William Lazonick: When Corporations Abandoned the 99%
William Lazonick is professor of economics and director of the UMass Center for Industrial Competitiveness. He is president of the Academic-Industry Research Network. His book, "Sustainable Prosperity in the New Economy? Business Organization and High-Tech Employment in the United States" (Upjohn Institute, 2009) won the 2010 Schumpeter Prize.
In 2010, the top 500 U.S. corporations – the Fortune 500 – generated $10.7 trillion in sales, reaped a whopping $702 billion in profits, and employed 24.9 million people around the globe. Historically, when these corporations have invested in the productive capabilities of their American employees, we’ve had lots of well-paid and stable jobs.
That was the case a half century ago.
Unfortunately, it’s not the case today. For the past three decades, top executives have been rewarding themselves with mega-million dollar compensation packages while American workers have suffered an unrelenting disappearance of middle-class jobs. Since the 1990s, this hollowing out of the middle-class has even affected people with lots of education and work experience. As the Occupy Wall Street movement has recognized, concentration of income and wealth of the top “1 percent” leaves the rest of us high and dry.
What went wrong? A fundamental transformation in the investment strategies of major U.S. corporations is a big part of the story....
The beginnings of financialization date back to the 1960s when conglomerate titans built empires by gobbling up scores and even hundreds of companies. Business schools justified this concentration of corporate power by teaching that a good manager could manage any type of business — the bigger the better. But conglomeration often became simply a method of using accounting tricks to boost earnings in the short-run to encourage speculation in the company’s stock price. This focus on short-term financial manipulation often undermined the financial conditions for sustaining higher levels of earnings over the long term. But the interest of stock-market speculators was (as it always is) to capitalize on short-term changes in the market’s evaluation of corporate shares.
When these giant empires imploded in the 1970s and 1980s, people began to see the weakness of the model. By the early 1970s the downgraded debt of conglomerates, known as “fallen angels,” created the opportunity for a young bond trader, Michael Milken, to create a liquid market in high-yield “junk bonds.” By the mid-’80s, Milken (who eventually went to jail for securities fraud) was using his network of financial institutions to back corporate raiders in junk-bond financed leveraged buyouts with the purpose of extracting as much money as possible from a company once it was taken over through layoffs of workers and by breaking up the company to sell it off in pieces....
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