Elizabeth Warren and Joe Donnelly, Democrats from Massachusetts and Indiana, respectively, are members of the U.S. Senate.
Thursday, President Trump’s nominee for chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jay Clayton, will testify before the Senate Banking Committee. As members of that committee, we will evaluate his candidacy, not on behalf of Wall Street, but on behalf of the American people.
America’s middle class was built on a social contract between businesses and workers — and the idea that the success of one relies on the success of the other. A strong middle class drives our economic growth. This basic premise has served as the source of the American Dream for generations.
But over the past four decades, the United States’ middle class has shrunk and the American Dream has come under attack. One big reason is shortsighted corporations chasing quick profits at the expense of their workers and the long-term health of their companies. Government makes it worse with tax policies that encourage U.S. companies to invest overseas instead of here at home and federal regulators who do not adequately protect the middle class. Failures at the SEC have steered our markets into “corporate short-termism,” shifting focus from innovation and capital reinvestment to short-term strategies designed to turn quick profits before chief executives and shareholders tag out. We need an SEC that sees this problem and wants to turn it around.
The unrelenting focus on short-term profits can be seen in corporate decisions to offshore jobs to low-wage countries simply to save pennies on the dollar. One Fortune 50 company, United Technologies Corporation, illustrates the problem. The highly profitable conglomerate that runs the Carrier brand announced plans last year to lay off 2,100 workers in Indiana and send those jobs to Mexico to save $65 million a year. Although it has since agreed to keep 800 jobs in Indiana, there are still 1,300 families whose jobs will soon disappear.
So why do this? Is United Technologies so desperate for cash that it needs to blow up the lives of hundreds of workers to squeeze out $65 million in savings? Nope. At the same time that United Technologies is shipping jobs to Mexico, the company has been spending $16 billion on stock buybacks to fatten its share prices. Just two years earlier, we saw the same short-term thinking on display in Massachusetts when Cisco laid off 180 Boxborough workers as it continued to spend billions of dollars in stock buybacks to boost its share price.
These two companies are just the tip of a very big iceberg. Instead of reinvesting profits in the real economy to boost jobs and economic growth, many corporate executives have similarly chosen to spend excess cash on a stock-buyback binge to impress activist investors. Notably, Wall Street analysts recently estimated that the biggest companies will spend a record amount of their cash on stock buybacks in 2017.
For decades, stock buybacks were treated as attempts to manipulate the market — plumping up stock prices without changing the underlying business. But in 1982, the SEC adopted Rule 10b-18 to give corporations a “safe harbor” from most market manipulation liability. As a result, corporate executives no longer fear regulators when making costly buyback decisions with dollars that might have otherwise gone toward benefiting the real economy.
American families need an SEC chairman who will watch out for their interests — not short-term corporate profits. That’s why we’ll be asking Clayton about his willingness to be more vigilant and increase oversight of stock buybacks. We also want to know if Clayton will be willing to help investors identify companies that choose to invest in the U.S. economy and American workers. If the SEC would require publicly traded companies to disclose more detailed information about jobs moved overseas — and jobs brought back home — investors could choose to invest in companies that make our economy stronger. Additionally, requiring public, country-by-country disclosure of profits stashed overseas would reveal to investors the companies that rely on tax havens to avoid U.S. taxes.
The decisions of shortsighted corporate executives are cumulatively squeezing the middle class — undermining not only their employees but also the same people they hope will purchase their products. As a recent Pew Research Center report detailed, “Since 1971, each decade has ended with a smaller share of adults living in middle-income households than at the beginning of the decade.” Boosting middle-class income is one of the defining economic challenges of our time. Everyone in government should focus on providing opportunities for all Americans, even those who can’t afford lobbyists to make their voices heard in Washington. And that focus could start with an SEC chairman willing to push back on powerful corporations and focus instead on looking out for hard-working Americans.