Top Senate Democrats Propose Limits to Corporate Buybacks

(Bloomberg) -- Two top Senate Democrats said they’ll introduce legislation barring companies from buying back their own stock unless they first increase workers’ pay and benefits, as the party seeks to frame 2020 election issues by spotlighting corporate responsibility.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Bernie Sanders, who is considering a second run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece Monday that their plan would require companies pursuing buybacks to take such actions as raising workers’ minimum pay to $15 an hour, improving pensions or offering seven days of paid sick leave.

“When more than 80 percent of corporate profits are going to stock buybacks and dividends, something is really wrong in the state of corporate America and the state of our economy,” Schumer of New York said on the Senate floor.

Top Senate Democrats Propose Limits to Corporate Buybacks

Schumer and Sanders’ article pointed to recent decisions of companies including Walmart Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. to repurchase billions of dollars in shares at about the same time they cut jobs.

The proposal would generate little support among Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate, so it’s likely to serve more as a campaign issue than to be enacted into law.

Several of the party’s presidential hopefuls in the Senate are focusing on corporate governance as an election issue, including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Sanders, an independent who has a spot in Democratic Senate leadership, sought the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 and is weighing another run.

GOP Tax Cuts

Corporate governance issues also may be important in Senate races next year, as Democrats seek to take advantage of an election map that plays in their favor. Republicans will be defending 22 seats they now hold, while Democrats have just 12 on the ballot. Only one incumbent Democratic senator, Doug Jones of Alabama, is seen as at risk.

The GOP tax cuts enacted in late 2017, which reduced the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent, sparked a windfall that companies are using to repurchase their own shares, Schumer of New York and Sanders of Vermont said in their opinion piece.

The pace of share repurchases by companies in the S&P 500 accelerated last year, with authorizations surpassing $1 trillion for the first time as tax cuts boosted profits and cash piles grew.

Top Senate Democrats Propose Limits to Corporate Buybacks

Executed buybacks hit a record $200 billion in the third quarter, the latest period when full results were available. Qualcomm Inc., Apple Inc. and Oracle Corp. were the biggest buyers, with each repurchasing at least $10 billion of their own stock.

While the dollar value of buybacks hit records, they’ve decreased as a percentage of market value amid the record bull market. Repurchases in the 12 months ending in September 2018 equaled 2.72 percent of total market cap, well below the 4.31 percent in 2007.

Top Senate Democrats Propose Limits to Corporate Buybacks

Among the presidential contenders, Booker has pushed to require publicly traded companies that use profits for stock buybacks to pay a similar amount to employees as a “worker dividend.” Warren has advocated repealing a Securities and Exchange Commission rule that makes it easier for companies to make stock buybacks. It also would end corporations’ ability to repurchase stocks on the open market.

Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis said no further details are available on the Schumer-Sanders proposal, including when it may be introduced or which types of corporations would be subject to the buyback limits.

In their opinion piece, the senators said stock buybacks fundamentally benefit the wealthy, who are more likely to be shareholders or executives who are compensated through stock-based pay.

“It’s no coincidence that at the same time that corporate stock buybacks and dividends have reached record highs, the median wages of average workers have remained relatively stagnant,” they said. “Far too many workers have watched corporate executives cash in on corporate stock buybacks while they get handed a pink slip.”

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