Archive for the ‘Business and politics’ Category

Turmoil On the Road to Autarky

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

Donald Trump got elected in 2016 essentially by promising everything to everyone except immigrants and environmentalists. In the economic realm he vowed to resurrect dying industries such as coal, to achieve trade supremacy over the rest of the world, to dismantle the regulatory state, and to bring about growth rates not seen for decades. Now those corporate executives who sold their soul to Trump are realizing he cannot deliver on all those promises.

This is most apparent with regard to trade. Companies such as Harley-Davidson and General Motors are complaining about the consequences of Trump’s ham-handed use of tariffs, which instead of bringing about concessions from U.S. trading partners are prompting retaliatory moves. A front-page story in the New York Times headlined “Industries in U.S. Feel Undermined by Trade Policies” states: “Even as the president’s pro-business stance is broadly embraced by the corporate community, in some significant cases the very industries that Mr. Trump has vowed to help say that his proposals will actually hurt them.”

This epiphany took a while to happen because most of Trump’s previous dubious initiatives were domestic in nature. Large corporations stood by as the administration and Congressional Republicans went after the Affordable Care Act because the main victims were individuals who did not get employer-sponsored coverage but were not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. They went along with the tax bill because it enriched them handsomely even as it set the stage for future fiscal distress. They were largely silent as Trump’s plans to rebuild infrastructure and to address the opioid crisis fizzled out.

Yet trade involves other countries, whose leaders and citizens are a lot less in thrall to Trump and don’t seem to take his bullying routine very seriously. Even mild-mannered countries such as Canada are showing plenty of backbone. Meanwhile, countries such as China, which have engaged in unfair practices that should be addressed in a more coherent way, are able to take the moral high ground.

While Trump is not budging, this foreign resistance is starting to close markets and raise costs for a long list of domestic industries. Globalized companies cannot afford to follow Trump on the road to autarky. For some big firms the European market, for instance, is as important or even more important than the domestic one.

Yet it is not clear that Corporate America is willing to stand up to Trump in a major way. Rather than challenge the president directly, they may simply shift investment and sourcing to lessen the impact of the trade barriers. We need not worry too much about GM and Harley.

The problem is that the trade standoff will eventually take its toll on the U.S. economy as a whole, threatening the delicate balance of low unemployment and mild inflation while hastening the arrival of the next recession. And that will hurt Trump’s individual supporters a lot harder than his corporate backers.

The Skullduggery Continues

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Donald Trump seems to live in a world in which there is global trade but no foreign direct investment. He recently denounced BMW imports at a South Carolina rally while ignoring the German automaker’s production facility a short distance away in Spartanburg, which has been in operation since 1994.

The president also seems to be less than fully informed when it comes to the foreign operations of U.S. corporations. He has been berating Harley-Davidson for announcing plans to shift some production to Europe to circumvent the tariffs the EU is imposing on selected American products in response to Trump’s trade policies. In his tweet tirade, Trump demand that Harleys “never be built in another country—never.”

In fact, Harley already has offshore production facilities. One of those is in India, which was originally announced in connection with President Obama’s November 2010 trip to that country to promote U.S. commercial interests. Republicans denounced the trip, not because of job offshoring but rather because of exaggerated reports of the cost of the delegation.

Harley initially used the Indian operation to assemble bikes shipped in knocked-down form from U.S. plants, but later it began using locally produced components. In 2012 Harley outsourced much of its IT work to the Indian company Infosys, some of whose employees on the account worked in the U.S. There were reports in 2014 that Harley IT workers were being asked to train Infosys employees on H-1B visas who were replacing them.

The company also has an assembly facility in Brazil and a manufacturing plant in Australia that produces high-finish wheels. In its 10-K filing Harley states: “The motorcycles assembled at the Company’s international facilities have the same authentic look, sound, feel and quality of a motorcycle manufactured by the Company’s U.S. facilities.” Moreover, Harley announced earlier this year that it is shifting some production from a plant in Kansas City to one in Thailand.

The Harley situation is just the latest in a series of tiffs between Trump and large corporations in which it is difficult to support either side. Harley certainly needed to be called out for engaging in more and more offshore outsourcing while continuing to promote an all-American image.

Trump’s criticism of the company, however, is far from coherent. It seems to be based mostly on his feeling that he was personally betrayed by a firm that he touted as a symbol of American greatness. Trump seems to have picked a fight with Harley in the same way he has gone after other companies, starting with Carrier soon after his election. He has done so mainly to burnish has own tough-guy image while in the end failing to extract any real concessions. The same goes for is supposed battles with pharmaceutical producers, aerospace manufacturers, automakers and others.

Trump’s objective is to give the impression he is taking a hard line against big business, while he is actually catering to every desire of corporate America when it comes to regulation and taxes. It is the flip side of his posture toward workers, in which he pretends to be their defender but is in reality undermining employment safeguards and labor rights. How long can the skullduggery continue?

Trump’s War on Workers

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

Donald Trump’s blue-collar supporters may like what they are seeing on Fox News, but when they arrive at work the MAGA revolution is nowhere to be found. Far from empowering labor, the Trump Administration’s employment policies are heavily skewed toward management.

The aspect of this I’ve been focusing on lately are wage and hour issues. Recently my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project and Jobs With Justice published Grand Theft Paycheck, a detailed look at wage theft by large corporations. We found that major employers in a wide range of industries continue to pay out large sums in collective action lawsuits, which indicates that they continue to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act by compelling employees to do off-the-clock work and denying them proper overtime pay.

Such litigation may soon be a thing of the past. There are signs that collective actions are failing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Epic Systems ruling, written by Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, affirming the right of employers to use mandatory arbitration to block group lawsuits. For example, a federal judge in California told a group of Domino’s Pizza drivers that they had to use arbitration rather than litigation to resolve their claims against franchise owners.

At the same time, instead of intensifying enforcement by the Wage and Hour Division, Trump’s Labor Department is promoting a new approach based on corporate self-audits and fewer fines. Allowing employers to operate on the honor system is just another way of weakening enforcement.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project shows that the Trump DOL is also reducing enforcement of workplace safety and health rules.  NELP found that OSHA enforcement activity in FY2017 was down compared to the previous year. The decline was even more pronounced during the first five months of FY2018, when the number of enforcement units (the measure used by OSHA) fell by more than 7 percent. This trend is likely to worsen, since NELP notes that the number of OSHA inspectors has been declining.

Federal workers are facing an assault of their own. Trump recently announced plans to overhaul rules affecting more than two million employees, making it easier to discipline and fire them. The move also includes an attack on federal unions through stricter limits on the amount of time grievance officers and other activists can spend on union activity during working hours.

The next blow will come in the Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a decision soon in the Janus case that blocks the ability of public sector unions to collect fees from employees who decline to join but still benefit from collective bargaining agreements and other protections negotiated by those unions. Such a ruling could have a devastating financial impact on public unions.

As bad as all this sounds, it could boomerang on Trump and his corporate allies. More workers may follow the example of the teacher wildcat strikes and put their faith in self-organization rather than a demagogue.

Deep Corporate Conspiracy

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

Donald Trump and the rightwing fringe never tire of talking about supposed deep state plots. Yet if there is any conspiracy going on, it is the seeming attempt to remove any checks on the power of large corporations.

The latest evidence of this effort can be seen at the banking regulatory agencies and the Supreme Court. Only a decade after a financial crisis brought on by the excesses of the financial sector, the agencies are moving to eliminate the Dodd-Frank restriction on speculative trading practices by the large banks. The attack on the Volcker Rule ignores not only the role such practices played in the meltdown but the fact that the banks have been doing quite well despite the limitation. Last year JPMorgan Chase, for example, posted a profit of more than $24 billion.

Yet even more infuriating is seeing the Supreme Court justice nominated by a purported populist president cast the deciding vote and write the opinion in a ruling that will cripple the ability of workers to use the courts to address abusive employment practices.

The opinion by Justice Gorsuch in the Epic Systems case turns the clock back to a time of near total employer tyranny in the workplace by allowing corporations to mandate that disputes be resolved through the secretive and one-sided process of arbitration rather than class action lawsuits.

The ruling had a special significance for me, given that I have spent the past year doing extensive research about such lawsuits; specifically, wage and hour collective actions designed to combat off-the-clock work, denial of overtime compensation and other forms of wage theft. My colleagues and I will publish a report on the research next week, so I cannot provide the details now. Suffice it to say that the report is going to show that wage theft is a lot more pervasive in big business than is commonly understood.

When I began the research I thought I was documenting legal actions that would continue to be a key tool for addressing employment abuses. Now it may turn out that the report will be mainly of historical interest, describing the way large corporations used to be compelled to pay out substantial sums to compensate workers cheated out of their proper pay.

To make matters worse, the Supreme Court is expected to land another blow against the collective power of workers in its forthcoming ruling in the Janus case concerning public employee unions.

The weakening of regulation, class action litigation and unions provides an unprecedented boost in the ability of big business to call the shots in the workplace and in communities. The massive increase in profitability generated by the Republican tax bill makes large corporations even more mighty.

While this power grab is taking place, many corporations are trying to present themselves as part of the more enlightened sector of society. Walt Disney and Starbucks, for instance, want us to believe they are the anti-racist vanguard. This doesn’t always work: Wells Fargo, Volkswagen and Facebook face an uphill battle. Yet all too many firms have succeeded in projecting a benign image while engaging in corrupt behavior.

There is no easy way to remedy this situation, but we should not let the distractions emanating from the White House make us forget the larger problems.

Novartis and Cohen: Two of a Kind

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

“Yesterday was not a good day for Novartis.” That’s what the chief executive of the pharmaceutical giant told his staff in the wake of embarrassing reports that it was among a handful of large corporations that made questionable payments to President Trump’s personal fixer Michael Cohen. Novartis, which initially struggled to come up with a plausible explanation for its $1.2 million contract with Cohen, ultimately admitted it was a “mistake.”

If so, it was not quite a honest mistake. Novartis, like the rest of Big Pharma, was unnerved by the seeming populism of Trump on the issue of drug prices. Yet it also apparently realized this was an administration that was susceptible to outside influences, especially if they came via someone like Cohen, who in 2017 seemed to be a much more significant player than he turned out to be.

It should come as no surprise that Novartis would resort to dubious measures to promote its interests, which include getting federal blessing for its leukemia drug Kymriah, which costs nearly $400,000 for a course of treatment.

The Swiss company has a long history of improper behavior. For example, in 2010 it had to pay $422 million to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from charges that it engaged in illegal marketing of its epilepsy drug Trileptal, including the payment of kickbacks to doctors to get them to prescribe the medication for off-label purposes. In 2015 Novartis agreed to pay $390 million to settle a case brought by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan accusing it of making illegal kickbacks to get specialty pharmacies to recommend two of its drugs, Exjade and Myfortic.

Novartis does not limit its illicit marketing to the United States. In 2016 the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that the company would pay $25 million to settle charges that it violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act when its China-based subsidiaries engaged in pay-to-prescribe schemes to increase sales.

While Novartis seems willing to make questionable payments to sell its products or gain regulatory favor, it has been less interested in paying some of its employees what they should have received in compensation. The company will be featured in a report on wage theft my colleagues and I will publish next month.

That’s because of a collective action lawsuit brought on behalf of the company’s sales representatives, who alleged that they were improperly classified as exempt from overtime pay. In 2012 Novartis paid $99 million to settle the suit.

In 2005 a group of women who had worked as sales reps for Novartis in the United States filed a lawsuit saying they were discriminated against in pay and promotions, especially after becoming pregnant. In 2010 a federal jury ruled in favor of the women, awarding them $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages. Novartis appealed and then settled the case for $152 million.

All of this is to say that Novartis had long engaged in less than pristine business practices and got the impression it could go on doing so with the Trump Administration.

Don’t Read Their Lips

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

There have been times during the past 14 months when some people might have been tempted to regard big business as part of the anti-Trump resistance, based on the public stances that some chief executives have taken in response to the president’s more outrageous statements. A new report from Oxfam America shows that large corporations are not putting most of their money where their mouths are.

The Oxfam analysis compares the public rhetoric of 70 large U.S. corporations on topics such as immigration, diversity and climate change to the issues listed in their federal lobbying spending disclosures. It finds that most companies spent little or no money lobbying to reinforce their high-minded pronouncements.

Instead, they dispatched their armies of lobbyists to press for government action that would promote their own corporate self-interest, primarily through rollbacks in regulation and business taxes. For example, of the 70 companies only 13 (most tech firms) lobbied on diversity and inclusion, spending a total of $11 million. By contrast, 61 of the 70 lobbied on tax issues, spending a total of $44 million.

As Irit Tamir, Oxfam’s Director for the Private Sector, puts it: “Today’s CEOs have more appetite to align their company’s public image with specific sides in some of the country’s most contested and polarized debates. On issues ranging from gay marriage to refugee rights, executives across  industries have been pushed – or willingly walked – into the eye of the political storm. But when we look at what they are lobbying on behind closed doors, they really, really, really want to pay less in taxes while other issues take a back seat. Words matter, but actions – and lobbying dollars – still speak louder.”

Oxfam, which has done considerable work on corporate tax avoidance, finds it particularly troubling that so much of big business influence spending promotes policies that undermine public finance and contribute to the growth of inequality.

That’s certainly a valid point, but the report’s findings also highlight the reality that much of what is presented as corporate social responsibility is actually a smokescreen for more selfish practices. There is a parallel between this deception and that of the president.

Trump pretends to be a populist while actually promoting much of the conventional big business agenda. Corporate social responsibility proponents pretend to be social reformers while quietly lobbying for that same agenda. Moreover, the social responsibility initiatives themselves are often little more than image-burnishing measures and in some cases are designed to convey the dangerous message that voluntary corporate practices make stricter government regulation unnecessary.

The lesson from all this is that we should not pay too much attention to what either Trump or the big business reformers say and instead focus on what they are doing, which is to steadily dismantle the systems of regulation and taxation that are meant to keep predatory capitalism in check.

Good Corp, Bad Corp

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Like many others in Trump’s America, big business seems to be confused on where it stands. One minute it is receiving its dream list of tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks, the next minute it is being attacked by the president for real or imaginary transgressions.

Trump’s corporate villain du jour is Amazon.com, which he has criticized for supposed offenses such as cheating the U.S. Postal Service. As with Trump’s other Twitter tirades, any grain of truth in his position is overwhelmed by a torrent of incoherent and misdirected accusations and insults.

Amazon certainly has a lot to answer for. The online behemoth has gone a long way in supplanting Walmart as the country’s most controversial retailer. The labor practices in its distribution centers are horrendous. It is decimating small business. Most recently, it is conducting a competition among 20 localities for a second headquarters campus that will supposedly create 50,000 jobs, signaling that it expects a giant subsidy package from the winner. Some places are ponying up offers in the billions, setting the stage for a future fiscal disaster.

Trump has focused on none of these issues in his tweetstorms against Amazon. He did mention the issue of sales tax collection, though his critique was out of date. After years of refusing to collect taxes in most parts of the country, Amazon has made agreements with state governments yet is still not collecting the local component in many places and is not requiring the third-party vendors that use its website to add taxes on their sales.

It is unclear whether Trump’s complaint about Amazon’s arrangement with the Postal Service has any validity, given that the terms are confidential. What seems to be inaccurate is the claim that the USPS is losing money on the packages its delivers for Amazon, which is enabling the post office to make use of excess capacity.

The problem is that Trump’s sloppy criticism is prompting many people to jump to the defense of Amazon, which doesn’t deserve all the support. The Washington Post, separately owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and probably the real target of Trump’s wrath, should be defended for its critical reporting on a corrupt administration. Yet even if Trump is incapable of making the distinction, others should not feel that rising to protect the free press requires one to also take the side of a corporate cousin involved in very different activities.

The Amazon situation is a symptom of a larger problem. Trump’s potshots against various companies amount to fake corporate campaigns that may be making it more difficult for real campaigners to get their message across — in the same way that Trump’s ham-fisted tariffs are complicating things for legitimate fair trade activists. To the extent that his fake criticisms engender pro-corporate responses, Trump could end up strengthening the position of big business.

If Trump were smarter, one might think that was his intention all along.  More likely, it just another aspect of the chaos in which we must now live.

Trump Goes Easy on Major Corporate Offenders

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

It’s unclear to what extent the Obama Administration’s practice of extracting unprecedented monetary penalties on miscreant companies proved to be an effective deterrent, but at least the billion-dollar fines and settlements served to highlight the ongoing problem of corporate crime.

The Trump Administration seems to be a lot less interested in cracking down on the most egregious corporate offenders. Although the enforcement arms of agencies such as OSHA and EPA are still operating along normal lines, there has been a sharp decline in the number of mega-penalty cases announced by the Justice Department.

This conclusion emerges from an analysis of the data recently added to the Violation Tracker database covering cases through the end of the Trump Administration’s first year in office on January 19.

Since the largest penalties are normally imposed on the largest corporations, I did an analysis focusing on the Fortune 100 list of the very largest U.S. publicly traded companies. I found that overall federal penalties imposed on these firms during Trump’s first 12 months totaled $1.1 billion, compared to an annual average of more than $17 billion during the Obama years.

The Obama totals, of course, reflected extraordinary settlements with the largest banks to resolve allegations relating to their role in bringing about the financial meltdown of a decade ago. These included, for example, the $16 billion settlement with Bank of America in 2014 and the $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase the year before.

Those financial services sector settlements peaked during the middle years of the Obama era. Yet Trump’s $1.1 billion first-year total is still far below the annual average of more than $9 billion for the Fortune 100 during Obama’s final two years in office. It also trails behind the $3 billion total during Obama’s first year.

Looking at all corporate offenders, there were 44 cases with penalties of $1 billion or more during the Obama era yet only two during Trump’s first year, and he doesn’t really deserve credit for those. One is the $5.5 billion settlement reached by the Federal Housing Finance Agency with the Royal Bank of Scotland relating to the sale of toxic securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That case had been filed in 2008, and the settlement had been negotiated under Obama. The other is the a $1.4 billion penalty against Volkswagen for its emissions cheating that appears in EPA records with a date of May 17, 2017 but was actually part of a larger $4.3 billion settlement announced by the Justice Department during the last days of the Obama Administration.

There is also an interesting pattern among Trump Administration penalties in the next tier down—those of $100 million or more. The parent companies involved in about two-thirds of these cases are foreign, especially those with the largest penalty totals. They include the Chinese telecom company ZTE, which was penalized for export control violations, and the Swedish telecom Telia, which was punished under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

It appears that the Trump Administration is more likely to get tough with a corporate violator if the company is not based in the United States, while domestic companies get treated more leniently. I guess the slogan is: Make Domestic Corporate Criminals Great Again.

Note: you can do analyses of your own on Violation Tracker using our new feature allowing search results to be filtered by presidential administration.

The Bonus Boondoggle

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

Home Depot is the latest company to join the bonus bandwagon, announcing that it will give hourly employees one-time payments of up to $1,000 as a “reward to our associates for continuing to deliver outstanding customer service.” CEO Craig Menear added: “This incremental investment in our associates was made possible by the new tax reform bill.”

No one should begrudge a few more bucks to underpaid retail workers, but the bonuses should be regarded with a skeptical eye. It’s clear, to begin with, that the companies making these announcements are doing so to curry favor with the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans. And the amounts being offered to employees represent a small portion of the financial benefits the corporations will enjoy from the tax giveaway. At Bank of America that portion was reported to be about 5 percent.

There’s also a problem with the way the payments are being made. The fact that many of the workers are being given one-time bonuses rather than increases in their base pay means that the impact will be fleeting and do little to address the ongoing problem of wage stagnation.

But perhaps worst of all is that employers are taking these steps on their own rather than negotiating with their workers. That’s possible because they are in almost all cases non-union. Some such as Walmart have a notorious history of anti-union animus, while others like Starbucks have resisted organizing drives in more subtle ways.

There are a few exceptions. For example, AT&T, which is extensively unionized, discussed its bonuses with the Communications Workers of America before making the announcement. Nonetheless, the CWA, which had called on telecommunications companies to provide the $4,000 wage increase Republicans claimed would result from the tax bill, vowed to negotiate for more than the $1,000 payments AT&T said it would provide.

While AT&T maneuvered to downplay the role of the CWA, most of the bonus givers need not take such steps. They can present their payments purely as an act of corporate benevolence.

They are also an affirmation of the lop-sided balance of power in non-union companies. Management gets to decide whether and how to share the tax windfall in the same way it makes all other decisions that affect the lives of their workers. This is seen in the fact that companies such as Walmart and Comcast announced their bonuses around the same time they were carrying out substantial layoffs.

Large companies are adopting the Trumpian practice of pretending to act in the interest of workers without actually empowering them. If Corporate America really wanted to help their employees, they would drop their opposition to unions and let workers bargain for real gains rather than handouts.

The Corporate Trumps

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

After the 2016 election there was much trepidation in the corporate world about what the election of a self-proclaimed populist would mean for business. Trump’s intervention in the controversy over layoffs at a Carrier plant in Indiana was taken as a signal that he would be tough on the Fortune 500. “Corporate America unnerved by Trump” was the headline of a front-page story in the Washington Post on December 7, 2016.

At the one-year mark of the Trump Administration, those fears have been long forgotten. Although some corporate executives have spoken out against the president on certain social and civil rights issues, they have generally made peace with him on economic policy. They are delighted with his deregulatory moves and are thrilled at the windfall they are enjoying from the tax bill. Meanwhile, they grow wealthier by the day as a result of the stock market’s new bout of irrational exuberance.

Some companies are taking things a step further by also adopting Trump’s style of making exaggerated and self-serving claims while pretending to be acting in the national interest. The ranks of the these corporate Trumps seem to be proliferating.

Even before Trump took office, the Japanese company SoftBank proclaimed that it was inspired to invest $50 billion in the United States and create 50,000 jobs. The Taiwanese company Foxconn promised $7 billion in investment and also the nice round number of 50,000 jobs.

In February Intel, praising Trump’s policies, said it would invest $7 billion in a U.S. chip plant and create 3,000 jobs. In May the Indian business services outsourcer Infosys claimed it would hire up to 10,000 people in the United States.

During the summer, Foxconn upped its ante with an announcement that it would spend $10 billion to build a flat-screen plant in Wisconsin that would ultimately employ some 13,000 workers.

The latest company to Trumpify itself is Apple, which says it is so happy with the tax law changes that it will invest $30 billion in the U.S. over the next five years and create over 20,000 new jobs. Although it has not linked its move directly to Trump’s policies, Amazon’s announcement in September that it planned to create a second headquarters with 50,000 new jobs fits into the same trend.

What these announcements have in common is that they seem to be designed more as public relations stunts than as serious economic commitments. Many of the numbers are far beyond the norm and appear to be chosen to attract attention.

At a time when the typical plant workforce is shrinking, especially in high-tech, Foxconn’s claim that it will employ 13,000 people in that Wisconsin facility seems far-fetched. Equally implausible is Amazon’s stated intention to more than double its headquarters staff. The idea that Apple, which was built on cheap Chinese labor, will suddenly become a high-road domestic employer is preposterous.

It is unclear whether some of these initiatives will ever see the light of day at any employment level. Foxconn, in particular, has a track record of failing to follow through on announced projects.

Some of the companies are probably currying favor with the Trump Administration in order to achieve regulatory relief or other administrative benefit. Some, especially Foxconn and Amazon, have used their announcements to encourage state and local officials to offer bountiful financial incentive packages. Apple is trying to burnish its image long tarnished by foreign labor scandals and accusations of tax evasion on a monumental scale.

What all the companies are counting on is that eventually their lavish promises will have been forgotten when they deliver a lot less in the way of investment and jobs – and especially job quality. Taking their cue from Trump, they are focusing on the short-term benefits of making unsubstantiated statements and giving little heed to the longer-run consequences of their actions.