Housing Market Blues

Economic recoveries often depend on the state of the housing market.  While an April increase in housing prices has led many analysts to talk of a housing recovery, U.S. home values still remain depressed (see the chart below).  According to a Zillow real estate research report, they are still some 25% below their 2007 peak. 


Perhaps the most telling indicator of the state of the housing market is that, as of the first quarter 2012, 31.4% of all owner-occupied homeowners with a mortgage were “underwater,” which means they had a mortgage greater than the market value of their home. As the table below shows, these homeowners owed, on average, $75,644 more than what their home was worth. 


To this point, the high percentage of underwater homeowners represents, in the words of Zillow, only “a potential danger.”  That is because “the majority of underwater homeowners continue to make regular payments on their mortgage, with only 10.1% percent of the 31.4% nationwide being delinquent.”  The following figure highlights the percent of delinquent/underwater homeowners in the largest metropolitan areas.


At the same time, as Zillow notes:

With nearly a third of the nation’s mortgaged homeowners in negative equity and the average underwater homeowner having a home value that is 31 percent lower than their mortgage balance, negative equity will prove both to be difficult to fully eradicate near-term and to have pernicious effects longer term as some households continue to encounter short-term financial trouble even with a slowly improving broader economy. Should economic growth slow, more homeowners will not be able to make timely mortgage payments, thereby increasing delinquency rates and eventually foreclosures.

In other words, if the economy slows, or interest rates rise, two very likely possibilities, the housing market could deteriorate quickly, intensifying economic problems.  In short, we are a long way from recovery.

The Unemployed–Background Noise

We seem to have a way of regularizing the pain felt by working people—worsening living conditions become little more than background noise to business as usual. 

The situation for the unemployed is a case in point.  We have a complex, but comparatively miserly, unemployment compensation system. 

Workers are generally entitled to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits.  However, there are two programs that potentially extend the benefit period for the unemployed. The first is the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, which was enacted in 2008 in response to the economic crisis.  As the table below shows, the EUC offers workers in states with high rates of unemployment up to 53 additional weeks of benefits. 


Workers who exhaust both their regular unemployment insurance and EUC benefits can receive additional support through the second program, the permanent federal-state Extended Benefits (EB) program.  As the table above shows, that program offers a maximum of 20 extra weeks of benefits depending on state unemployment rate levels.  However, there is an additional provision to the EB program that is now coming into play with negative consequences.  

As Hanna Shaw, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explains: 

A state may offer additional weeks of UI benefits through EB if its unemployment rate reaches certain thresholds . . . and if this rate is at least 10 percent higher than it was in any of the three prior years.  But unemployment rates have remained so elevated for so long that most states no longer meet this latter criterion (referred to as the “three-year lookback”). 

Because of this lookback provision hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers are now losing benefits, not because conditions are improving but because they are not continuing to worsen. The table below highlights the 25 states that have been forced to stop providing EB benefits this year and the number of workers in each state that have been cut adrift as a result.  Look at California–more than 95,000 workers have lost their benefits so far this year despite the fact that the state unemployment rate is almost 11 percent.


This is no accidental outcome.  In fact, according to Shaw,

Policymakers could have addressed the “lookback” when they extended federal UI at the beginning of the year, but they didn’t.  Instead, Congress not only allowed EB payments to fade out, but it also made changes that over the course of the year will reduce the number of weeks of benefits available in the temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, which provides up to 53 additional weeks to the long-term unemployed based on the unemployment rate in their state.

How serious is the long term unemployment problem?  Check out the chart below.  As it shows, the share of the labor force that is unemployed for more than 26 weeks is higher than at any point in the last six decades.  Perhaps even more striking is the fact that 41.3 percent of the 12.5 million people who were unemployed in April 2012 had been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer.


In terms of the master narrative, this is just another of the necessary adjustments required to stabilize the “system;” no need for alarm.  Makes you wonder about the aims of the system, doesn’t it?


Occupy Music

The following comes from a blog post by the Rustbelt Radical:

In James Connolly’s introduction to his 1907 collection “Songs of Freedom,” he wrote:

No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression.  If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and hopes, the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is a dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.

The Rustbelt Radical then shared the top 10 musical offerings to come out of the Occupy movement as chosen by two Detroit DJs.  Here are a few of their selections—enjoy—and check out the post if you want to experience all of them (and read their short commentaries on the songs). 






Corporate Taxes And The Public Interest

It is no secret that our public sector is in trouble.  Our roads and bridges desperately need upgrading.  Our schools and libraries are being forced to slash staff and activities.  Our social services and program are being cut.  And the reason: not enough money.  

Yet at the same time, it is also no secret that our most powerful and profitable corporations are merrily finding countless ways to avoid paying taxes.  It might seem like this situation would produce a serious discussion about societal aims and values—but it hasn’t.  Our political and business leaders appear quite content that business as usual should not be inconvenienced for the sake of the economy.

The New York Times recently provided an excellent study of, in its words, “How Apple Sidesteps Billions in Taxes.”  How does the company do it?  The answer is tax loopholes and a number of subsidiaries in low tax places like Ireland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the British Virgin Islands.  Why does it do it?  We are talking real money here.  According to the New York Times, Apple “paid cash taxes of $3.3 billion around the world on its reported profits of $34.2 billion last year, a tax rate of 9.8 percent.”  By comparison, Wal-Mart was downright patriotic—paying a tax rate of 24 percent.


Foreign Travel

Get your passports ready.  If a U.S. consumer buys an Apple product like a song from iTunes or an iPhone the royalties earned are routed to an Irish subsidiary.  That is because Apple assigned the rights to royalties on patents developed in its California operations to the subsidiary.  The royalities gathered in Ireland are then transferred, with few tax obligations thanks to Irish law, to another Apple subsidiary in the British Virgin Islands, where tax rates are extremely low.  Thus, not only does the U.S. lose out on tax revenue, so does Ireland.  And in case you have forgotten, Ireland is suffering massive cuts in public spending because of a lack of revenue.

If a product is purchased by someone residing outside the U.S., the patent royalties are routed to a different Irish subsidiary.  Apple then transfers those royalties through the Netherlands, tax free thanks to European laws, back to its primary Irish subsidiary and then on to its Caribbean subsidiary.  

If this is confusing check out this graphic.  How important is Ireland to Apple? In 2004, the country received more than one-third of Apple’s world wide revenue.  The U.S. corporate tax rate is 35 percent.  The Irish corporate tax rate is 12.5 percent.  And the British Virgin Island tax rate is even lower.  

Of course Apple’s profits are not limited to patent royalties.  That is where its Luxembourg subsidiary comes into play.  As the New York Times explains:

 when customers across Europe, Africa or the Middle East — and potentially elsewhere — download a song, television show or app, the sale is recorded in this small country . . . In 2011 [the revenue of this Luxembourg subsidiary] exceeded $1 billion, according to an Apple executive, representing roughly 20 percent of iTunes’s worldwide sales.

The advantages of Luxembourg are simple, say Apple executives. The country has promised to tax the payments collected by Apple and numerous other tech corporations at low rates if they route transactions through Luxembourg. Taxes that would have otherwise gone to the governments of Britain, France, the United States and dozens of other nations go to Luxembourg instead, at discounted rates.

“We set up in Luxembourg because of the favorable taxes,” said Robert Hatta, who helped oversee Apple’s iTunes retail marketing and sales for European markets until 2007. “Downloads are different from tractors or steel because there’s nothing you can touch, so it doesn’t matter if your computer is in France or England. If you’re buying from Luxembourg, it’s a relationship with Luxembourg.”  

Back Home In The U.S. 

Of course Apple also makes money from sales in the United States.  But it has a way of handling that “problem” as well.  The company’s headquarters is in Cupertino, California but it has a Reno subsidiary, Braeburn Capital, collect and manage its profits.  According to the New York Times:

When someone in the United States buys an iPhone, iPad or other Apple product, a portion of the profits from that sale is often deposited into accounts controlled by Braeburn, and then invested in stocks, bonds or other financial instruments, say company executives. Then, when those investments turn a profit, some of it is shielded from tax authorities in California by virtue of Braeburn’s Nevada address.

Since founding Braeburn, Apple has earned more than $2.5 billion in interest and dividend income on its cash reserves and investments around the globe. If Braeburn were located in Cupertino, where Apple’s top executives work, a portion of the domestic income would be taxed at California’s 8.84 percent corporate income tax rate.

But in Nevada there is no state corporate income tax and no capital gains tax. What’s more, Braeburn allows Apple to lower its taxes in other states — including Florida, New Jersey and New Mexico — because many of those jurisdictions use formulas that reduce what is owed when a company’s financial management occurs elsewhere.

California has lost billions of dollars in tax revenue—oh yes and is deep in a budget crisis.  

In fairness to Apple it is far from alone in using these tricks of the trade.  Almost all technology companies do it.  So, here is the thing—if we really care about our public infrastructure and programs we have to start getting tough on these companies.  Their success was aided by past public investment–there should be payback.   But then again perhaps there is no such thing as society–only the corporation counts.