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More builders and fewer traders: A growth strategy for the American economy

Elaine Kamarck and William A. Galston

In a new paper, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck argue that the laws and rules that shape corporate and investor behavior today must be changed. They argue that Wall Street today is trapped in an incentive system that results in delivering quarterly profits and earnings at the expense of long-term investment.

As Galston and Kamarck see it, there’s nothing wrong with paying investors handsome returns, and a vibrant stock market is something to strive for. But when the very few can move stock prices in the short term and simultaneously reap handsome rewards for themselves, not their companies, and when this cycle becomes standard operating procedure, crowding out investments that boost productivity and wage increases that boost consumption, the long-term consequences for the economy are debilitating.

Galston and Kamarck argue that a set of incentives has evolved that favors short-term gains over long-term growth. These damaging incentives include:

  • The proliferation of stock buybacks and dividends
  • The increase in non-cash compensation
  • The fixation on quarterly earnings
  • The rise of activist Investors

These micro-incentives are so powerful that once they became pervasive in the private sector, they have broad effects, Galston and Kamarck write. Taken together, they have contributed significantly to economy-wide problems such as: (1) Rising inequality, (2) A shrinking middle class, (3) An increasing wedge between productivity & compensation, (4) Less business investment, and (5) Excessive financialization of the U.S. economy.

So what should be done? Galston and Kamarck propose reining in both share repurchases and the use of stock awards and options to compensate managers as well as refocusing corporate reporting on the long term. To this end, these scholars recommend the following policy steps:

  • Repeal SEC Rule 10-B-18 and the 25% exemption
  • Improve corporate disclosure practices
  • Strengthen sustainability standards in 10-K reporting
  • Toughen executive compensation rules
  • Reform the taxation of executive compensation

Galston and Kamarck state that the American economy would work better if public corporations behaved more like private and family-held firms—if they made long-term investments, retained and trained their workers, grew organically, and offered reasonable but not excessive compensation to their top managers, based on long-term performance rather than quarterly earnings. To make these significant changes happen, the incentives that shape the decisions of CEOs and board of directors must be restructured. Reining in stock buybacks, reducing short-term equity gains from compensation packages, and shifting managers’ focus toward long-term objectives, Galston and Kamarck argue, will help address the most significant challenges facing America’s workers and corporations.  

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