All Commentary
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Walmart’s Bottom Line

Walmart is one of the world’s largest, most successful, and most vilified corporations. It was ranked number four in the Fortune 500 from 1995 through 1998, reached number one in 2002 and stayed there until 2009, when it fell behind Exxon Mobil. It’s also the only firm in the top four of the Fortune 500 that is not an energy company.

The concentrated public-relations campaign against Walmart has been moderately successful, and the company has drawn criticism from all sides: Commentators on the left criticize the company for its alleged impact on wages and jobs; those on the right criticized its decision to join the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and to offer “abortion pills” in 2006. Recently, Walmart announced support for mandatory health coverage by large employers, bringing more criticism. Walmart’s handling of the attacks has been less effective than the company would have liked, and its attempts to defend itself have been a distraction.

The criticisms too often rely on anecdotes or statistical comparisons that are difficult to interpret. When one considers that Walmart is the world’s largest corporation, with revenues of about $300 billion and almost two million employees, anecdotes that cast the company in a good or bad light are not particularly surprising. Similarly, a simple comparison of employment (or wages) in a city with a Walmart to a city without one is only minimally informative because such comparisons often fail to control for other explanatory characteristics. Current research suggests that the economic, political, and social case against Walmart is exaggerated. Further, Walmart’s “Every Day Low Prices” do not come at an unacceptable social cost in the form of negative spillovers not reflected in prices. Walmart is certainly imperfect, and there are reasons to view the company with a critical eye, but the usual criticisms of the company collapse under the weight of the evidence.

Does Walmart Squeeze Workers and Suppliers?

Economists Jerry Hausman and Ephraim Leibtag argue that we systematically overstate the rate of price inflation because we don’t account for Walmart’s and other big-box companies’ impact correctly. Walmart claims to save consumers $2,500 per capita per year. This is probably an overestimate, but studies I have done with Charles Courtemanche of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro do suggest that Walmart increases our options.

Critics claim that Walmart can deliver low prices because it destroys jobs, lowers labor standards, and squeezes suppliers. The data, however, do not support the first two, while the third is misleading. Retail labor market studies by University of Missouri economist Emek Basker show that Walmart modestly increases retail employment. Critics are quick to counter by questioning the quality of those jobs, correctly noting that Walmart pays less than its unionized competitors. However, this should be qualified. Union pay scales restrict the labor pool from which unionized stores can hire: If the union contract specifies minimum compensation of $12 per hour, then people whose labor cannot produce at least that much in revenue will not be hired. Since Walmart is an open shop, it has no such artificial floor for the productivity of the people it can hire. Those who would not be employable under union conditions are made better off despite the illusion of exploitation.

The company’s critics correctly point out that the last several decades have seen a large gap open between manufacturing and retail wages. But these data must be interpreted with caution because immigration and changing labor participation have altered the distribution of the workforce. People who are today earning Walmart’s “Every Day Low Wages,” as the critics call them, might not have participated in the labor force several decades ago and their wages would not have appeared in the official data.

Supposedly, Walmart drives small local mom-and-pop retailers out of business, spreading economic havoc and weakening a community’s social fabric. In a paper published in Economic Inquiry, West Virginia University economists Andrea M. Dean and Russell S. Sobel fail to detect a statistically significant effect of Walmart on self-employment, the number of small businesses, or bankruptcy among small businesses. It is true that Walmart causes some businesses to close, particularly in sectors that directly compete with the company. However, these businesses can be replaced by businesses in other sectors. In a summary of their research that appeared in the Spring 2008 Regulation magazine, Dean and Sobel offer the example of Main Street in Morgantown, West Virginia, which was decimated by Walmart but which soon recovered as clothiers and electronics stores were replaced by small businesses in other industries.

They also discuss the obvious objection that perhaps Walmart’s wake leaves a swath of low-value, low-wage businesses. They show, however, that Walmart penetration does not appear to reduce the values of small
businesses. Stacy Mitchell, author of The Big-Box Swindle, argues that Dean and Sobel’s result relies on an incorrect interpretation of Census data. For their part, Dean and Sobel say Mitchell misunderstands the data. If they are correct, the effects of Walmart’s penetration are consistent with what economists believe about technology and economic growth as well as with Joseph Schumpeter’s well-known concept of “creative destruction.” Walmart’s expansion allows people to produce more with fewer resources and less labor, which frees those resources and that labor to move into other occupations.

Walmart also allegedly uses its raw bargaining strength to extract concessions from suppliers. It is usually able to get lower prices, but it also provides something of great value in return: access to its supply chain and logistical support. While anecdotes of Walmart’s hard bargaining abound, a 2001 Journal of Retailing study by Paul N. Bloom and Vanessa G. Perry found that while dealing with Walmart can hurt financial performance for companies that do only a small share of business with the company, “large-share suppliers to Wal-Mart perform better than their large-share counterparts reporting retailers other than Wal-Mart as their primary customers.” Bloom and Perry note that Walmart offers access to broad markets and that companies taking advantage of this prosper as a result.


Another common refrain is that Walmart and other large retailers obtain their goods from third-world “sweatshops.” In an important 2006 study published in the Journal of Labor Research, economists Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek showed that “sweatshop” labor paid better than the alternatives. In a June 4, 2008, article for the Library of Economics and Liberty, Powell summarizes this research and points out that criticisms of “sweatshop wages” (like those aimed at a factory in Honduras making clothes for Kathie Lee Gifford in 1996) invariably compare the wages and working conditions to American rather than Honduran working conditions—a comparison he calls “irrelevant” because of restrictions on international labor mobility. Sweatshops are a blessing, not a burden. As Powell points out, sweatshop wages more than double the average in some countries. Unfortunately, boycotts and legislation will not improve working conditions around the world. Powell summarizes the conditions that create low wages in countries like Honduras:

Wages are low in the third world because worker productivity is low (upper bound) and workers’ alternatives are lousy (lower bound). To get sustained improvements in overall compensation, policies must raise worker productivity and/or increase alternatives available to workers. Policies that try to raise compensation but fail to move these two bounds risk raising compensation above a worker’s upper bound, resulting in his losing his job and moving to a less-desirable alternative.

Unwillingness to recognize this can lead to policies that do more harm than good. Abuses undoubtedly occur, but Walmart has the resources to be able to have an effective monitoring program—not necessarily because of explicit humanitarian impulses, but because consumers are willing to pay for the guarantees and assurances that they are not buying the products of slave labor. Since consumers demand information about the conditions in which those who make these goods labor, it is in Walmart’s best interests to monitor carefully the conditions in which people produce the goods they obtain from abroad.

The thesis that Walmart’s ethical-standards monitoring is an elaborate ruse is tempting, and a ruse might pay off in the short run. However, Walmart should be disciplined by the capital market. Failure to provide consumers with what they demand—guarantees about international labor conditions, for example—at the price they are willing to pay will hurt long-run profitability and, therefore, the stock price. It is wise to read with a critical eye, but if Walmart’s managers are running a systematic campaign of misinformation, then they are failing in their responsibility to shareholders. Someone who discovered such a ruse would be in a position to profit handsomely by acquiring Walmart stock and fixing the problem.

Walmart, Communities, and the Environment

In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam documented a decline in “social capital”—which he defines as “networks and norms of reciprocity” that hold communities together—in the United States since the 1950s.  Walmart has been accused of contributing to this phenomenon. In a 2006 study agricultural economists Stephan Goetz and Anil Rupasingha reported evidence that Walmart reduced several measures of social capital like census participation, voting, and a measure they themselves constructed. However, in a study published in Public Choice in early 2009, Charles Courtemanche, Jeremy Meiners, and I use Putnam’s data to show that there is no identifiable, systematic negative relationship between increased Walmart density/longevity and measures of noneconomic “quality of life” or civic participation. As Walmart penetration increases, we cannot tell that people spend systematically less time with friends or less time civically engaged.

Others have alleged that Walmart erodes American values. United States of Wal-Mart author John Dicker calls the company a “conservative cultural gatekeeper,” and right-wing critics like those who operate the Christian website took Walmart to task for joining the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. (The company discontinued this affiliation in 2007.) Using similar data and methods to those used in our study of social capital, my coauthors and I were unable to find a systematic relationship between Walmart’s penetration and individual values. It appears that while people get their groceries at Walmart, they get their politics and their values elsewhere.

Finally, Walmart has been criticized for its alleged contributions to environmental degradation, but its cost-cutting has considerably reduced the amount of packaging manufacturers use. This was particularly important in 2008 as gas prices hit record highs. A May 29, 2008, article on used Hamburger Helper as an example: To meet Walmart’s demands, General Mills produces “denser pasta shapes” that can be put into a box that is 20 percent smaller, saving “890,000 pounds of paper and eliminat[ing] 500 trucks from the road.” Conditions create solutions: Walmart has been able to use recent increases in fuel prices to trim additional fat from the supply chain and to innovate in ways that will lead to permanent increases in productivity.

Discrimination, Health Care, and Subsidies

Finally, Walmart has been criticized for alleged systematic discrimination against women and for aggressive patterns of seeking local government subsidies. Walmart is the defendant in the largest class-action civil rights lawsuit in history—Dukes versus Wal-Mart, in which an estimated 1.6 million women allege a decades-long pattern of discrimination—but the central tenet of the case is inconsistent with Walmart’s alleged morbid obsession with profits. In spite of their incompatibility, these criticisms often appear side by side. There are conditions under which firms can maximize profits while discriminating in employment, but before we can reconcile discrimination with profit maximization we have to prove that these conditions are in place. Otherwise, the hypothesis of profit maximization works against discrimination and discrimination works against profit maximization. If an employer insisted on discriminating by refusing to hire productive women or by paying them less than they were worth, he would create profitable opportunities for competitors to scoop up members of the victim group and earn profits by paying them something closer to their market value. An employer’s ability to discriminate will be sharply limited by competitive pressure.

Walmart’s critics have also argued that the company places undue burdens on the government’s public health infrastructure. But this is a “problem” that exists because that infrastructure exists and not because of Walmart as such. One could argue more plausibly that by paying better than their employees’ next-best alternatives, Walmart actually relieves some of the pressure on the public health infrastructure. The critics also miss that Walmart’s existence provides a larger pool of resources that can be taxed to provide these benefits.

One robust criticism remains: Walmart has sometimes used the State to redistribute resources to itself and to cripple its competitors. Walmart is aggressive about seeking subsidies, such as acquiring properties through eminent domain, from governments eager to “attract new jobs” and new tax revenue, as critical groups like Good Jobs First,, and point out. These subsidies distort patterns of economic activity and sometimes can have the perverse effect of taxing one firm to subsidize a competitor. The problem is compounded further by the alleged need for more subsidies to redevelop areas blighted in Walmart’s wake. This issue provides a setting in which Walmart’s critics can play a constructive role.

In 2005 Walmart supported an increase in the minimum wage, and in July 2009 it earned a front-page mention in the Wall Street Journal for teaming up with the Service Employees International Union and the Center for American Progress to advocate mandatory employer-provided medical coverage. Walmart’s seemingly counterintuitive advocacy is a classic example of what economist Bruce Yandle terms the “Baptists and Bootleggers” phenomenon. Among the supporters of Prohibition were Baptists, many of whom felt that consuming alcohol is a sin, and bootleggers, who stood to profit handsomely if the government crippled potential legitimate competition. In the health care scenario the “Baptists” are groups that believe everyone has a fundamental right to health care. The bootleggers are large firms (like Walmart) that know that mandates will hurt their smaller competitors.

There is also reason to believe that Walmart’s business model is partially underwritten by transportation subsidies. Critics often overlap with people who criticize the American “love affair” with the automobile. The two are related. While it is true that, all else equal, Walmart has been good for consumers, it is also an unintended consequence of the massive subsidies to transportation infrastructure that created today’s urban sprawl. To the degree that Walmart is undesirable, it is a symptom of a larger pattern of interventionism rather than a cause.

Perhaps most unsettlingly, Walmart’s embrace of the proposed health care mandates and advocacy of a higher minimum wage illustrates a disturbing truth about the reality of doing business in the twenty-first century. By backing President Obama’s health care proposal, Walmart might be able to use this to fend off more damaging legislation later. In short, Walmart could be aiding and abetting what Ayn Rand called “an aristocracy of pull.” A 2006 volume of critical essays called the company “the face of twenty-first-century capitalism.” If twenty-first-century capitalism means competition by politics rather than competition by production, we will see lower economic growth as a result. This does not excuse the company’s use of the coercive power of the State for its own benefit, but Walmart is an effect rather than a cause.

The economic, political, and social case against Walmart has been tried and measured against the best available data. For the most part, it has been found wanting. We are left with a rather flimsy criticism, which is that for all its virtues (or at least its non-vices), Walmart is aesthetically unappealing. This visceral reaction to capitalist aesthetics has been called “the yuck factor,” and economist Alvin Roth has argued that we have to take “repugnance” seriously as a political constraint. However, just because I find another’s choices repugnant, I don’t have the right to supplant those choices with my own. People have argued that what happens in someone’s bedroom is none of the government’s business. By the same logic, what someone puts in his or her shopping cart is none of the government’s business. Even if Walmart causes people to make bad aesthetic choices, the civility necessary for a functioning society must take over.

Walmart’s “Every Day Low Prices” policy has been alleged to reduce labor standards, to squeeze suppliers, to decimate small retailers, and to tear the social fabric. In virtually every instance, the empirical evidence available suggests that what Charles Fishman called The Wal-Mart Effect is at best positive, at worst benign. Walmart is a retailing innovator and a force for competitors and suppliers to reckon with. As a social phenomenon, however, the alleged negative spillovers from Walmart are greatly overstated.

  • Art Carden is a Professor of Economics, author, and co-editor of the Southern Economic Journal.