Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Monthly Archives: August 2017

Recession On The Horizon

According to Bloomberg News, analysts at a number of major financial institutions see “mounting evidence” that a recession is not too far away.

In a way, their assessment is not surprising.  The current expansion, which started in June 2009, is now 99 months long, making it the third longest expansion in US history. Only the expansions from March 1991 to March 2001 (120 months) and February 1961 to December 1969 (106 months) are longer.  It is likely that this expansion will pass the 1960s expansion in length but fall short of the record.

Warning signs

The financial analysts cited by Bloomberg News did not base their warnings simply on longevity.  Rather it was the behavior of corporate profits, more specifically their downward trend, that concerned them.  Historically, expansions have come to an end because declining profits cause corporations to slash investment spending, which leads to a decline in employment and eventually consumption, and finally recession.

As the Bloomberg article explains, “The gross value-added of non-financial companies after inflation — a measure of the value of goods after adjusting for the costs of production — is now negative on a year-on-year basis.”  As an analyst for Oxford Economics Ltd. concludes, “The cycle of real corporate profits has turned enough to be a potential source of concern in the next four quarters.”

Real gross corporate value added is a proxy for profits.  Its recent decline, as shown in the figure above, means that corporate profitability is falling over time.  As long as it remained positive (the red line was above zero), corporate profits were continuing to grow, just not as fast as they did in the previous year. However, it has now become negative, which means that total profits are actually falling.  And, as we can see, whenever this happened in the past, a recession soon followed.

The primary reason recessions follow a decline in profits is that investment decisions are very sensitive to changes in profit. A decline in profit tends to produce a much larger decline in investment, leading to recession.  The investment connection to recession is is well illustrated in the following figure, taken from a blog post by the economist Michael Roberts. It shows the change in personal consumption and investment one year before the start of a recession.  As we can see, it is the decline in investment that leads the downturn, and the decline takes place more often than not while consumption is still growing.

The Bloomberg article highlights other studies that come to the same conclusion about the direction of profits and the growing likelihood of recession.  For example, as illustrated below, “The U.S. is in the mature stage of the cycle — 80 percent of completion since the last trough — based on margin patterns going back to the 1950s, according to Societe Generale SA.”

As we can see, the decline in profit margins in the current expansion mirrors the decline during other expansions as they neared their end.  It certainly appears that time is running out for this expansion.

Further evidence comes from the recent reduction in corporate buybacks. As the economist William Lazonick explains:

Buybacks have come to define the “investment” strategies of many of America’s biggest businesses. Figure 1 [below] shows net equity issues of U.S. corporations from 1946 to 2014. Net equity issues are new corporate stock issues minus outstanding stock retired through stock repurchases and M&A activity. Since the mid-1980s, in aggregate, corporations have funded the stock market rather than vice versa (as is conventionally assumed).  Over the decade 2005-2014 net equity issues of nonfinancial corporations averaged minus $399 billion per year.

In other words, corporations have been major players in the stock market, buying and retiring stock in order to drive up stock prices.  The process has, by design, enriched the top end of the income distribution.  It also helped to boost consumption spending, and by extension the expansion.  However, this corporate promotion of stock prices appears to have come to an end.  As a Fortune Magazine article reports:

The great stock buyback boom may be on the wane, undermined by falling company earnings.

U.S. company stock buybacks are down 21% in the first seven months of 2016 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to TrimTabs Investment Research, a fall driven in part by five consecutive quarters of year-over-year earnings declines among S&P 500 stocks.

Buybacks, which cancel shares and thus increase per-share earnings, have played a crucial role in supporting the stock market since the financial crisis, flattering earnings even for companies with static or falling revenues.

They, along with dividends, return cash to shareholders, a process often facilitated by borrowed money.

A decline in market values can thus be expected, adding further downward pressure on economic activity.

Social consequences

The business cycle is an inherent feature of capitalist economies and the US economy has experienced many ups and downs. But expansions and recessions do not balance out, leaving the economy on a stable long-term economic trajectory. Unfortunately, while recent cycles have greatly enriched those at the top, working people have generally experienced deteriorating living and working conditions.  The trend in job creation is one example.

The employment to population ratio is a commonly used measure of employment.  It is calculated by dividing the number of people employed by the total working-age population.  The figure below, from a report by the Chicago Political Economy Group, shows the relative employment or job creation strength of each post-World War II expansion.

As we can see, the November 2001 expansion ended without restoring the pre-recession employment to population ratio. The ratio was 2.48 percent below where it had been prior to the recession’s start.  That means the expansion was not strong enough or structured properly to ensure adequate job creation.  And, despite its length, the current expansion’s employment to population ratio remains nearly 5 percent below that lower starting point.  Moreover, this employment measure doesn’t take into account that a growing share of the jobs created during this expansion are low-paying and precarious.

 

In sum, there are strong reasons to expect a recession within the next year or so.  And it will likely hit an increasingly vulnerable working class hard.  Given trends, where the good times seem to pass most people by and the bad times punish those who gained the least the most, the need for a radical transformation of our economy seems clear.

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Americans At Work: Not A Pretty Picture

What is work like for Americans?  The results of the Rand Corporation’s American Working Conditions Survey (AWCS) paint a troubling picture.

As the authors write in their summary:

The AWCS findings indicate that the American workplace is very physically and emotionally taxing, both for workers themselves and their families. Most Americans (two-thirds) frequently work at high speeds or under tight deadlines, and one in four perceives that they have too little time to do their job. More than one-half of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions, and nearly one in five American workers are exposed to a hostile or threatening social environment at work.

The authors do note more positive findings.  These include:

that workers appear to have a certain degree of autonomy, most feel confident about their skill set, and many receive social support on the job. Four out of five American workers report that their job met at least one definition of “meaningful” always or most of the time.

The findings

As the Survey’s introductory chapter points out, despite the importance of work to our emotional and physical well-being, social relations, and the development of our capacities to shape our world, little has been published about our experience of work:

Most Americans between the ages of 25 and 71 spend most of their available time in a given day, week, or year working. The characteristics of jobs and workplaces—including wages, hours worked, and benefits, as well as the physical demands and risk of injury, the pace of work, the degree of autonomy, prospects for advancement, and the social work environment, to name a few—are important determinants of American workers’ well-being. Some of these job characteristics also affect workers’ social and family lives. Beyond that, job attributes can affect individual workers’ productivity—and, thus, the well-being of their coworkers, their employer, and the economy at large.

Given the potential importance of working conditions, it is surprising that there is little systematic, representative, and publicly available data about the characteristics of American jobs today.

Here, then, is a more detailed look at some of the Survey’s findings:

The Hazardous Workplace

More specifically, the survey revealed that:

American workers are subject to substantial physical demands in the workplace. One-half of men and one-third of women have a job that involves lifting or moving people or carrying or moving heavy loads one-quarter of the time or more frequently. Forty-six percent of men and 35 percent of women have jobs involving tiring or painful positions one quarter of the time or more. Thirty-eight percent of men and 30 percent of women work in jobs that involve standing all or almost all the time. . . . Overall, these patterns indicate that an overwhelming fraction of Americans engage in intense physical exertion on the job—67 percent of men and 54 percent of women report at least one of the three intense physical demand measures (moving heavy loads or people, tiring or painful positions, and prolonged standing). . . .

In addition to physical demands, more than one-half of American workers (55 percent) are exposed to unpleasant or potentially dangerous working conditions. Sixty two percent of men and 46 percent of women are exposed to vibrations (from hand tools or machinery); loud noise (defined as “Noise so loud that you would have to raise your voice to talk to people”); extreme temperatures (high or low); smoke, fumes, powder, dust, or vapors (including tobacco smoke); or chemical products or infectious materials one-quarter of the time or more at work. The next–most-common exposures for men are noise (39 percent); breathing in smoke, fumes, powder, dust, or vapors (17 percent); and vibrations (9 percent). Overall, results show that an important fraction of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions.

The Pressures of Work

The survey found that:

Approximately two-thirds of Americans have jobs that involve working at very high speed at least half the time; the same fraction works to tight deadlines at least half the time. The overlap is high, with 56 percent working in jobs that involve both working at high speed and to tight deadlines half the time or more. There are no significant gender differences in working at high speed or working to tight deadlines

The Long Work Day

According to the survey:

While presence at the work place during business hours is required for most Americans, many take work home. About one-half of American workers do some work in their free time to meet work demands. Approximately one in ten workers report working in their free time “nearly every day” over the last month, two in ten workers report working in their free time “once or twice a week,” and two in ten workers report working in their free time “once or twice a month.”

The Work Environment

The survey found that:

Nearly one in five American workers were subjected to some form of verbal abuse, unwanted sexual attention, threats, or humiliating behavior at work in the past month or to physical violence, bullying or harassment, or sexual harassment at work in the past 12 months. Among men, the most common adverse events were verbal abuse and threats (13 percent in the past month), humiliating behavior (10 percent in the past month), bullying or harassment (9 percent in the past year), physical violence (2 percent in the past year), and unwanted sexual attention (1 percent in the past month). Among women, the most common adverse events were verbal abuse and threats (12.1 percent in the past month), bullying or harassment (11 percent in the past year), humiliating behavior (8 percent in the past month), unwanted sexual attention (5 percent in the past month), and physical violence (1 percent in the past year).

At the same time, it is also true that:

While the workplace is a source of hostile social experiences for an important fraction of American workers, it is a source of supportive social experiences for many others. More than one-half of American workers agreed with the statement “I have very good friends at work,” with women more likely to report having very good friends at work than men (61 and 53 percent, respectively).

 

In sum, the survey’s results make clear that work in the United States is physically and emotionally demanding and dangerous for many workers. And with the government weakening many of the labor and employment regulations designed to protect worker rights and safety, it is likely that workplace conditions will worsen.

Worker organizing and workplace struggles for change need to be encouraged and supported. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed growing support for unions, especially among younger workers.  It is not hard to understand why.

False Promises: Trump And The Revitalization Of The US Economy

President Trump likes to talk up his success in promoting the reindustrialization of the United States and the return of good manufacturing jobs.  But there is little reason to take his talk seriously.

Microsoft closes shop

For example, as reported in a recent article in the Oregonian, Microsoft just decided to close its two year old Wilsonville factory, where it built its giant touch-screen computer, the Surface Hub.  As the article explains :

Just two years ago, Microsoft cast its Wilsonville factory as the harbinger of a new era in American technology manufacturing.

The tech giant stamped, “Manufactured in Portland, OR, USA” on each Surface Hub it made there. It invited The New York Times and Fast Company magazine to tour the plant in 2015, then hired more than 100 people to make the enormous, $22,000 touch-screen computer. . . .

“We looked at the economics of East Asia and electronics manufacturing,” Microsoft vice president Michael Angiulo told Fast Company in a fawning 2015 article that heaped praise on the Surface Hub and Microsoft’s Wilsonville factory.

“When you go through the math, (offshoring) doesn’t pencil out,” Angiulo said. “It favors things that are small and easy to ship, where the development processes and tools are a commodity. The machines that it takes to do that lamination? Those only exist in Wilsonville. There’s one set of them, and we designed them.” . . .

But last week Microsoft summoned its Wilsonville employees to an early-morning meeting and announced it will close the factory and lay off 124 employees – nearly everyone at the site – plus dozens of contract workers. . . .

Even as President Donald Trump heralds “Made in America” week, high-tech manufacturing remains an endangered species across the United States. Oregon has lost more than 14,000 electronics manufacturing jobs since 2001, according to state data, more than a quarter of the total job base.

Microsoft is moving production of its Surface Hub to China, which is where it makes all its other Surface products.  Apparently, the combination of China’s low-cost labor and extensive supplier networks is an unbeatable combination for most high-tech firms.  In fact, the Oregonian article goes on to quote a Yale economist as saying:

“Re-shoring” stories like the tale Microsoft peddled in 2015 are little more than public relations fakery,” [providing] “lip services or window-dressing to please politicians and the general public.”

Foxconn says it is investing

But now we have another bigger and bolder re-shoring story: The Taiwanese multinational Foxconn has announced it will spend $10 billion to build a new factory somewhere in Wisconsin (likely in Paul Ryan’s district), where it will produce flat-panel display screens for televisions and other consumer electronics.

As reported in the press, Foxconn is pledging to create 13,000 jobs in six years—but only 3000 at the start.  In return, the state of Wisconsin is offering the company $3 billion in subsidies.

According to the Trump administration, this is a sign that its efforts to bring back good manufacturing jobs is working.  The Guardian quotes a senior administration official “who said the announcement was ‘meaningful,’ because ‘it [represents] a milestone in bringing back advanced manufacturing, specifically in the electronics sector, to the United States.’”  President Trump followed with “If I didn’t get elected, [Foxconn] definitely would not be spending $10bn.”

However, there are warning signs.  For example, as an article in the Cap Times points out, Foxconn doesn’t always follow through on its promises:

  • Foxconn promised a $30 million factory employing 500 workers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2013. The plant was never built, not a single job was created.
  • That same year, the company signed a letter of intent to invest up to $1 billion in Indonesia. Nothing came of it.
  • Foxconn announced it would invest $5 billion and create 50,000 jobs over five years in India as part of an ambitious expansion in 2014. The investment amounted to a small fraction of that, according to The Washington Post’s Todd Frankel.
  • Foxconn committed to a $5 billion investment in Vietnam in 2007, and $10 billion in Brazil in 2011. The company made its first major foray in Vietnam only last year. In Brazil, Foxconn has an iPhone factory, but its investment has fallen far short of promises.
  • Foxconn recently laid off 60,000 workers, more than 50 percent of its workforce at its IPhone 6 factory in Kushan, China, replacing them with robots that Foxconn produces.

In fact, even the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau is worried that the state may be overselling the deal, promising billions for very little.  As a Verge article reported:

Wisconsin’s plan to treat Foxconn to $3 billion in tax breaks in exchange for a $10 billion factory is looking less and less like a good deal for the state. In a report issued this week, Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau said that the state wouldn’t break even on its investment until 2043 — and that’s in an absolute best-case scenario.

How many workers Foxconn actually hires, and where Foxconn hires them from, would have a significant impact on when the state’s investment pays off, the report says.

The current analysis assumes that “all of the construction-period and ongoing jobs associated with the project would be filled by Wisconsin residents.” But the report says it’s likely that some positions would go to Illinois residents, because the factory would be located so close to the border. That would lower tax revenue and delay when the state breaks even.

And that’s still assuming that Foxconn actually creates the 13,000 jobs it claimed it might create, at the average wage — just shy of $54,000 — it promised to create them at. In fact, the plant is only expected to start with 3,000 jobs; the 13,000 figure is the maximum potential positions it could eventually offer. If the factory offers closer to 3,000 positions, the report notes, “the break-even point would be well past 2044-45.”

The authors of the report even seem somewhat skeptical of the best-case scenario happening. Foxconn is already investing heavily in automation, and there’s no guarantee it won’t do the same thing in Wisconsin. Nor is there any guarantee that Foxconn will remain such a manufacturing powerhouse. (Its current success relies heavily on the success of the iPhone.)

It is because of concerns like these, that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the state’s Senate Majority Leader has said he doesn’t yet have the votes to pass the tax package Governor Scott Walker has promised.

Forget the new trade deals

President Trump has also spoken often about his determination to revisit past trade deals and restructure them in order to strengthen the economy and boost manufacturing employment.  However, it is now clear that the agreement restructuring he has in mind is what he calls “modernization” and that translates into expanding the terms of existing agreements to cover new issues of interest to leading US multinational corporations.

As Inside US Trade explains:

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday said “the easiest issues” to be addressed in North American Free Trade Agreement modernization talks “should be” those that were not part of the existing agreement, which entered into force in 1994.

“The easiest ones will be the ones that weren’t contained in the original agreement because that’s new territory; that’s not anybody giving up anything,” Ross said at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Institute on May 31. “And by and large, those should be the easiest issues to get done.”

Ross added that those new issues are important “because one of our objectives will be to try to incorporate in NAFTA kind of basic principles that we would like to have followed in subsequent free-trade agreements, rather than starting each one with a blank sheet of paper.”

Among those issues — which he called “big holes” in the old agreement — he listed the digital economy, services, and financial services. . . .

Ross reiterated the administration’s stance that the “guiding principle is do no harm” in redoing NAFTA, while the second “rule of thumb” is to view concessions made by Mexico and Canada in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations “as sort of a starting point” for NAFTA talks.

Asked whether the administration has set itself up for “unrealistic aspirations” on NAFTA — promising to return to the U.S. jobs that the president has often claimed were lost due to the agreement with Mexico and Canada — Ross cautioned against viewing a retooled deal as a “silver bullet.”

In short, it is foolish and costly to believe the promises made to working people by leading corporations and the Trump administration.  Hopefully, growing numbers of people are getting wise to the game being played, making it easier for us to more effectively organize and advance our own interests.

The Popularity Of Unions Is Growing, Especially Among Younger People

The Pew Research Center recently surveyed Americans about their views of labor unions and corporations.

As the chart below shows, a growing percentage of Americans view both unions and corporations favorably.  The favorable rating for unions, at 60 percent, is near its 2001 high.  The favorable rating for corporations still remains significantly below its 2001 high.

Favorable ratings for corporations are no doubt boosted by the steady drumbeat of media celebrations of corporate leaders as American heroes and “job creators.”  Unions, on the other hand, rarely get positive press.  In fact, they are being attacked across most of the country by state legislators eager to curry corporate favor by passing new laws designed to weaken worker and unions rights.  Thus, it seems likely that their growing popularity is the result of a growing awareness that organized resistance is needed to reverse the decline in majority living and working conditions, and that unions are one of the most important instruments to help organize that resistance.

As we see next, there is broad support for unions.  Dividing the population by age, with the exception of those over 65 years of age, the favorable view of unions is greater than the favorable view of corporations.  The strong support by those 18-29 is especially striking; three out of four have a favorable view of labor unions.  Dividing the population by family income, only those with an income of $75,000 or more view corporations more favorably than unions.

Looking at political party registration shows that “Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are much more favorable toward labor unions than business corporations, while the inverse is true for Republicans and Republican leaners.”

However, while “There are no significant demographic differences among Democrats in views of labor unions, . . . Republicans are divided along age, educational and ideological lines.”  In particular, as we see below, among Republican and Republican leaners 18 to 49 years of age, the percent with a favorable view of unions is far greater than the percent with an unfavorable view.

In sum, the Pew survey points to the growth of an increasingly fertile environment for the rebirth of a strong union movement, especially among younger people.