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At the risk of sounding like an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders clone, I’ve just come across some data showing that stock buybacks by U.S. public companies have really gotten out of hand. That matters because it looks like they’ve been denying these firms major resources for performing the research and development (R&D) needed to keep creating new products, services, and processes, and maintain the U.S. economy’s global competitiveness.

I got interested in these trends due to a post at the Project-Syndicate.com website by William H. Janeway. According to this business and economics writer, for decades through the first half of the twentieth century, America’s industrial giants in particular spent significant shares of their profits on “Scientific research and development of technological applications,” and indeed virtually monopolized such activity in the United States up to the start of World War II.

Once the war broke out, and long after (including of course during the early Cold War), these efforts were powerfully supplemented by the federal government. And beginning in the 1960s (roughly), when for various reasons, the profits that powered private sector R&D began drying up, Washington’s funding actually was able to fill the gap pretty satisfactorily.

Yet starting in the early 1980s (and I’m simplifying terribly here), market-friendly neo-liberal national economic policies like regulatory reform and tax cutting revived corporate profits. But these measures also presented business with a less risky, more immediately lucrative, and therefore more appealing way to use this new windfall than figuring out how to provide new and better goods and services – buybacks of their own shares of stock, a practice that was legalized in 1982.

I’ve found data going back to 1995, and from then through 2019, reports the Bank for International Settlements (a grouping of the world’s major central banks) annual U.S. gross stock buybacks soared more than ten-fold – from $73.16 billion to $829.18 billion. Yearly net buybacks jumped even faster – from $34.41 billion to $605.22 billion.

And since then, annual gross buybacks have jumped still higher. Investment banking firm Goldman Sachs pegs the 2021 gross buyback total at $992 billion, and not surprisingly predicts that the number for this year will hit $1 trillion. The slow growth stems partly from a one percent excise tax on the largest buybacks that kicks in next year.

Private sector R&D hasn’t exactly stood still during this period. But the National Science Foundation (NSF) says it rose only four-fold, from $129.83 billion to $498.18 billion. (See the spreadsheet provided at the first link here.) Put differently, in 1995, annual gross buybacks were 56.35 percent of annual R&D outlays. In 2019, annual gross buybacks just over 60 percent higher.

The NSF believes that private sector R&D neared $532 billion in 2020. But even that nice increase wouldn’t change the ratio much.

During these decades, moreover, federally funded R&D hasn’t remotely filled the gap. It increased nearly 150 percent from 1995 to 2019, but in absolute terms, the latter total was only $62.80 billion. And in 2020, it’s estimated to have risen only to $65.69 billion.

Further, neo-liberalism (or market fundamentalism, or whatever you want to call it0 is just as much to blame for this sluggish pace as it is for Wall Street deregulation, for it resulted from the same, reflexive anti-government impulses.

I don’t mean to demonize private business or finance or free markets, or to lionize government. But clearly something’s gone very wrong with the incentive structures shaping business decisions, and just as clearly, lots of business lobbying has had lots to do with it. Ditto for inadequate federal funding. Without major changes, don’t expect the U.S. economy from escaping the dangerous trap of heavy reliance on debt-based growth any time soon.

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