Extolling the Corporate Squeeze of Workers?

I don’t mean to beat up on Spencer at Angry Bear, who has provided an interesting set of comparisons on the perennial question of many investors, “Whither the stock market?”

But one section of his discussion, precisely because it is such conventional thinking, is an illustration of how the blind pursuit of “maximizing shareholder value” is not all it is cracked up to be:

The recent productivity report received much attention. But I did not see anyone point out that the spread between nonfarm corporate prices and unit labor cost was 5.25%, the widest spread on record.

This spread is the single most important variable driving corporate profit margins and implies that you should expect major positive earnings surprises.

Yves here. Translation: employers are continuing to squeeze down on workers to improve their margins. And the US has been pursuing that strategy for some time, of shifting the composition of GDP growth away from increases in worker incomes (via hiring and/or paying them more) to increases in corporate profits. The shift was dramatic in the last supposed expansion; it was called a “jobless recovery” for good reason. In every previous postwar growth period, the labor share of GDP growth was never less than 55% and had averaged not much less than 60%. In the pre-crisis expansion, it plunged to 29%.

Before some readers contend that this pattern is inherent to the “maximizing shareholder value,” let’s start with one consideration: strategies that focus on that goal actually do less well than ones that pursue broader aims. John Kay notes in a 2004 Financial Times article (sadly, no longer available on line):

Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit -oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. The name of this idea? Obliquity….

Obliquity is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them…..

Obliquity is equally relevant to our businesses and our bodies, to the management of our lives and our national economies. We do not maximise shareholder value or the length of our lives, our happiness or the gross national product, for the simple but fundamental reason that we do not know how to and never will. No one will ever be buried with the epitaph “He maximised shareholder value”. Not just because it is a less than inspiring objective, but because even with hindsight there is no way of recognising whether the objective has been achieved.

For most of the 20th century, ICI was Britain’s largest and most successful manufacturing company. In 1987, ICI described its business purpose thus: “ICI aims to be the world’s leading chemical company, serving customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science. “Through achievement of our aim, we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers and the communities which we serve and in which we operate.”….

In 1991, Hanson, the predatory UK conglomerate that had successfully acquired and reorganised sluggish British manufacturing businesses such as Ever Ready and Imperial Tobacco, bought a modest stake in ICI. While the threat to the company’s independence did not last long, the effects were galvanising. ICI restructured its operations and floated the pharmaceutical division as a separate business, Zeneca. The rump business of ICI declared a new mission statement: “Our objective is to maximise value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership, a technological edge and a world competitive cost base.”….

ICI made the opposite shift – from a grand vision of the responsible application of chemistry to a narrow concentration on established, successful activities. The aim of bringing benefit to a wide range of stakeholders was replaced by the specific objective of creating shareholder value from narrowly focused operations. The company translated this into an operational strategy by disposing of the company’s interests in bulk chemicals to acquire a niche group of speciality businesses: ICI, once the main supplier of chemical products to one third of the world, was reinvented as a smells company.

The outcome was not successful in any terms, including those of creating shareholder value. The share price peaked in 1998, soon after the new strategy was announced. The decline since then has been relentless. After two successive dividend cuts the company was ejected in early 2003 from the FTSE 100 index, the transition from industrial giant to mid-cap corporation had taken only 12 years…..

Obliquity gives rise to the profit -seeking paradox: the most profitable companies are not the most profit -oriented. ICI and Boeing illustrate how a greater focus on shareholder returns was self -defeating in its own narrow terms. Comparisons of the same companies over time are mirrored in contrasts between different companies in the same industries. In their 2002 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras compared outstanding companies with adequate but less remarkable companies with similar operations….

Collins and Porras….found the same result in each case: the company that put more emphasis on profit in its declaration of objectives was the less profitable in its financial statements.

Yves again. Simple-minded profit seeking is not what it is cracked up to be. And worse, squeezing worker wages to not simply preserve, but increase profits, is destructive on an economy-wide level (note the rising gap between wages and prices disproves the canard that the wage pressure is necessary to preserve competitiveness).

US business used to operate with the idea that the returns resulting from productivity gains would be shared by workers and the company; that notion now seems as dead as the dodo. But not allowing workers to participate in improvements in corporate returns blunts overall economic growth. Companies are fattening their current bottom lines at the expense of future top line growth. But in our current climate, this strategy looks just dandy….until government stimulus starts to be withdrawn.


Originally published at Naked Capitalism and reproduced here with the author’s permission.