In a recent article on LinkedIn by Henry Blodget, he wrote that economic inequalities can be blamed on "the complete embrace of the idea that the only mission of companies is to maximize profit for their shareholders."
The editor and chief executive of Business Insider added in the article, "Time for a Better Capitalism" that "over the past few decades, the U.S. economy has undergone a profound change. This change has helped rich Americans get richer. But it has also contributed to growing income inequality and the decline of the middle class. And, in so doing, it has fueled populist anger across the political spectrum and slowed the growth of the economy as a whole."
Yes, the U.S. economy has changed dramatically over the past few decades. However, companies always operated and will continue to operate in a way that ensures that they maximize profits for their owners.
What did change over the past few decades going back to the early 1960s was the incentives that the government created for these companies.
Government policies were designed to produce an inflationary environment so that companies would have the incentive to build their businesses, put people to work and rehire workers laid off during economic downturns back into their old jobs.
By the start of the 1970s, inflation was enough of a problem that President Richard M. Nixon took the United States off of the gold standard, floated the value of the dollar, and imposed wage and price controls.
In the 1970s, wealthy individuals began to buy gold and other assets that protected them from inflation, and this process continued throughout the rest of the 20th century and into this one.
Furthermore, businesses began to take more risk, began to rely upon financial leverage and created all kinds of financial innovations to take advantage of this new world of credit inflation.
Financial engineering became the fundamental business of many industrial companies. General Electric, for example, earned more than 50% of its profits in the 1990s and early 2000s from its financial divisions.
General Electric is a holding in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. See how Cramer rates the stock here. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells GE? Learn more now.
The result was what Blodget described: "This change has helped rich Americans get richer. But it has also contributed to growing income inequality and the decline of the middle class. And, in so doing, it has fueled populist anger across the political spectrum and slowed the growth of the economy as a whole."
But more than that happened, Blodget wrote.
"The stagnation and bear market of the 1970s contributed to the rise of shareholder activism, a trend immortalized in the 1980s by the fictional corporate raider Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. In that era, American companies had become bloated and complacent, and they needed a kick in the ass. 'Greed is good,' Gekko declared, firing smug managers and restructuring weak companies. And the nation's beleaguered shareholders justifiably cheered," according to Blodget's article.
These changes in focus caused radical changes in performance.
"Corporate profit margins have been rising for 15 years and are now near their highest levels ever. Corporate wages, meanwhile, have been declining for four decades," Blodget wrote.
"The richest 1% of Americans now own nearly 45% of all the country's wealth, near the highest level since the 'Gilded Age' of the 1920s, with an average net worth of $14 million in 2013," he wrote. "Meanwhile, the average wealth of "90%-ers" has plunged in recent years to just above $80,000, the same level as in the mid-1980s. Millions of Americans who work full time for highly profitable corporations earn so little that they're below the poverty line. The bottom 50% of Americans own nothing."
Mr. Blodget concluded that "the problem is that when capitalism is practiced the way it is today, wealth becomes so concentrated that much of it doesn't get spent. (Billionaires can hire only so many service providers and purchase only so many cars, houses and islands)."
But, the government needs to quit trying to create high levels of employment through demand management programs. These have just created asset bubbles in the past, something of which the wealthy and those businesses practicing financial engineering can take advantage, while the less sophisticated sit on the sidelines.
This has brought us to what we see now, with the Federal Reserve pumping trillions of dollars into the financial system.
And, what is the result?
Slow economic growth, lagging increases in labor productivity and very little real business investment in capital goods. And we see growing income inequality and a decline in labor force participation that takes us back to the 1970s.
Yes, things have changed over the past 55 years or so, but the change was in the philosophy of government economic policy-making, not in the objectives of business executives.
And companies have been and will continue to maximize profits, regardless of the government's economic policy.