Editor’s Note. Paris, 25 May 2018.
Dear readers, friends and colleagues,
This ambitious collaborative web project “Ayres on Environment, Economy, Energy & Growth” has been in existence for close to four full years now. And over this time despite the potential of tremendous content and burning issues, and considerable effort on our part, it has failed to take off. At least to the degree that the subject merits. What went wrong? And where should we go from here?
Making a web platform like this work — highly technical content, including a fair dose of abstract topics and analytic approaches which require a well prepared audience to be meaningful — is no easy task. And all the more so in this era of crushing information overload. But that would be a poor excuse.
The main shortcoming thus far has been that we have simply failed to give it sufficient time, commitment, touch and content — or regularity, — to win over the kind and size of audience which the work and findings of Ayres and his distinguished colleagues deserve in their own work in these complex inter-related spheres of, once again, Environment, Economy, Energy & Growth,..
The all-white, all male finance committees of both Houses of Congress got behind this bill.
With straight faces, the salesmen for the Trump tax cut have promised a miracle: increased corporate profits, a surge of investment in CAPX, more and better jobs with higher pay, all to be paid for by accelerated economic growth. In fact, the all-white, all male finance committees of both Houses of Congress, with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Chief Economic Advisor Hassett say that the US will grow at 3% p.a. or more for the next ten years – no recessions – and that the tax cuts will actually generate a profit for the government of $300 billion in that time. Sadly (and no irony intended) this combination of goodies is a pipe dream. In the next few paragraphs I will explain why, and why Trump and the Republicans are selling snake oil to the suckers. What is surprising is how many financial professionals are buying it.
The continued decline in GE share prices (now below $20 per share) have been a major topic in the financial press (and TV) during the past few weeks. Jeffrey Immelt (Jack Welch’s protegé) is gone, no doubt with a sizeable “golden parachute” to comfort his golden years. Yet in GE’s peak year, under Welch, in August 2000 (just before the “dot.com” crash) GE was worth more than $600 billion. Recently it fell to $190 billion.
Hmm. Let’s have a look.
Robert Ayres and Michael Olenick, INSEAD
INSEAD WORKING PAPER
We advanced the null hypothesis that stock buybacks will have a positive impact on the market value of a business over a five-year horizon. We find that there is a negligible chance for this to be true (with a two tail heteroscedastic p=.000023).
We find that the more capital a business invests in buying its own stock, expressed as a ratio of capital invested in buybacks to current market capitalization, the less likely that company is to experience long-term growth in overall market value.
Our findings, for US firms worth more than $100 million, suggest that long-term investors, such as pension funds, should be wary of investing businesses that have engaged in significant cumulative stock repurchases (i.e. 50% or more of current market cap.)
We find that excessive buybacks in the past decades are a significant cause of secular stagnation, inasmuch as they effectively reduce corporate R&D while contributing, instead, to an asset bubble that creates no value.
The United States may not be the most admired country in the world today, as once it was. But the economic decline of the US is still capable of doing much harm outside its borders as well as internally. Part of the underlying problem is an extremely unrepresentative government system of the US. Congress is currently dominated by entrenched special interests – “big money” — that want to preserve the status quo. This reality makes it very difficult for the executive branch to function day-to-day, still less respond creatively to new challenges.
There is a weak economic recovery under way. It is weak because most OECD governments have been persuaded by conservative economists that government debt is now much too high and that government deficits have to be cut by cutting welfare spending. As a direct consequence of austerity policies, unemployment is still too high, especially when under-employment and “drop outs” are taken into account. Youth unemployment is bad in the US, worse in Europe (except Germany) and truly terrible in the Mediterranean countries (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal). Meanwhile, economic inequality has been growing , most workers (except the top 10 percent) have static or declining incomes, but corporate profits have soared. Corporations, especially the “tech” companies of Silicon Valley, are sitting on vast hoards of money, stashed mostly in off-shore banks to avoid taxes.
Neo-Keynesian economists, like Paul Krugman, have been saying for years that austerity is a bad idea. They advocate more “stimulus” spending, even at the expense of increasing the government deficits. The problem with that approach, of course, is that there is no visible end to it. Bigger deficits would (will) unquestionably increase the government debt burdens still more in the short run. The problem is that it is not clear why or how growth could cut those deficits in the future.
– Robert U. Ayres. Paris, 29 October 2014
Photosynthesis was (and is) the biological process that removed carbon dioxide from the primitive atmosphere and left some of the oxygen in the atmosphere and sequestered CO2 in the earth’s crust. That happened as living organisms, such as diatoms, in the oceans attached carbon dioxide to calcium ions to make shells for themselves and left them as chalk or limestone. This went on for billions of years. When the oxygen level in the atmosphere rose enough, the new ozone layer cut the UV radiation level and made life on land feasible. Plants moved onto the land, and thrived spectacularly during the so-called Carboniferous era, several hundred million years ago when the CO2 level was still quite high by present standards. For over a hundred million years immense accumulations of dead plant biomass were covered by silt from erosion of the land surface. Meanwhile the bodies of dead marine organisms accumulated in some places under the sea. These accumulations were gradually compressed and “cooked” (pyrolized) releasing some of the hydrogen and converting the rest of the mass successively into peat, lignite and coal or (in the case of marine biomass) into bitumen and petroleum.
These accumulations constitute an energy (exergy) resource that currently drives industry and human civilization. We humans are now “un-sequestering” those stored hydrocarbons, combining them with oxygen and putting CO2 back into the atmosphere. Moreover, we are doing this at a rate thousands or even millions of times faster than the original accumulation. This ultra-rapid dissipation of stored exergy in the form of hydrocarbons clearly cannot continue indefinitely, not because we will run out of carbon fuels immediately, but because the atmospheric buildup of CO2 cannot continue much longer without catastrophic climatic consequences (IPCC 2007, 2014).