‘Occupy the boardroom’ looms for US businesses

Shareholder activists. Minimum-wage agitators. Wall Street bankers. Washington regulators. Private equity titans.

What does this disparate group possibly have in common?

They're all coming after corporate America.

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U.S. businesses have rarely been as profitable and cash-flush. And they've also rarely been as reluctant to spread around their wealth.

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Corporate profit margins have soared since the recession as employers cut costs to the bone, mechanized labor-intensive tasks wherever possible, and benefited from their ability -- owing to the nation's still-high unemployment rate -- to keep employees from pushing for significantly higher wages even as workers have gotten more productive.

Indeed, as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP), U.S. after-tax corporate profits stood at a record high of 11 percent as of the third quarter of 2013 -- more than doubling in the span of five years from lows hit during the recession.

That translates into roughly $1.8 trillion in profits. And at the same time, U.S. companies are sitting on a huge and still-growing cash pile. All of which helps to explain how they have become such a sitting target -- whether for activist Carl Icahn, in his high-profile crusade for Apple Inc. to return to shareholders more of its cash; bankers salivating over the prospect of a fresh wave of mergers and acquisitions; or labor movements that would like to see workers get a bigger share of the pie.

Financial Times columnist John Plender goes so far as to declare cash-rich Apple, Google, and Facebook "latter-day scrooges" for their miserly behavior.

To be fair, this isn't a story of stingy boardrooms so much as companies that have found themselves flush thanks to broader market forces. It's the flip side of the Federal Reserve's massive balance sheet expansion, argues Forbes contributor Louis Woodhill. Lower interest rates and foreign profits haven't hurt, notes Deutsche Bank. And perhaps too, there's the wave of successful businesses built with high initial costs but low subsequent ones, as in the case of Microsoft.

Whatever the bigger-picture reasons, though, it's unlikely to take the pressure off boards and executives.

Every company in America, large and small, ought to be seriously considering the question of how best to spend or invest its capital at the moment. Otherwise, it could well be forced to part with it -- whether by lawmakers, labor unions, bankers, activists or 'raiders', or private equity dealmakers. It doesn't help corporate America's image that the Affordable Care Act gives the impression that many companies are also shifting the cost and burden of health coverage onto workers and taxpayers.

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Big, publicly traded companies are clearly making the choice of returning capital to shareholders via share buybacks and fatter dividends. Put differently, though, that is a vote to let others invest the capital more wisely than they think they can do it. Acquisitions are another option, albeit one that carries flashbacks to the conglomerate craze of the 1980s, that has a checkered history of success, and thanks to the run-up in stock markets, one that's also not exactly cheap.

But here's a thought -- and one that could perhaps help to solve some of the country's problems instead of creating new headaches. What if, harkening back to the origination of 401(k) accounts, companies instead doled out more of their profits to workers in the form of retirement savings?

Today's 401(k) plans actually evolved from what were known as "profit sharing" plans, whereby companies made contributions out of their profits into a retirement account to reward their employees' efforts. They not only helped cyclical industries like steel or glass smooth compensation amid the ebb and flow of the business cycle, but were a fillip for younger workers in particular as a compliment to pension plans.

Turn the clock forward to 2014, and the 401(k) retirement account is often the only choice for newer employees -- a choice they rarely maximize to their advantage, at least initially. Profit-sharing plans as a side offering could be a plus for both these workers and for companies who can tinker with vesting periods and contribution amounts to attract, retain, and reward employees.

The tax code effectively allows companies to put 25 percent of any employee's compensation up to a max of $52,000 into a profit-sharing account in 2014. Consider that the average balance in such a defined-contribution account in the U.S. stood at about $232,000 at the end of 2012, and the advantage to households becomes clear.

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As for employers, the right mix of incentives could actually help to lower recruitment and turnover costs while boosting productivity over time by rewarding their most valuable employees. They could retain flexibility with regard to contributions over the course of the business cycle. And their profit-sharing contributions would also be spared the 7.65 percent combined Medicare and Social Security tax (known as FICA) that employees pay when making their 401(k) contributions.

Shareholders might squeal, of course. And companies may be wary of being first to be so apparently profligate with their profits. It might take a little coaxing -- even coercion -- but Occupying Retirement Accounts could help to keep the otherwise restive Occupy The Boardroom movement at bay.