It’s not the robots that are coming for American jobs. It’s not the immigrants. It’s not evil offshoring CEOs either. It’s the shareholders.
Under shareholder capitalism, the U.S. labor force has become a liability—a cost to be contained—rather than an asset, and the decrease in worker well-being is a simple externality to be placed off books and ignored.
To help American workers and shareholders, we suggest asset managers and owners move to reject shareholder primacy and embrace stakeholder capitalism, invest in positive approaches to quality employment, and help workers regain a voice in corporate decision-making.
Here’s how we can get started:
Support multi-stakeholder corporations
There are three potential ways for investors to help effect the shareholder-to-stakeholder capitalism transition. The first is the steward ownership model, which builds on a distinguished history of European companies being managed for the long-term benefit of stakeholders. These companies accomplish this by assigning to a trust veto rights over fundamental issues and by distributing shareholders’ traditional rights among a broader range of stakeholders. Governance is distributed among those connected to the operation and its mission (shareholders, workers, customers, and suppliers) and profits above the cost of capital are deployed to advance the company’s mission.
Second is a new corporate legal entity developed in the U.S., the benefit corporation, which provides legal standing for a corporation that seeks to maximize benefit for stakeholders in addition to shareholders. Adoption of benefit corporation status among major public companies has been slow, so in August, Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, which she summarized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The Accountable Capitalism Act restores the idea that giant American corporations should look out for American interests.”
A third approach is to support employee-owned companies. Current U.S. tax law encourages Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP) through tax benefits. Employee ownership can promote job security and resilience to shocks while giving workers higher average wages and a stake in the upside of their businesses. And research shows that broad-based employee ownership increases firm productivity and decreases turnover.
Decouple executive compensation from stock price
Executives should be incentivized to produce value for employees and society in addition to financial returns. Warren’s editorial makes the point: “…executives have a strong financial incentive to prioritize shareholder returns. Before 1980, top CEOs were rarely compensated in equity. Today it accounts for 62% of their pay. Many executives receive additional company shares as a reward for producing short-term share-price increases. This feedback loop has sent CEO pay skyrocketing.”
Investors can support changing executive compensation norms through shareholder proposals, engaging with management, and devaluing companies with outmoded compensation policies, as well as not considering the effect of buybacks when influencing executive compensation.
Invest in companies that prioritize employees
First, Americans can invest in socially responsible publicly traded companies. The JUST U.S. Large Cap Diversified Index (JULCD) categories were developed through surveying American citizens on what makes a company “just”—and found they were most focused on a just approach to labor. Just Capital found that the cumulative investment returns for JUST companies outperformed the Russell 1000 by three points between November 2016 and January 2018.
Second, investors can reallocate their portfolios away from hedge funds that pressure companies to disgorge cash through buybacks or that otherwise rely on short-term wealth extraction. According to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, workers at hedge fund-targeted firms do not see their compensation increase after the company achieves higher labor productivity; wealth created by the improvements is captured almost solely by investors.
Third, asset owners may consider private debt funds that support their portfolio companies in creating quality jobs. For example, the mezzanine debt fund HCAP invests in companies that prioritize quality jobs and supports them throughout the life of the investment to improve wages, benefits, opportunities for advancement, and profit and ownership sharing.
Fourth, investors can support Community Development Finance Institutions, which finance quality jobs. One such institution, Coastal Enterprises, works with employers to improve job quality and livelihoods as a competitive advantage and highlights investee employers that are champions of quality employment.
Extensive damage is being done to our country in the name of shareholders, most of whom are passive investors who have no idea what is being done in their names. Asset owners and managers must fight back and support companies that are investing in their workforce. That will ensure better returns for investors and for society.
Andrea Armeni is the co-founder and executive director of Transform Finance, a field-building non-profit organization working at the intersection of capital and social justice. Tensie Whelan is the director of NYU Stern School of Business’s Center for Sustainable Business, where she also serves as a clinical professor for business and society. This commentary is adapted from an article published on NYU’s website, and was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation.