Self-interest misunderstood

Self-interest misunderstood

by digby

Kevin Drum wrote earlier today that he'd been radicalized by the fact that the 1% have not only profited, but "rubbed our noses in it", which I think is what's really fueling this populist reaction. Americans don't usually loathe the wealthy but these Masters of the Universe and Randian CEOs have been so arrogant and greedy that even moderate people are outraged.

Behavior like this, for instance:

Last month, the first layoffs began at Zimmer’s plant in Statesville, N.C., which is due to shut early next year. The company made splints and tourniquets there for more than three decades. For the sewing machine operators and the rest of the 124 workers at the plant, it is bad news, but it is a different story for Zimmer’s top executives.

Powered by huge stock buybacks — the company bought $500 million worth of its own shares last year, more than twice what it spent on research and development — Zimmer posted earnings growth of 10 percent a share, even though operating income and revenue grew by less than 5 percent in 2010.

That helped its senior management, including the chief executive, David C. Dvorak, collect millions in cash and stock incentive payments by meeting earnings-per-share goals. For example, 50 percent of Mr. Dvorak’s $1.03 million cash bonus was tied to achieving per-share earnings of $4.28 in 2010. The company earned $4.33, but without the share repurchases the company would have made $4 to $4.10 a share.

Investors have not rewarded the strategy, however: Zimmer’s shares have dropped 32 percent in the last five years, while Pfizer’s are down 30 percent in the same period.

Over the last decade, in fact, companies that spent the most on repurchases had a total shareholder return of 37 percent versus 127 percent for companies that spent the least, according to research by Gregory V. Milano, chief executive of Fortuna Advisors, which consults with companies on how to raise their share price over the long term.

In the cases of Pfizer and Zimmer, analysts say the rush to buy back shares crimped development of new products, a prime reason that both companies are experiencing slow revenue growth.

Despite the looming expiration of the patent for its best-selling drug, Lipitor, Pfizer spent more than $20 billion repurchasing shares from 2005 to 2010.

“In that era, it wasn’t the best use of cash,” said Catherine Arnold, an analyst with Credit Suisse. “They should have been doing more to fix the company.”

Matthew Dodds, an analyst with Citigroup, said, “Zimmer has shown little appetite for acquisitions or diversification, yet they don’t sport a pipeline that can drive investor interest."

Nevertheless, Zimmer is on track to repurchase $1 billion worth of its shares this year, double last year’s pace, and it actually borrowed money last quarter to achieve its goal.

In a statement, Zimmer said its bonus programs were “designed to pay for performance,” and that overall compensation strategy was “designed to align the interests of its employees and stockholders.” Zimmer is committed to research and development and the introduction of new products, the company said, adding that the factory closure in North Carolina, while difficult, “is in the best interest of the company’s stockholders.”

It's this entirely self-serving attitude, in which executives see themselves as the value in the economy whose personal wealth the system is designed to maximize, that is so galling.
These people are not only killing the economy, they are killing their own companies with their greed. But why shouldn't they? In this culture you're considered a chump if you leave money on the table for any reason and in business there is no tomorrow.

I'll just repeat my favorite Joseph Stiglitz quote:

Alexis de Tocqueville once described what he saw as a chief part of the peculiar genius of American society—something he called “self-interest properly understood.” The last two words were the key. Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest “properly understood” is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, the common welfare—is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being. Tocqueville was not suggesting that there was anything noble or idealistic about this outlook—in fact, he was suggesting the opposite. It was a mark of American pragmatism. Those canny Americans understood a basic fact: looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul—it’s good for business.

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.

Randism only works on the pages of a pot-boiler novel. In reality these Galtian heroes live in a world with a whole lot of other people. If they are too thick to realize that a stable society with a thriving middle class is more necessary to their survival than a quick buck to add to their already depraved level of wealth, then they aren't really masters of the universe after all.