Street Talk: Follow the money

Suffering shrinkage.
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A new report shows Michigan has eight billionaires who collectively saw their wealth increase by $2.8 billion, or 9.1%, during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic as the economy was reeling and joblessness was at record highs.

The report by Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) shows between March 18 — the rough start date of the pandemic shutdown, when most federal and state economic restrictions were in place — and June 17, the total net worth of the state’s eight billionaires rose from $30.6 billion to $33.4 billion, based on an analysis of Forbes data. Forbes’ annual billionaires report was published March 18, 2020, and the most recent real-time data was collected June 17 from the Forbes website. This $2.8 billion increase in wealth is 27% more than the $2.2 billion budget shortfall for the state in fiscal year 2020 due to the pandemic.

Three Michigan billionaires — Dan Gilbert, Ronda Stryker and Donald Foss — saw their wealth grow by 18%, 28% and 27%, respectively, while during about the same period, 1,573,000 of the state’s residents lost their jobs, 66,000 fell ill with the virus and 6,000 died from it.

Hank Meijer and Doug Meijer were among three of the state’s billionaires that saw a decrease in wealth (-3.6%) during the pandemic, with March 18 combined net worth of $10.2 billion and June 17 net worth of just over $9.83 billion.

Among COVID-19 victims are the 27 million Americans who may lose their employer-provided health care coverage. Low-wage workers, people of color and women have suffered disproportionately in the combined medical and economic crises because of long-standing racial and gender disparities. Billionaires are overwhelmingly white men.

Over the same three-month period, the nation’s 600-plus billionaires saw their combined wealth increase by $584 billion or 20% — rising from $2.948 trillion to $3.531 trillion, based on ATF’s analysis of Forbes data.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve reported that as of the week of June 10, total U.S. household wealth had shrunk by $6.5 trillion during the first three months of the pandemic.

The three richest Americans, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, saw their combined wealth jump by $87 billion, or 38%, 11% and 58%, respectively. The total number of billionaires grew from 614 to 643.

“It’s immoral that billionaires are getting richer and richer while average Americans are treading water if they are lucky, or drowning, from the economic crash caused by the pandemic,” said Frank Clemente, executive director of ATF. “Congress needs to urgently provide a major new financial aid package to ensure working families can recover and critical state and local services can keep being provided. The package should repeal the huge tax break for millionaires in the first major financial aid law and block any new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.”

Chuck Collins, of IPS, and co-author of the report Billionaire Bonanza 2020, said the U.S. Senate could do more “as U.S. billionaire wealth surges and the assets of ordinary Americans implode.”

The House HEROES Act passed in May would repeal a $135 billion tax break that is giving an average tax cut of $1.6 million this year to 43,000 millionaires and billionaires, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT). As the U.S. Senate begins consideration of the next coronavirus aid legislation, a broad coalition of more than 230 organizations, including some Michigan groups, is urging repeal of the tax cut for wealthy business owners.

The full list of U.S. billionaires and their net worth change from March to June is available at bit.ly/usbillionaires.

Sticky fingers

Theft, fraud and losses from other retail “shrink” totaled $61.7 billion in 2019, up from $50.6 billion the year before as industry security executives reported increases in the number of shoplifting, organized retail crime (ORC) and employee theft incidents, according to the annual National Retail Security Survey recently released by the National Retail Federation.

“Between an increase in incidents and new ways to steal, shrink is at an all-time high,” NRF Vice President for Research Development and Industry Analysis Mark Mathews said. “Loss prevention experts are facing unprecedented challenges from individual shoplifters to organized gangs to highly skilled cybercriminals. Retailers are responding with both traditional methods and the latest technology, but this is an ongoing challenge that can only be won with the support of lawmakers and law enforcement.”

According to the report, shrink averaged 1.62 percent of sales during 2019, up from 1.38 percent in 2018 after hovering around 1.4 percent over the past few years. The number of cases was up, with an average 560 employee theft apprehensions per retailer surveyed (up from 323 last year) and 689 shoplifting/ORC apprehensions (up from 509).

Rising incidents of theft have coincided with a period when states have amended laws to increase the dollar threshold that constitutes a felony, which is more likely to be prosecuted than a misdemeanor. Members of ORC gangs often make multiple small thefts, staying below the felony threshold to avoid prosecution, so NRF has called for repeat offenses to be aggregated and counted toward felony thresholds to reflect the serious nature of organized theft. Shoplifting/organized theft and employee theft together typically account for about two-thirds of shrink each year.

While 49 percent of those surveyed said the largest increase in fraud occurred in stores, 26 percent said it happened online and 19 percent cited multichannel sales, including those where the purchase is made online but the merchandise is picked up in-store. Typical fraud incidents range from the use of stolen credit cards or card numbers and gift card scams to the return of stolen merchandise for refunds.

Of challenges that have grown in priority for LP teams over the past five years, 61 percent cited ORC, 59 percent ecommerce and cybercrimes, 58 percent internal theft and 54 percent return fraud.

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