Corporate stock repurchases and grants of stock to officers have exceeded new capital raised by the U.S. capital markets this decade. That means that the capital markets decapitalize the real economy.
If true, this implies that either the banking sector is broken, or that our economy had previously invested too much in the real economy. While my gut reaction is to say that the banking sector is broken, the overcapitalization theory has more to it than one might think.
The United States federal income tax system has strongly and systematically favored unearned income over earned income since not long after the tax reforms of 1986. For two decades profits from capital gains have been undertaxed and deferred, while tax losses from depreciation have been intentionally allowed before the economic reality justifies it.
Is it really any surprise that well counseled businesses have responded to these incentives?
In the U.S. economy, as a consequence of our tax laws, it makes economic sense to replace a job with a robot, even if the robot is actually slightly less cost effective. It makes sense from a tax perspective to retain earnings, rather than distributing them so that investors can put the funds to more productive uses in other entities, despite the fact that this makes it tempting for senior management to raid excess corporate cash. It makes sense from a tax perspective to reduce equity relative to debt. It makes sense from a tax perspective to compensate senior executives in a way that has a huge upside for the executive, but shifts all the downside risk to shareholders and creditors.
Banking and corporate governance probably are broken. But, the more frightening prospect is that the problems may run deeper. Perhaps the financial sector, while somewhat flawed, has fundamentally been doing what they system has been created to give it an incentive to do. If that is the case, then unwinding the mess and creating a new positive set of incentives may take more understanding and political will than our nation has at its disposal.
The finance industry is made up of a lot of very competent people with extreme tunnel vision. Lots of people know a great deal about their piece of the elephant, but very few people understand the organism as a whole very well. Many of the most affluent people on Wall Street have only a dim understanding of what role they play in making our economy productive. They trust the system. They follow the incentives that they have from their vantage point. They learn to tell enough of a myth about their value to society to provide a fig leaf for the spouses, children and the people they encounter at cocktail parties. But, only a very small percentage of individuals within the finance industry have more than a vague sense of how their efforts indirectly contribute to economic activity.
Most finance industry participants are like members of a symphony orchestra recording a harmony part, alone in a soundproofed room with a view of the conductor but no ability to hear what anyone else is playing. Not many are conductors. How can there be in an economy dominated by few than a thousand companies, not all of which engage in major financial transactions in any given year?
This suggests that the notion that financial companies are simply following the incentives created by the system itself, and that the system is telling them to decapitalize the real economy, is quite plausible.