisitions.”
i’ll have to remember that concept.
The main point of the article brings up what I consider an important question about market valuation measurements, and determining what qualifies as an extreme.
An often-cited measure by Warren Buffett is that when the ratio of total stock market capitalization exceeds GDP, the market is overvalued. But since over half of publicly-traded companies have vanished, how is this decrease in market value accounted for in the MC/GDP ratio? Their market cap is no longer part of the numerator, but they still contribute to the denominator.
Or is the ratio very out of whack today?
In theory, when two publicly traded companies combine, their market caps combine into one market cap that is supposed to be similar to both pre-merger market caps added together. If that is the case, a merger would not impact the market cap of the stock market.
In reality, that’s not always how it works out.
All this is only possible with the Fed increasing the money supply and providing ultra low interest rates. Without this the strategy of buying competitors or their own stock would be too expensive.