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Kenan Institute 2022 Annual Theme: Stakeholder Capitalism
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Market-Based Solutions to Vital Economic Issues

Commentary

In the below commentaries, institute experts analyze and respond to the most pressing economic and business news of the day. To speak with one of our authors, please contact External Affairs Associate Rob Knapp.

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It is probably not a mystery to even the most casual observer of political affairs why the historic climate, health care and tax bill signed earlier this month was dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act. Inflation is high and causing real problems for many households, and so if only Congress could legislate it away by enacting … This is not to say that the package does not deserve any enthusiasm; it is an impressive legislative feat, making significant, though imperfect, advances on health care and climate change. On the other hand, the effect it will have on inflation, its raison d’être in name, will be modest at best and occur only over time.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and his family will transfer ownership of the company – valued at roughly $3 billion – to two newly created environmental trusts. In this Kenan Commentary, we ask four questions to determine how Chouinard’s move fits into the framework of the institute’s annual theme, stakeholder capitalism, and whether a better comparison is the laudable but more common idea of an altruistic business owner.

Elon Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter for $44 billion appears to have fallen apart, but the reality of what nearly happened, and still may, will probably be with us for good. Before attempting to terminate the deal, Musk spoke with Twitter employees and discussed his vision to turn the social media platform into the world’s town square. The wealthiest person in the world wanting to own space where people gather to mobilize, to call out injustices and criticize powerful organizations and governments, and to coo at the latest cat videos?

COVID-19 first caused chaos in our labor markets with the lockdowns of 2020, which sent unemployment rates soaring to all-time highs. It has continued to disrupt labor markets into 2022 as worries about health risks have kept workers at home, exasperating labor shortages. Looking forward, as we learn to live with COVID, we will also have to adapt to the effects of long COVID, when symptoms such as fatigue, difficulty breathing and “brain fog” appear after COVID. In this commentary, I attempt to assess the risk to our labor markets from long COVID.

Last month our home state of North Carolina was named “America’s Top State for Business” by CNBC (see the full ranking here). It wasn’t long after when some commentators pointed out that Oxfam had recently ranked N.C. as the worst state for workers. The extreme juxtaposition of rankings made me wonder if this was a coincidence or if there are systematic factors that make states good for businesses and bad for workers. Perhaps “right-to-work” laws, lax worker protection regulation or regional wage differences attract businesses looking to take advantage of areas with weak labor bargaining power. This in turn leads to business growth and thus job migration to states that are less desirable for individual workers. At the end of the day, economic planning should have the best interest of residents in mind when crafting business policy, so it seems worth unpacking what drives the rankings.

GDP, the broadest measure of economic output, contracted for the second straight quarter, stoking fears that the economy is already in a recession — and has been since the beginning of the year. But the guts of the GDP report coupled with continued strong job growth and decent consumer spending suggest that the expansion remains on track. While the official arbiters of recessions are likely to agree with me — they don’t look at GDP but rather measures like job creation — what really matters to households and businesses is whether their spending power or foot traffic is drying up.

Unions seem to be popping up everywhere these days. In fact, the National Labor Relations Board reported that requests for union elections during the last nine months are up 58% over the prior fiscal year. This trend has received significant coverage in the media, with particular interest in successful organization efforts at Amazon, Starbucks and Apple.

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Professor Camelia Kuhnen is an expert in corporate finance, behavioral finance and neuroeconomics, the application of neuroscience tools and methods to economic research. As many question whether a recession is on the way, she answers some questions about how the most notable consumer confidence surveys differ and whether Americans are prone to economic gloominess.

Stakeholder Capitalism

Pete Stavros of KKR & Co. founded Ownership Works, a new initiative backed by 19 private equity firms, with the objective of reducing income inequality by increasing employee share ownership. The group has prominent backers and a lofty goal of creating $20 billion in wealth in 10 years. As a researcher who has worked on employee share ownership and the benefits it can create, I was encouraged by the news. But while I broadly support employee ownership, such initiatives also can raise red flags because of the risk they impose on employees. As such, it is worthwhile to think carefully through what we know and don’t know about such programs.

The Fed tried to show its inflation-fighting mettle by raising the federal funds rate, the short-term interest rate it directly controls, by 0.75 of a percentage point. This is the largest increase since 1994, though the funds rate remains at a quite low 1.625%, especially relative to the 8.6% inflation reading last week. The Fed seemed to be spooked by the inflation print — which, rather than declining as many forecasters (including myself) expected, rose to its highest level since 1981. More important, in my opinion, longer-term measures of consumer inflation expectations and uncertainty increased.

Stakeholder Capitalism

There’s no escaping the growing interest in environmental, social and corporate governance investing, but not everyone agrees on how to define, measure or report the variety of factors considered under ESG. Professor Laura Starks of the University of Texas McCombs School of Business spoke on the subject in May at the Alternative Investments Conference, sponsored by the Institute for Private Capital. Starks’ keynote speech, highlighted here, examined the knowns and unknowns of ESG investing as well as new regulations that may be coming.

First, the good news. Given what we know about current economic conditions, it is likely that the consumer inflation rate has peaked in the U.S. for the current cycle. Recent inflation reports on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Implicit Price Deflator, which is the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure, show a jump to new 40-year highs in March but signs of moderation in coming months. For example, consumer goods with very large 12-month cost runups such as used cars and food away from home are starting to see prices moderate. Likewise, prices of important household goods like apparel, furnishings, prescription drugs and recreation commodities (think TVs and Pelotons) are flattening. Furthermore, some important energy prices such as crude oil and gasoline have stabilized in April after jumps in the first quarter. So, while inflation will surely remain elevated for some time, it is unlikely to get much worse.