What if the critics of the new tax law are right about what the corporations will do with their newfound riches? What if the majority of the money truly does go back into dividends and corporate buybacks? Perhaps it is time we asked ourselves: is that such a sin?
Oddly, regardless of your political orientation, the answer should be that not only is it not sinful, but it could be outright positive if, somehow, we could get our stock market savings rate higher in the country.
Let's go over the rhetoric for a moment, because it's pretty cynical on both sides. The Republicans who created the new code are cloaking themselves in rapturous talk about how there will be many new jobs created from the legislation.
The Democrats are saying the money will go to dividends and buybacks, which will benefit the rich. I know that's a broad stroke view, but I think we would all admit it is a pretty accurate characterization.
What if, though, they could both be at least somewhat right? What if there's the possibility that the money will be used for buybacks and dividends, and that such an allocation is actually good for Americans, or at least better than what the federal government might do with it.
You see, I think the missing piece of the puzzle of negativity and cynicism has more to do with the declining savings rate and the diminishing appeal of stocks to most Americans than it does with the lack of jobs this legislation might ultimately create.
Let's look at the recent history of stock participation to get some non-cynical answers.
During the '80s and '90s, we had a tremendous influx of money, especially retirement money, into the stock market. The percentages varied and the data is maddingly inconsistent, but during that period an ever-increasing number of households chose to own stocks with some of their savings. At the turn of the century, almost 70% of these households had some exposure to stocks.
But it has been sliding relentlessly downhill ever since, to the point where I have seen numbers that indicate that only a little more than half of households now have that amount of exposure. If the trend continues, we will most certainly be under 50% by the end of this decade.
I think that discouraging trend is what makes the case against the money being used for buybacks and dividends so damning. Obviously, there is a chicken and egg concept here. If the new monies were to be used to hire people, and those people were to save more, then we would actually respect the concept that a lot of the excess would be used to buy back stock and pay bigger dividends.
But the opposite is therefore thought to be true: unless companies hire more people -- regardless of what they do with them -- then the money simply doesn't go to anyone other than rich people.
However, I think that this dialogue is only correct if two things continue: 1. Americans don't save more and 2. They don't put more of their savings in the market. Or, to put it in a more positive way: If Americans could save more and invest it in stocks, then we would all have a much more positive feeling about what just occurred in Washington.
It's the aversion to the stock market and an inability to save that makes the negative case for buying back stock and increasing dividends.
I know that it doesn't have to be that way. When I started TheStreet.com 22 years ago, we were in the phase of ever-rising investment in stocks as a way to save. We used to call it "the greatest story ever told." Every year, we would see new polls and statistics that showed more and more people saving for retirement through stocks.
If you look at this law in that light, we would all rejoice at the possibilities of a massive transfer of wealth toward individuals who save money.
But we have had two crashes since 2000, the dot-com crash and the great recession crash, and they seem to have permanently damaged the allure of the stock market. At the same time, wages have been stagnant and households continue to fuel their spending with debt.
Now, I have no doubt that, because of how little demand there is for so many products, much of the money will be used by corporations to buy back stock and increase dividends.
I just wish, somewhere along the way, we could figure out how to teach people to save better, no matter what their circumstances, and to show them that this legislation skews the probabilities toward higher stock prices and they should participate in those potential riches.
If companies are going to use the money to enrich shareholders directly, we have to figure out how to get more people to benefit from this allocation. Otherwise, it will seem pernicious to the many and beneficial only to the few.
That, to me, is the real issue: we seem to have become a nation where only the rich can save. I don't think it is all because people aren't paid enough money. I think it has more to do with education and the need to show how saving can be more beneficial than spending for all but the most subsistent families who, for hardcore issues relating to education and ingrained poverty, will, sadly, almost never get the chance to partake in the nation's riches.
Why am I so sure of this? I think that's the wrong question. My conviction stems from the belief that we could, indeed, rekindle what went on in the '80s and '90s in this country.
This law makes me want to rededicate myself to trying to educate people of all economic levels that they should embrace stocks as a way to participate in this country's riches, both new and old.
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That's right; I think the most cynical part of this whole exercise in Washington is the lawmakers' total lack of understanding about the need to help people save. They need to make it far easier. They need to encourage it. Only then would I feel that the rich do indeed benefit far more than, let's say, the non-rich.
I do hope, one day, we can go back to the way it was 20 years ago, when we would have saluted this legislation as a way to make savers wealthier, instead of just the rich wealthier. I am not giving up on the concept. I just fear that so many have given up on stocks, that without increased financial education the cynics will be correct. I think I have my job cut out for me.
But I also know that it's way too big a job for anyone without the help of the government. Financial education and incentives to save are the two things that are truly missing from both sides of the aisle.
This column originally appeared on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get great columns like this from Jim Cramer and other writers even earlier in the trading day.
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