Archive for October, 2014

What’s the Point of Profits?

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

mrmoneybagsAccording to conventional economic theory, corporations earn profits in large part to finance expansion, which means both additional investment and more hiring. How old fashioned. As an article the other day in the Wall Street Journal points out, today’s executives at publicly traded firms increasingly think that the most important use of excess cash is to buy back portions of the company’s stock from investors. The Journal notes that one in four companies in the S&P 500 index have recently carried out stock buybacks.

This practice, which was once limited to troubled companies seeking to prop up a faltering stock price, is now becoming an epidemic. In an earlier article, the Journal reported that buybacks in the first half of this year totaled $338 billion, putting 2014 on track to break last year’s figure of $600 billion.

Out-of-control buybacks are symptomatic both of rampant executive greed and the growing unwillingness of large corporations to grow in a way that will bring about broad-based economic prosperity. The greed comes into play because the buybacks automatically increase corporate earnings-per-share figures, which are widely used as a basis for determining executive compensation levels.

In addition to lining their own pockets, executives who carry out buybacks are refusing to invest in growth. As the Journal put it: “While the economy has crawled back to life, many businesses remain reluctant to buy new equipment, build factories or hire workers.” For these top managers, all that matters is their personal enrichment.

It’s significant that the company listed by the Journal as one of the most aggressive users of buybacks is Ingersoll-Rand, which has employed the technique to boost its EPS figure about 90 percent over the past year. What the Journal does not mention is that Ingersoll-Rand is one the corporations that has reincorporated abroad to dodge U.S. taxes, moving on paper first to Bermuda and then to Ireland.

Like other companies going through so-called inversions, Ingersoll-Rand did not change where it did its actual business. The purportedly Irish company derives 59 percent of its revenues from the United States and has 80 percent of its long-lived assets there.

Apologists for inversions claim they help generate higher net profits that companies use for investment and job creation, yet Ingersoll-Rand shows how such a firm is instead using its ill-gotten gains to buy back stock and thus propel its top executives higher into the 1 Percent.

The edition of the Journal with the buyback article also ran a piece with the headline “As Life Span Grows, So do Worries on Pensions.” The fact that people are living longer is apparently seen as a problem for those companies that still provide defined-benefit retirement plans. New actuarial data show that the average 65-year-old will live more than two years longer (to 88.8 years for women, 86.6 years for men) than was estimated in 2000. This is expected to increase retirement plan liabilities by about 7 percent.

Experts quoted in the article expect that corporations will respond to the change primarily by accelerating their move into 401(k)s and other defined-contribution benefits which relieve the employer of long-term financial responsibilities. It does not seem to occur to business leaders that all that excess cash going into stock buybacks could instead be devoted to pension plans that now have even more need for better funding.

Preying on the Military

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

militarylendingReincorporating in foreign countries with lower tax rates is not the only way large corporations put profit before patriotism. A front-page story in the New York Times points out that predatory lenders continue to target members of the U.S. military. Despite much business talk about supporting the troops, these unscrupulous firms exploit the precarious financial condition of many members of the armed services.

The vulnerability of service members to predatory lending is not a new story. The federal Military Lending Act of 2007 was passed with the intention of barring the most exploitative practices, but it did not go far enough. The Obama Administration is now seeking sweeping changes to the law to eliminate its many loopholes and to expand its applicability to the many new kinds of predatory “services” that the infinitely creative consumer finance industry has created in the past seven years.

At the same time, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has brought enforcement actions against predators that have been violating the law. Last year the bureau got payday lender Cash America to pay $19 million to settle charges relating to abusive practices such as charging more than the 36 percent interest cap established by the Military Lending Act. In May, Sallie Mae and its former loan servicing unit Navient had to pay $60 million to settle federal allegations that they charged servicemembers excessive interest rates and fees on student loans. And in July, a company called Rome Finance had to pay $92 million to settle accusations that it exploited military purchasers of consumer electronics. CFPB Director Richard Cordray told reporters at the time: “Rome Finance’s business model was built on fleecing servicemembers.”

Faced with these obstacles, the predatory lenders have been looking for relief at the state level. The Times points out that states such as Kentucky, Arizona, Missouri, Indiana and Florida have eased their financial regulation, but it gives special attention to North Carolina, where a 2011 push by financial services lobbyists to ease interest rate restrictions was so brazen that it prompted military commanders from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune to warn the changes could harm their troops. Last year the industry tried again and succeeded, thanks in part to a decision by the commanders not to get involved again.

The issue is playing a role in this year’s U.S. Senate race in the Tarheel State. Republican candidate Thom Tillis, the state Speaker, supported the easing of restrictions on military lending and has reaped large campaign contributions from the financial services industry. The Times asked his campaign manager Jordan Shaw about this and was told that that the donations did not influence his voting record. Yet Shaw stated that Tillis “wanted to make sure that people still have these loans as an option.”

Conservative politicians such as Tillis have bought into the self-serving ideology of predatory lenders – that consumers should have the freedom to choose exploitative borrowing arrangements. It’s bad enough when this mindset is applied to the general public. Extending it to those who risk their life for their country is breathtakingly cynical and a reminder that corporations are loyal to nothing other than their own enrichment.

 

The CSR Sham

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Varkey“We are committed to using our resources to increase opportunity, protect the environment, advance education, and enrich community life.” That declaration comes from the chief executive of the computer systems company Oracle, which is featured in a new report on spending by large companies on corporate social responsibility, or CSR. Statements like this, which are de rigueur these days in corporate communications, seek to give the impression that big business is largely a philanthropic endeavor – that the pursuit of profit and community betterment are not only consistent but are often indistinguishable from one another.

The report on CSR spending was prepared by the consulting firm EPG on behalf of the Business Backs Education campaign, which is based in Britain – where CSR is an even bigger deal than in the United States – and is said to be “led by UNESCO, the Varkey GEMS Foundation, and Dubai Cares under the auspices of the Global Education and Skills Forum.” Bill Clinton has lent his name to the effort.

I was unable to find a copy of the full report posted online, so I am depending on a summary published by the Financial Times. The main finding is that U.S. and UK companies in the Fortune Global 500 spending about $15.2 billion a year on CSR activities.

It’s not clear whether that number is supposed to be impressive, but it is worth noting that the 128 U.S. companies on the list alone account for $8.6 trillion in annual revenue. But even more significant than the amount of CSR expenditures is what they are being spent on. According to the report, 71 percent of the spending by U.S. companies consisted of in-kind contributions, often consisting of the firm’s own products. Oracle, which the FT calls “one of the biggest CSR spenders,” is said to grant “its software to secondary schools, colleges and universities in about 100 countries.” Pharmaceutical companies often donate their own drugs.

Not only is such in-kind giving much cheaper than cash contributions – it also serves to promote the company’s products. The giveaways are in effect marketing campaigns to raise the profile of and increase the future demand for those products.

EPG appears to have used a narrow definition of CSR, consisting of spending that is more commonly defined as philanthropic. CSR also includes broader initiatives on issues such as the environment. Such activities present another set of problems, given that those voluntary initiatives are often used by business as a way of thwarting more rigorous regulatory oversight.

The report is part of the Business Backs Education effort to get corporations to increase the portion of their CSR spending that goes to education. That sounds like a worthwhile mission, but when you look at who is behind the campaign, it all seems somewhat less altruistic.

One of the key backers is the Varkey Gems Foundation, which was established by Sunny Varkey (photo), a Dubai-based entrepreneur who founded and runs Gems Education, the largest operator of private schools in the world and a for-profit provider of services to public schools. Forbes estimates Varkey’s personal wealth at $1.8 billion.

In other words, Varkey is pushing corporations to contribute more to educational budgets that in many cases will be spent on purchasing services that will enrich him and his company even more. And he’s doing this under the banner of CSR and with the imprimatur of UNESCO and the former president of the United States.

From the findings of the EPG report to Varkey’s broader plans, all this is a glaring example of how much of CSR is a sham, a way for large companies and the superrich to promote their self-interest while pretending to be humanitarians.

Corporate Benefit Cutters Still Shifting Costs to Taxpayers

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

walmart_jwj_subsidiesWal-Mart’s recent announcement that it will snatch health coverage away from 30,000 part-timers is not just the latest in a long series of Scrooge-like actions by the giant retailer. It is also a sharp reminder of both the necessity of the Affordable Care Act and the deficiencies of that law.

If we think back to the time before Obamacare became a political lightning rod, we may recall that it was precisely the behavior of corporations such as Wal-Mart that created the need for healthcare reform.

In addition to paying low wages, Wal-Mart had long been criticized for providing inadequate benefits to its employees. In 2003 the Wall Street Journal published an article describing the various ways in which the company kept its spending on health benefits as low as possible. This was explored in more detail in an AFL-CIO study that came out about the same time.

This evidence, combined with reports that the company was encouraging its workers to apply for Medicaid and other government social safety net programs, prompted critics to argue that Wal-Mart was in effect shifting some of its labor costs onto taxpayers. In 2004, the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce published a report estimating that the average Wal-Mart employee used federal safety net programs costing $2,103 per year.

Over the following few years, state governments were encouraged to reveal which employers accounted for the most enrollees (including dependents) in Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and other forms of taxpayer-funded health coverage. For those states that did disclose those lists, Wal-Mart was almost always at or near the top. My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First still maintain a compilation of these disclosures, though most of the data is now woefully out of date.

Healthcare reform should have put an end to all this, ideally by creating a system of Medicare for all funded with higher taxes on business. Of course, what we got was something else. Ironically, one of the most positive aspects of the Affordable Care Act – the expansion of Medicaid eligibility in some states – may be increasing the amount of hidden taxpayer costs generated by employers such as Wal-Mart. Yet that’s less important that the extension of those benefits to families desperately in need.

The ACA’s impact on the large portion of the workforce not enrolled in public programs is even more complicated. Although the law depends heavily on private insurance, it does not, strictly speaking, require employers to provide group coverage. Instead, what is often called the law’s employer mandate is a half-baked arrangement that will simply require larger companies (50 or more FTEs) that fail to provide adequate group coverage to pay a penalty.

That penalty is likely to be less than the cost of providing coverage and it will kick in only if at least one full-time employee of a company ends up getting federally subsidized coverage through the state or federal exchanges created by the ACA. It thus appears that companies such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot that dump part-timers from their plans will be able to avoid the penalties, which in any event are not yet in effect as a result of several postponements by the Obama Administration.

While the ACA is helping more people get coverage, it does nothing to thwart low-road employers from continuing to shift what should be their health coverage costs onto taxpayers. It also appears to do nothing to help us discover which corporations are guilty of this practice, since there are no explicit provisions for making public the coverage reports that large employers will be required to file with the IRS.

Not only does the ACA fail to impose a meaningful employer mandate; it also misses an opportunity to shame those freeloading employers which expect taxpayers to pick up the tab for their failure to provide decent coverage to all their workers.

Another Healthcare Website Contractor Mess

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

big-pharma-pills-and-moneyThe Obama Administration’s struggle with healthcare information technology is once again on display, with the release of the first wave of disclosure mandated by the Affordable Care Act on payments by drug and medical device corporations to doctors and hospitals. These payments include consulting fees, research grants, travel reimbursements and other gifts Big Pharma and Big Devices lavish on healthcare professionals to promote the use of their wares — in other words, what often amount to bribes and kickbacks. The new Open Payments system is said to document 4.4 million payments valued at $3.5 billion for just the last five months of 2013.

This sleazy practice certainly deserves better transparency. Yet in announcing the data release, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) seemed to be sanitizing things a bit: “Financial ties among medical manufacturers’ payments and health care providers do not necessarily signal wrongdoing.”

Perhaps, but very often that is exactly what they signal. Let’s not forget that many of the big drugmakers have been prosecuted for making such payments as part of their illegal marketing of products for unapproved (and thus potentially dangerous) purposes. In 2009 Pfizer paid $2.3 billion and Eli Lilly paid $1.4 billion to settle such charges. Novartis consented to a $422 million settlement in 2010. That same year, AstraZeneca had a $520 million settlement. Illegal marketing inducements were among the charges covered in a $3 billion settlement GlaxoSmithKline consented to in 2012. The list goes on.

While the release of the aggregate numbers is useful, there are serious snafus in the rollout of the search engine providing data on specific transactions. As ProPublica is pointing out, the new site is all but unusable for such purposes. It is set up mainly to allow sophisticated users to download the entire dataset, yet even the wonks at ProPublica found that it did not function well in that way either.

Even if one overcomes these obstacles, the ability to analyze financial relationships between corporations and specific healthcare providers is limited by the fact that some 40 percent of the records — accounting for 64 percent of payments– are missing provider identities.

What makes the disappointing Open Payments rollout all the more infuriating is that it is being brought to us by the same infotech contractor, CGI Federal, that was primarily responsible for the much bigger fiasco surrounding the Healthcare.gov enrollment website a year ago. The contractor is part of Canada’s CGI Group, which as I noted in 2013, had a history of performance scandals both in its home country and in the United States.

Problems with the Open Payments site began even before its official public debut. Over the summer, the portion of the site through which providers could register to review the data attributed to them had to be taken offline during a critical period for nearly two weeks to resolve a “technical issue.”

As with Healthcare.gov, it is likely that the government bashers will succeed in putting most of the blame for the shortcomings of the Open Payments system on the CMS. Yet the real lesson of the websites, along with that of the U.S. healthcare as a whole, is that the dependence on for-profit corporations –whether they be pharmaceutical manufacturers, managed care providers or information technology consultants — is always going to generate bloated costs and plenty of inefficiency.