Profits And The Economy

The economist Ed Dolan sums up the current state of the U.S. economy in a recent blog post with the following headline: “Latest US GDP data show economy weak at year’s end but corporate profits near record high.”

The chart below, taken from that post, illustrates the steady rise in corporate profits.  As Dolan comments, “both before-tax and after-tax profits, stated as a percentage of GDP, reached their second highest level ever recorded, falling just short of their all-time highs of Q4 2011.”

One reason for this trend has been the ability of corporations to squeeze labor.  Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster highlight this corporate success in their Monthly Review article “Class War and Labor’s Declining Share.”

The following four charts are taken from the article.  The first chart looks at total labor compensation as a percent of GDP.  The downward trend is visible but the extent of the attack on workers is somewhat masked since the data includes all workers and total benefits.  The second chart looks just at wages and salaries, again for all workers.

2013-03_rom-chart-1-600x463 2013-03_rom-chart-2-600x463

Chart 3 looks just at production and nonsupervisory workers.  These workers account for approximately 80 percent of all private sector workers.  We can see that while their share of total employment has remained relatively constant, their share of payroll has dramatically fallen.  Chart 4 compares wage and salary trends for production and nonsupervisory workers with trends for management, supervisory, and other nonproduction employees.



These last two charts make clear that the war on labor has been focused on production and nonsupervisory workers, and has been going on for decades.  And it doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to connect these trends with the growing suffering of most working people, the explosion in income inequality, and the rise in corporate profits.

But what are corporations doing with their profits?  As it turns out they are using their gains not to strengthen the economy but rather to reward their already wealthy stockholders (with dividends) and managers (with higher bonus boosting stock prices).

As the Wall Street Journal reports: “Firms Send Record Cash Back to Investors.” The article explains the headline as follows:

U.S. companies are showering investors with a record windfall in the form of dividends and share buybacks, helping to propel the stock market’s rally.  Companies in the S&P 500 index are expected to pay at least $300 billion in dividends in 2013, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices, which would top last year’s $282 billion. . . .

American corporations also announced plans to buy back $117.8 billion of their own shares in February, the highest monthly total in records dating back to 1985, according to Birinyi Associates Inc. a Westport, Conn.-based market research firm. Home Depot Inc., General Electric Co. and PepsiCo Inc. are among a number of large companies that announced plans last month to scoop up large amounts of their own shares. . . .

In returning money to shareholders, companies by and large are tapping into cash piles they have accumulated in the past few years by cutting costs or taking advantage of low interest rates to borrow funds. . . .

“Corporations are flush with cash and that cash sitting in the corporate coffers is earning next to nothing,” said Rob Leiphart, an analyst at Birinyi. “Companies have to do something with it.”




Clearly, all is well for those at the top.  And that is the problem for those of us opposing austerity.




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