Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Monthly Archives: July 2016

Falling Profit Margins Signal Recession Ahead

Business cycles are intrinsic to the way capitalism operates; they are the outcome of contradictions generated by the private pursuit of profit.  In fact, it is the movement in profits that drives the cycle, with a sustained downward movement in the profit margin signaling growing dangers of a recession.

And, it is a sustained downward movement in the profit margin that is leading business forecasters to raise warnings of a coming recession.  A case in point: a June 2016 J.P. Morgan special report titled Profit Stall Threatens Global Expansion states:

One metric for gauging the stage of the business cycle is the level of the profit margin. In this regard, the timing does not look encouraging. The US experience is instructive in this regard. The rolling over of the profit margin has led every US post-World War II recession by one to three years. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that our medium-term recession-probability models show the odds of a recession within the next three years running near 90%.

Recessions mean hardship, especially for working people.  Unfortunately, because most Americans have benefited little from the current expansion, few will have the financial resources necessary to moderate the social costs that come with any downturn.

Business Cycle Theory

Some definitions are needed to show why profit margins are key to gauging the state of the business cycle.  Profits are the difference between a firm’s total revenue from selling products and its total cost from producing them.  The profit margin is the firm’s profit per dollar of sales or revenue; it is calculated by dividing total profits by total revenue.

If we think about the corporate sector as a whole, we can define total corporate profits as the product of corporate total revenue (or sales) multiplied by the average corporate profit margin (or earnings per dollar of sales).  Total revenue is a function of the level of demand in the economy.  The profit margin is heavily dependent on changes in the cost of production (most importantly changes in productivity, which include the intensity of work, and wages).  Not surprisingly, both demand and business production costs, and thus total revenue and the profit margin change over time, sometimes moving in the same direction and sometimes not.

Coming out of a recession, corporations tend to enjoy rapidly increasing demand for their products and, for them, still pleasingly low costs of production thanks to their recession-era leverage over workers.  This translates into rapidly increasing profits and expectations of continued profitability.  This, in turn, encourages more hiring and investment in new plant and equipment, which helps to strengthen demand and further the expansion.

However, at some point in the expansion, costs of production begin to rise from their recession period lows, causing a fall in the profit rate.  For example, productivity begins to slow as firms press older equipment into use and workers take advantage of the improving labor market to slow the pace of work.  And, as unemployment falls over the course of the expansion, workers are also able to press for and win real wage gains.  With costs of production growing faster than product prices, the profit rate begins to decline.

For a time, the growth in sales more than compensates for lower profit margins and total profits continue to rise, but only for a time.  Eventually steadily declining profit margins will overwhelm slowing growth in sales and produce lower profits.  And when that happens, corporations lose enthusiasm for the expansion.  They cut back on production and investment, the effects of which ripple through the economy, leading to recession.

The Data

The following figure from the J.P. Morgan study shows movements in productivity and the profit margin with each point representing a two year average to smooth out trends.  The grey stripes denote periods of recession.  As noted above, the profit margin turns down one to three years before the start of a recession.  The recession, in turn, helps to create the conditions for a new upward movement in the profit rate.

us profit margin

As J.P. Morgan analysts explain:

Indeed, for the US, the turn down in the profit cycle weighs heavily in our estimate of rising recession risks.  The deeper historical experience of the US better highlights the linkage between productivity and corporate profitability. The latest downshift in US productivity suggests the disappointing profit outturns of late likely will not stabilize absent a pickup in productivity growth to an above-1% annualized pace, all else equal. While some acceleration is embedded in our forecast, recent experience suggests the risks are skewed to the downside.

As we can see, in the case of the current expansion, the profit margin is not just falling, it has now moved into negative territory.  Thus, although profits remain high [see figure below], the current decline into negative territory means that profits are now actually falling.  If past trends hold, it is only a matter of time before corporate responses push the US economy into recession.

profit share

When discussing the business cycle it is also important to add that we are not describing a regular pattern of ups and downs around an unchanging rate of growth.  Corporate responses to the conditions they face influence the pattern of future cycles.  For example, if corporations decide to respond to growing worker gains during an expansionary period by shifting production overseas, future recessions will likely be more painful and expansions weaker in terms of job creation and wages.  If fear of corporate flight leads governments to slash corporate taxes, public finances will suffer and so will support for needed investments in physical infrastructure and social services, again boosting profits but at the expense of the longer term health of the economy and its majority population.  This dynamic helps to explain the growing tendency towards long term stagnation coupled with minimal wage gains even during expansions.

J.P. Morgan analysts are not just pessimistic about the US.  They also estimate that profit margins are falling throughout the world, as illustrated in the figure below.

global profit margins


If the US experience is any guide, recession risks are elevated broadly. Globally, profit margins peaked near the end of 2013, and declines have occurred across nearly all countries with the exception of Taiwan, Korea, and South Africa [figure above]. Margins have been stable in the Euro area, Japan, and China. By comparison to the huge declines in some countries, the margin compression in the US appears relatively modest. Not surprisingly, Brazil—already in its worst recession since the Great Depression—has seen the most significant margin compression. A similar message is seen for Russia. But for those economies still in expansion, the fall in margin is the most concerning for Poland, the UK, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Australia, Turkey, and India, in order of largest margin declines.

The takeaway: we have plenty to worry about.

Brexit and Grexit

With all the talk of Brexit it is easy to forget about Greece and the terrible cost that county continues to pay for its Eurozone membership.  [For more on the Greek crisis and political responses to it see my article The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Socialist Transformation: The Case of Greece.]  Unfortunately, the UK vote to leave the European Union has done nothing to encourage EU leaders to modify their view that the economically weaker European country governments must continue to impose austerity on their respective populations.

Matthew C Klein, in a Financial Times blog post, illustrates what EU-imposed austerity has meant for Greece.  As he comments, “The collapse of the Greek economy is almost without precedent.”

As we see in the figure below, real household consumption has fallen 27 percent since its peak.  Consumption only fell by 6 percent during the period of the global financial crisis.


As a result of mass unemployment, wage cuts, and tax increases, Greek disposable household income has fallen even more.  The collapse in consumption was “moderated” only by massive dissaving.  From 2006 to 2009 the personal savings rate averaged 6 percent.  In 2015, Klein reports, it was -6 percent.

Since mid-2011, Greek households have suffered a €19 billion decline in savings.  This includes, as shown in the next figure, a decline of €36 billion in household deposits and cash, including deposits in non-Greek banks and foreign currency.  One has to wonder how many Greeks have already run out of savings.


Greek spending on housing and consumer durables, what Klein calls household investment, has fallen from about one-fifth of disposable income in 2007 to just 2 percent in 2015.  This spending is too low to offset depreciation. “After accounting for wear and tear, Greek household spending on housing, cars, etc is now running at a rate of -5 per cent of household incomes.”

Greek business has also been disinvesting.  And until recently so was the government.  “The combined effect [of household, business and government disinvestment] is Greece’s capital stock has been shrinking by about 6 to 7 per cent of output since 2012.”


According to Sharmini Peries, the executive producer of The Real News Network:

With the Brexit vote clinched by those who voted to leave the E.U., the possibility of a Grexit has reemerged in the minds of some. Greece has far more reason to leave the E.U. than the U.K. In a recent survey done by Pew Research, E.U.’s favorability has dropped by double digits in the continent. In Greece more than any other E.U. country, 71 percent of those who took part in the survey said that they had unfavorable views of the E.U.–far higher than the U.K. Further, more than 90 percent disapprove the way in which the E.U. has handled economic issues and the migrant crisis, where the Greeks bear the brunt of that burden.

So, how has the EU responded to the UK vote and Greece’s continuing economic unraveling?

In the words of Dimitri Lascaris, who Peries interviewed for perspective on the impact of Brexit on Grexit:

Well, I think the Greeks would be wildly supportive of anything that results in a relaxation of the austerity policies. As we’ve seen, however, the electorate of the Greek will has virtually no impact on policymaking in the E.U. That was demonstrated in rather brutal fashion in July of last year after over 60 percent of Greeks rejected a less severe austerity program than was ultimately imposed on them.

So it’s interesting, it’s very instructive to look at how the E.U. elite has reacted to the Brexit vote, in particular in the context of Portugal, because Portugal late last year elected a government, a socialist minority government, that appears to have some level of support from leftist parties and the Greens, enough to maintain power for the time being. And initially that party said that they were going to roll back the severe austerity that had been imposed on Portugal. And Portugal is widely viewed as being the country that is most at risk after Greece in the eurozone because of the debt and austerity and the rest of it.

So what happened with the last 48 hours, well after the E.U. elite in the IMF had time to digest the results in Britain? The IMF issued a statement urging the Portuguese government to redouble its commitment to austerity. And Wolfgang Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister of Germany, caused quite an uproar when he told the press in the last couple of days that if Portugal didn’t stick by the austerity dictates of the current bailout, it would be forced to come hat-in-hand to the E.U. to beg for yet another bailout. And that caused quite a bit of outrage in Portugal.

So at this stage there’s absolutely no indication, as far as I can see, that the E.U. elite has learned any lessons from the Greek referendum in July of last year or the Brexit vote, both of which were certainly, at least to some degree–this isn’t the whole story, I think, but to some degree they were an expression of discontent with the economic policies of the E.U. and with the fundamentally antidemocratic character of the E.U. So at this stage there’s little reason to believe that the E.U. elite is going to draw the lessons that ought to be drawn from these two votes.

Of course, it is also possible that the EU elite have correctly understood the political moment.  After all, imposed austerity policies have enabled them to shift much of the costs of the recent crisis and ongoing economic stagnation onto working people in Europe’s so-called periphery and blunt potential political challenges to existing European relations of power.  Human suffering doesn’t appear to figure prominently in their calculations.

Support For Taxing The Rich Growing

For years now the wealthy and their media have hammered on the need for lower taxes on their income, arguing that this would encourage investment, job creation, and growth.  The tax burden on the wealthy has indeed been lowered in one way or the other, but only the wealthy have benefited.  In particular, our public sector and the activities it supports—public infrastructure, education, health care and human services, etc.—have suffered.

Apparently, people are starting to draw the right lesson from this experience.  As the Washington Post reports:

The results from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution [survey] show that 54 percent of Republicans support increasing taxes on those with incomes over $250,000 a year, an increase of 18 percentage points since the last presidential election in 2012. Among Americans as a whole, 69 percent support an increase.

While the change in opinion was greatest for Republicans, as the figure below shows the survey also found increased support for greater taxes on the rich among both Democrats and Independents.  The fact that this support began spiking early in the year suggests that the change is tied to the election process, although it is unclear whether the campaigns are driving the growing support for higher taxes on the wealthy or people are just taking advantage of the process to express their desire for change.

tax increase

Regardless of cause, this is a hopeful development for progressive movement building.