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Walmart should spend money on its workers, not share buybacks: Demos' Traub

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief
Daily Ticker

There was a lot of pomp and circumstance at Walmart's (WMT) shareholder meeting Friday.

In the "pomp" department, over 20,000  of Walmart employees were treated to a star-studded spectacle featuring Pharrell, Robin Thicke, Florida Georgia Line, Sarah McLachlan and Harry Connick Jr., among others.

Then there were the circumstances. Walmart has suffered five consecutive quarters of declining sales and six consecutive quarters of declining foot traffic. Ahead of the meeting, management faced protests in several cities by workers seeing higher pay and better working conditions. In addition, proxy advisor ISS recommended shareholders vote against the firm's executive compensation plan and for an independent chairman, citing a Mexican bribery scandal that has so far cost Walmart over $400 million.

The efforts to push back against Walmart's management all failed to pass and shareholders voted to re-elect all 14 board members. (Full disclosure: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is a member of Walmart's board of directors.)

The outcome is probably not surprising since anti-management votes typically occur at shareholder meetings. Also, the founding Walton family controls more than 50% of Walmart stock, thanks in part to share buybacks that have reduced the company's share count by nearly 15% since the end of fiscal 2010.

Walmart spent $6.6 billion on buybacks in 2013 and another $3 billion on dividends just for Walton family members; Demos senior policy analyst Amy Traub says the money would've been better spent giving Walmart workers a raise.

Traub recently co-authored a report that concluded if Walmart and other major retailers raised the average salary of their full-time employees to $25,000 per year "it would lift 437,000 women and their families out of poverty and create more than 100,000 new jobs in addition."

The idea that raising wages will lead to more jobs is counterintuitive (and unproven) but Traub says it would be good for Walmart and other retailers.

"We find boosting these jobs really lifts up the companies as well, because it increases productivity, increases sales -- which is what Walmart in the U.S. needs more than anything -- and it reduces costs associated with employee turnover," she says. "At same time, it puts money into the hands and pockets of workers that are going to go out and spend it immediately."

That does jibe with the thesis Rob Cox of Reuters Breaking Views proffered here last month but, to date, Walmart management has been unmoved by any rationale for raising its workers' pay.

"Walmart offers good jobs with the opportunity to go as far as your hard work will take you," according to the company's corporate website, which notes that the average full-time Walmart employee makes $12.91 per hour, plus benefits.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker and Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com.