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04/08/2007

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Corey

As I said on the Becker side, most workers aren't holding portfolios at all, nor do they have extra cash to buy shares on their own. I will take an undiversified portfolio over no portfolio any day, thank you.

With the favorable tax treatment, a worker's salaray needn't be dropped as much as the ESOP shares are potentially worth. If the company breaks even or does well, there will always be a net gain from the employee's point of view. (I have participated in several ESOP plans as a computer engineer.) If the company collapses, the worker is jobless and stockless either way.

What you both seem to be saying is, "no we won't let you workers have stock, because then you will feel worse when we fire you and also take the stock back." Apart from being uncharacteristically paternalistic re: the investment strategies of workers, your approach uses a strawman "diversifying-worker" that doesn't exist. The crucial choice facing a worker is between company stock or no stock. On an individual basis, workers aren't holding enough shares to make diversificaton worth the fund management overhead anyway. Suits against the ESOP trustee in bankruptcy are no more wasteful than derivative suits against management after stock collapses in more traditional firms. Both are ways of leveraging for interests that might not otherwise have a seat at the negotiation table.

ESOPs should be embraced by capital as the new form of labor capture that they are. Company towns are no more, pension plans are no longer tied to companies, but you can still make engineers work 80 hour weeks with term-vesting stock options of suitable size.

Jack

Whew! Where to begin? As Becker and Posner reveal enough of their establishment bias to raise a soul from the dead?

For now, I'll just take the part about employees not voting for a corporate merger/takeover that would endanger their jobs. Blasphemy! Indeed, the role of opposing a merger that would endanger one's job "really" should be that of top management while the role of the employees shall be "only a pawn in their game."

Also, if the employee's are thought to be wise enough to spot a takeover that endangers their jobs, surely they'd be wise enough to favor a merger that was beneficial to their ESOP owned company and that would enhance their career opportunities.

Let's see, then there is that crimson herring of a larger company providing too little ownership benefits to be an incentive to work harder ---- and dare I mention? smarter? No! Those small benefits really must be combined in one large pile so the corporation can afford to compete for a competent CEO, the fee for which has risen from 80 times worker pay to over 500 times since the onset and continuation of "Reaganomics" in 1980.

Wait! Can I take one more? The claim that studies do not confirm ESOPS being managed any better than traditional ownership forms? Ah! Then also true is that they are not managed any worse either?

Had we a far higher percentage of ESOP owned companies over the last 25 years could we at least speculate that total compensation for the working bloke would not have fell at such a rapid rate relative to top management and large stockholders than has been the case?

N.E.Hatfield

ESOP's, a solution to the age old animosity between Labor and Capital? ESOP's seem to be a good idea, in principle. They seem to make every one feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But, are they a good, Becker has pointed out the potential problems of investment diversification and employee effeciency and the like. Posner on the other hand has pointed out potential problems with social benefits especially in their angle. There is perhaps a third problem, based on the manner in which ESOP's are organized and set up that can lead to abuse and leaving the employees holding the bag in a massive corporate stock sell out to them of a failing company.

The basic organization is as follows;

1. loaner bank
2. the company
3. selling share holders
4. the ESOP trust
5. the employees

Basically, 1,2,3 place into and take out of 4. No. 5 gets its stock from 4 (and the process dead ends at this point). If the company is strong and viable, all is well and good. If not, and the company is shaky or weak in the midst of collapse, No. 5 gets stuck with essentially worthless paper and 1,2,3 walk away with the cash. My advice, beware and make sure that the company is strong and viable before agreeing to go ESOP.

Jack

Hat......... Good advice. Selling pigs in pokes is a long tradition! And I'm hoping that United's out going CEO will manage to make ends meet with his gleanings. On top of all else having his dues paid for life at a tony country club while ticket agents with 15 years in were sent packing with but two weeks severance is a truly ugly picture.

But, both myself and Warren Buffet think the whole market is primed for "bagholders". I think he has $60 billion in cash instruments as he's not been able to find any worthy investments. I have a somewhat smaller amount that's not seeing much either.

More seriously, corporate employees are seeing the fruits of their labors being squirreled away by top management and perhaps the stockholders (ala Walmart?) as well. Posner & Co seems not to hold the prospective ESOP employees in very high esteem, but surely in a company of any size the employees would do their DD.

Oh...... here's another example of biz in America:

Major steel company declares bankruptcy. The employees pension plan reserves of a billion bucks disappear and the Pension Guarantee program does a partial patch, but basically considering lost med care and pension the pensioners are nearly zeroed out.

An "investor" buys the assets now stripped of liability along with the assets of two small steel cos............. and sells the package one year later for a billion bucks in gain. So, we've a new billionaire and a bunch of broke guys who spent their lives in front of steel furnaces. Hmmmmmmmm, perhaps the employees should always have a right of first refusal?

Ha! and lastly, the 2,000 mile long Alaska Gasline which would lower US energy prices substantially and make our steel cos more competitive is being held up in part due to a shortage of 50" pipe made only in Japan and they are busy supplying the rest of the world's needs. Ha! The last miles of that pipe will be but a stone's throw from the great Masabi Iron range.

Keep the faith though as we're the world's leader, Jack

n.e.hat

Jack, I know about the pipe problems in this country. Do you know that the rolling and forming mills that the Japanese use were once U.S. corporate property? Sold off to make a fast buck. The same problem also exists in the manufacture of Hyper-compressor equipment used to power the pipelines and other industrial operations. There used to be six manufacturers of this equipment in the world. Three in the US, one in Germany, one in Japan and one in Switzerland. Today, there are only three and guess where? The whys are answered by the fact that their governments were'nt about to lose this basic core industry. It's playing hell with Engineering and Construction in this country and the companies involved with it. Multibillion dollar contracts have been lost because the countries concerned won't allow US companies to buy. Thereby, forcing customers to go to them for the engineering, design, procurement, and construction. And all because of sho

Justin

In your post you state that the favorable tax treatment of ESOPs "would be justifiable only if such plans conferred benefits on society that could not be generated more cheaply by other means." What are your thoughts on ESOPs being a tool to keep/direct wealth domestically? That is, to keep American workers benefiting, rather than foreign investors? Also, to protect American companies from foreign takeovers? While this may not have been an original motivator for the favorable tax treatment of ESOPs, does it warrant any inquiry given the present fears among many in the U.S. with regard to globalization and foreign competition?

ben

Jack

Sorry to break in on the congratulations being thrown around by you and your friends. Love it, by the way, how you mention crimson herrings in the same paragraph as you use CEO pay to rebut the idea that employee ownership in large firms does not improve incentives. Brilliant.

Then you close with this pearl:

Had we a far higher percentage of ESOP owned companies over the last 25 years could we at least speculate that total compensation for the working bloke would not have fell at such a rapid rate relative to top management and large stockholders than has been the case?

United was the world's biggest ESOP, and from any angle the employees were screwed. In fact, if this is accurate, the extent of the corruption that went on in that deal is extraordinary:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Airlines#Employee_Stock_Ownership_Plan

Here's a link which describes the way it locked employees onto a sinking ship, and created rifts within the company between those who were and were not in on the ESOP (i.e. those who felt they could or could not afford the pay cuts required):

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/12/08/BU148153.DTL

And finally head over here to a site dedicated to highlighting the quality of United's - and only United's - service:

http://www.untied.com/

I can't find any data on the United CEO's compensation during this period, but I believe it is in the millions and the same league as the corporate salaries you are so fixated on.

Of course, this is just one company, and United did enjoy some early benefits from the ESOP, but it ultimately created large problems and seriously harmed its employees. It is not clear employees in general gain from ESOP.

n.e.hat

Fear? Nothing to fear. Global Labor Arbitrage doesn't exist (at least in the minds of those who don't work for living) and besides ESOP's wouldn't help anyway.

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Jack

Hat. Thanks for adding to my knowledge of the "curious" nature of steel and pipe in this largest economic power in history.

Ben....... Thanks for your critique, however I'm not too impressed by your having chosen a single sickly corporation to illustrate your point. Also Hat has already mentioned the problem (for any of us!) of buying a pig in a poke after the corporate raiders were done with it. Do you think United is any worse off today than are Delta and others?

I'd like to consider the word "company" for a moment as for much of our history it denoted a company of folks who set out to accomplish something and profit from the endeavor. For example in one of the more speculative businesses here in Alaska of commercial fishing crews are paid in shares or lays of the catch, just as in the days of the Apostles.

The reason? It puts all on a the team and works better than any other means. For example if the skipper paid wages competitive with union construction or so, in a skinny year the crew would get paid but the skipper would not, and after a couple of these, he'd lose his boat and no one would have a job.

Conversely in years when luck, skill and teamwork combine for a stellar season the crew would be underpaid and it would not be joyful at season end to go home with "wages" while the skipper went home with a windfall............ and gave much of it to Uncle Warmonger instead of to his hard working crew.

Today........ as NO ONE is watching over the antics of "our" nationless corpies (not even stockholders, as so much stock is held by funds whose managers have far more in common with CEO's than their own investors) and it would seem beneficial not only to the employee but to our communities and nation.

For example the flight of our steel cos and others; WERE the employees to have a voice in the matter the decision to "offshore" it would include the negative effect on one's career, and by definition, their communities and collectively....... what's left of our nation.

Now you may think the employees are so dumb they'd oppose necessary changes when the outlook for the corp's business is hopeless but I do not. Doubters will note countless compromises made to save airlines and auto companies (while they got their act together?) even when the employees did not own the company and, as mentioned, CEO's continued to "earn?" vast multiples both of employee pay and of CEO's pre-Reagan era. BTW! By today's standard Gordon Gecko (Greed is good!) is looking like one of the white hats.

Cheers! and are you wishing for the wage race to the bottom would proceed faster so as to lessen the pain? Kinda like pulling a band aid off all at once? Also do you think CEO and upper management compensation is too low and that working folk should tighten up another notch and pass the hat for them? Jack

hypocriticist

I know alot of corporate lawyer and professor types read this blog, so I'll throw this out:

Tangentially, but in the context of the implementation of the Clementi Commission reforms in the U.K. I had an idea while reading the ESOP comments: it might be useful to test the ESOP model in a law firm- the limited liability partnership context- rather than in a corporation. Essentially, it would make all associates incentivized like partners. Now, add to that another layer- the possibility of non-lawyer investors owning equity in law firms- and you've got a far better overall alignment of interests than in the current model: partners are beholden, ultimately, to shareholders, and associates are invested in the firm's bottom line, and are also beholden to shareholders. The ideal law firm?

A pipe dream, of course...

n.e.hat

hypo, In the firm there's more incentives than you might think. It's called "Making Partner". Which is based on finding clients, increasing billing hours, and showing a certain degree of competence and aptitude. As for creating shares, and selling why? That's why partnerships are set up as they are and not as corporations.

Corey

There is no longer a realistic chance of making partner at most large law firms. Some people still try because the payout is over a million a year. Many others start to view themselves as mercenary employees, the number of lateral hires is growing, and low level pay is shooting up in response.

Incidentally, those last three conditions were rampant in the computer engineering industry from 1997 to early 2001. Beyond increasing salaries, ESOPs and Stock Option grants to engineers were used to keep people in-house long enough to actually complete a design cycle. It was deferred compensation just like law firm partnership, only much more fine tuned and widely dispersed. I remember times at booming NASDAQ listed companies where the guy in the next cubical who started a year before me had $1M in unvested options and the boss in the office next to us had $3M. (Most of the people who could cash out did so and bought homes, those of us who missed the window are still renting.)

I predict that the next thing to happen with law firms is the creation of more graduated steps toward partnership. Non-equity "partner" at 5 years, full partner at 10... I hear some firms are even giving small equity shares to new associates, which grow over time.

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