NOVEMBER 23, 2021
Meyerson on TAP
Building Back Better Through Taxing Stock Buybacks
Rather than squandering money on CEOs’ rewarding themselves, the tax would fund needed investment. Do I hear a second?
For the past four decades—ever since Ronald Reagan’s appointees to the Securities and Exchange Commission changed a rule and opened a floodgate— stock buybacks have been a major contributor to the misshaping of the American economy.

When the top executives of a publicly traded corporation decree that their company will buy back a set amount of the company’s shares, it increases the values of the remaining shares, since the underlying value of the company remains the same but the number of outstanding shares decreases. As those same top executives tend to be very handsomely rewarded for increases in the price of the company’s shares, buying back stock is a legal and apparently painless way of making themselves m-f–ing rich. Nice work if you can get it.

The practice of buying back shares went all but unnoticed by economists until the middle of the last decade, when University of Massachusetts economics professor William Lazonick documented that the sum total of buybacks by the corporations on the S&P 500 over the preceding decade approximated the sum total of their profits. Rather than investing in new equipment or research and development or (God forbid) wage increases, America’s corporate sector was buying back its own stock, to the advantage of their leading executives and their shareholders (chiefly, of course, large shareholders), and to the detriment of, well, the economy at large. Lazonick published his findings in the Harvard Business Review and has continued to cover this subject through a host of articles in the Prospect and other publications.

Over the past decade, the S&P 500 have repurchased more than $5 trillion of their own stock, and the rate of repurchasing is steadily increasing: They’re pledged to buy back $1 trillion in this year alone. According to a New York Times analysis, Apple devoted $423 billion on buybacks over the past decade, while spending just $233 billion on capital expenditures and R&D.

It makes perfect sense, then, that a one percent tax on corporate buybacks is part of the Build Back Better bill that the House has passed and sent to the Senate. Over the next decade, the tax is expected to yield roughly $124 billion to pay for climate investments, workforce development and such that our corporations wouldn’t get around to on their own.

The only argument I’ve encountered against the buyback tax (other than the libertarian opposition to all taxes) is that shareholders may use the financial rewards that come to them through buybacks to invest in more productive enterprises. If the shareholders are concerned with making money from their investments, however, they’re more likely to invest in other corporations that reward them with buybacks. Indeed, it’s all but impossible to find a corporation that doesn’t shovel the lion’s share of its profits to shareholders through buybacks.

Which means, if you’re favorably disposed toward bolstering American productivity, industry, and competitiveness, and if the idea of promoting the general good over the fortunes of the few brings a smile to your face, the buyback tax is for you. And your country.
The Democrats’ Last Chance to Make Build Back Better Better
They can use the savings from provisions that will likely fall out of the bill in the Senate to make some remaining programs permanent. BY DAVID DAYEN
The Supply Chain Mess
A deeper cure will take years, but Biden is finding creative ways to get things unstuck. BY ROBERT KUTTNER
Starbucks: Purveyor of Fresh Coffee and Stale Union-Busting
Management’s old-school battle against its Buffalo baristas’ organizing campaign reveals a failure to recognize how unionization can align the company with its consumers. BY TERRI GERSTEIN
Biden: Don’t Repeat Jimmy Carter’s Catastrophic Mistake on Inflation
Overreacting would be bad economics and bad politics. BY JEFF FAUX
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