While many journalists on Saturday were suffering bees in their bonnets because President Trump was disrespectful to NBC correspondent Peter Alexander, veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Jacob Schlesinger was busy fleshing out the story White House correspondents have coveted for years but didn’t appreciate was out there: Trump’s admission of failure. Schlesinger’s story is an example of what separates journalism men from the boys and women from the girls.
Trump’s signature “accomplishment” was the enactment of a new law that lowered the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and relaxing rules that were intended to encourage multinational corporations to repatriate hundreds of billions of dollars in cash parked abroad. Trump said the tax breaks and repatriated funds would result in U.S. companies investing in their businesses, instigating an economic stimulus that would create jobs and boost the economic fortunes of all Americans. You know, a rising tide lifts all boats.
America’s “stable genius” admitted on Friday that, well, things didn’t quite work out as he promised.
“When we did a big tax cut, and when (corporations) took the money and did (stock) buybacks, that’s not building a hangar, that’s not buying aircraft, that’s not the kind of things that I want them to do,” Trump said. The president has joined Democrats in demanding that planned government bailouts include restrictions on buybacks. “You can’t take a billion dollars of the money and just buy back your stock and increase the value,” he said.
Now he tells us!
Stock buybacks are when corporations use their profits or borrow money to buy back their shares, thereby reducing the amount of stock outstanding and ultimately boosting their value. The practice in turn boosts CEO compensation because the pay of top executives is heavily determined (or at least justified) by the performance of their shares. The rub on buybacks is they divert funds that could be used for growing businesses to enrich shareholders, the majority of whom are pension funds and institutional money managers. Only 55 percent of Americans have stock market exposure, owning stocks directly or through 401(k) and pension plans.
Share buybacks surged 55 percent after Trump’s tax cuts and were responsible for fueling the stock market reaching record levels these past few years, according to Howard Silverblatt, senior analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices. Put simply, the stock market gains that Trump crowed about since he took office weren’t driven by improved corporate or economic performance but rather a reduction in the supply of outstanding corporate shares.
Even before the coronavirus, share buyback alarm bells were sounding. Fortune’s Larry Light presciently warned last August in an analysis that blared, “Buybacks Are Now Financed by Debt. Here’s Why That’s a Problem.” Light cited a Goldman Sachs report declaring that “unless earnings growth accelerates materially, companies will likely continue to fund spending by drawing down cash balances and increasing leverage.” The drumbeats grew louder in December when the International Monetary Fund issued a warning that companies assuming unprecedented debt to fund buybacks and pay dividends would “amplify shocks” if they defaulted, or reduced debt, by cutting investment or their workforces.
The Trump Administration ignored the repeated warnings, just as it ignored intelligence warnings in January of an impending pandemic. Now it wants to use taxpayer funds to bail out airlines and other corporations that recklessly squandered profits and leveraged their balance sheets to enrich their managements and their shareholders.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has cited the stock market as a report card on his performance. The market has spoken these past two weeks and its message is clear: Investors don’t have faith in Trump or his economic advisors. Even after promising to throw in everything but the Treasury’s kitchen sink, the market declined today.
The lack of trust and faith is understandable and warranted. In the 2008 financial crisis the Treasury Department was headed by former Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson, who brought with him some talented young turks like Neel Kashkari. Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is no Hank Paulson and economist Kevin Hassett also is playing a role negotiating the bailout. A year ago, Hassett appeared on CNN criticizing buyback critics as “economically illiterate.” And, of course, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose expertise is helping run his family’s empire of slum apartments, also is involved.
No person of any accomplishment or stature is going to volunteer to join the White House and help rescue the country economically as long as Trump is the current occupant. The entire world can see the Emperor has no clothes and his Professor Harold Hill act has worn thin.