They say "one man's loss is another man's gain," and this
seems to have been proven true by recent economic data that
exemplifies the trend of companies splurging on investors through
share buybacks and dividends instead of making the required
investments in their workforce.
Data from TrimTabs Investment Research, a leading independent
institutional research firm, reveal that companies have spent
over $290.7 billion in share buybacks year to date, but have
remained overtly reluctant to hire more workers or make
significant capital expenditures to boost the job market.
Furthermore, S&P 500 companies have reportedly shelled out a
record $37.5 billion as dividends so far this year.
Not denying the significance of companies boosting shareholder
value, it is also imperative for the broader economy to have a
healthy employment rate as much of the economic progress hinges
on its labor market. Thus, with the unemployment rate languishing
at 7.6%, is it worth prioritizing only private investors?
Is then the new monetary relation between investors and the labor
market a prelude to the impending economic woes of the country
that is slowly finding its feet after a prolonged downturn? Let's
try to find a solution to this simple, yet in some ways
The Cash Pile
Conservative estimates reveal that the cash balance of
non-financial firms has currently swelled to $1.8 trillion, as
most companies raked in huge profits in 2012. A sneak peek into
the balance sheets of various companies reveals the stark
At year-end 2012, oil behemoth
) had staggering cash and cash equivalents of $20.9 billion,
while healthcare company
Johnson & Johnson
) and techno-giant
) had $14.9 billion and $14.8 billion in their respective
kitties. To add to the list, consumer goods giant
The Coca-Cola Company
) had an astounding $8.4 billion of cash reserves as of Dec 31,
2012, followed by
Kraft Foods Group, Inc
) with $1.2 billion and
Union Pacific Corporation
) with $1.1 billion each.
A majority of these companies are gradually opening their wallets
to investors and not to the labor force, which ironically may be
the primary firepower behind the stellar growth in cash reserves.
As a result, real wages are witnessing a downtrend and job
additions have been few and far between.
According to data from business outsourcing solutions provider
Automatic Data Processing, Inc.
), private payrolls increased by a meager 135,000 in May 2013.
Recent data from ISM Manufacturing and Non-Manufacturing indices
also portray a grim outlook and anticipate relatively flat job
Simple arithmetic, based on data from the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, would reveal that the total money spent on share
buybacks and dividends could have hired about 5.47 million new
workers and sustained the average American worker cost of about
$60,000 a year for salary and benefits.
So what made these companies renounce such a lucrative option
to build the human capital and thereby contribute toward the
broader improvement of the economy?
The Corporate Excuse
The recession has taught some very intricate survival strategies
to companies, the primary one being stringent cost-cutting
measures to increase corporate liquidities during challenging
macroeconomic environments. However, among all the available
options to reduce operating costs -- namely controlling inventory
levels, curtailing employee expenses and delaying technology
upgrades -- payroll costs are found to be the hardest to manage
as companies often cannot easily retrench a large workforce.
As such, companies have largely stopped hiring new employees,
which was once a routine affair to fill vacancies due to employee
turnover. To make matters worse, a dramatic change in the labor
market has unruffled the ergonomics and have tilted the
equilibrium against hiring. As most Americans learnt the hard way
of survival through the pangs of a prolonged recession, wages
have declined and productivity has increased as a percentage of
total product or service costs.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the non-farm
business sector labor productivity increased at a 0.5% annual
rate during the first quarter of 2013, while unit labor costs
The strategy of trimming costs also includes companies willing to
pay lesser for employee's healthcare benefits. According to the
latest Milliman Medical Index (MMI), healthcare premiums are
likely to increase 6.5% in 2013 as a family of four covered
through a typical employer health plan will need to pay out
$9,144 on an average. A larger employee base automatically
increases a company's expenditures. Thus, most companies would
prefer to reduce their healthcare cost burden by having a minimal
Reaping the Harvest
A significant chunk of these corporate savings and higher cash
reserves are directed to the investors, as companies aim to
further capitalize on some chart-busting performances by equity
markets through confidence-building measures to further propel
their stock prices. However, industry experts believe such
astronomical gains of the stock market are indeed an aberration
and are not sustainable, implying that the market is due for a
Sir John Templeton once observed "Bull markets are born on
pessimism, grow on skepticism, mature on optimism and die on
euphoria." The equity market perhaps is currently passing through
its stage of maturity and the euphoria is likely to wane sooner
Consequently, it should be worthwhile for corporate
organizations to start investing for long-term gains by
developing the human capital through a strong labor force rather
than rewarding investors for a short-term gain.
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