Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Predictions

Unions Fight Inequality

The decline in unionization is one of the most important factors promoting the concentration of income at the upper end of the income distribution.  The statement may not surprise you, but the fact that this was the conclusion of an IMF study of the causes of inequality might.

Here is how the authors of Inequality and Labor Market Institutions summarize their main findings:

The results indicate that the rise of inequality in the advanced economies included in this study has been driven by the upper part of the income distribution, owing largely to the increase in income shares of top 10 percent earners. We find evidence that the decline in union density—the fraction of union members in the workforce—is strongly associated with the rise of top income shares. . . . Our empirical results also indicate that unions can affect income redistribution through their influence on public policy. We further find that reductions in the minimum wage relative to the median wage are related to significant increases in inequality.

Of course, the authors of the study were quick to add: “These findings, however, should not be seen as a blanket recommendation for strengthening these labor market institutions.”

While we should never count on the IMF to promote progressive policies, the findings of the study do highlight the importance of a strong trade union movement if we want to build an economy that works for the great majority of working people.  The fact that unionization has been in decline in the great majority of the twenty advanced capitalist countries studied by the IMF researchers strongly suggests that elites know exactly what they want.

Trends in inequality and labor market institutions

Inequality has been on the rise in almost all advanced capitalist economies, with attention increasingly focused on the growing concentration of income at the top of the distribution.  Common explanations for this trend include globalization, skill-based technological change, financial deregulation, and the decline in top marginal personal tax rates.  In their study for the IMF, Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron investigate whether labor market institutions, in particular the degree of unionization and relative value of minimum wage, might also be responsible.

The authors examine inequality trends in twenty advanced capitalist countries over the period 1980 to 2010 using two main measures of inequality, the income share of the top 10 percent earners and the Gini coefficient (which ranges from 0 to 1 with higher numbers showing greater inequality).  The former is most useful for capturing changes at the top of the income distribution.  The latter, because of data limitations, is better at showing changes at the middle and bottom of the income distribution.  They therefore use Gini coefficients of gross and net income to test whether the strength of labor market institutions affects redistribution.

Figure 2 below illustrates the growth in inequality in the sample of advanced capitalist economies, and the importance of income concentration at the top of the income distribution.  As the authors explain:

Gross earnings differentials between the 9th and 5th deciles of the distribution have increased over four times as much as the differential between the 5th and 1st deciles. Moreover, data from the Luxembourg Income Survey on net income shares indicate that income shares of the top 10 percent earners have increased at the expense of all other income groups.

Figure 3 looks at trends in union density and relative minimum wage values, the authors’ proxies for the strength of labor market institutions.  As we can see, the degree of unionization has fallen steadily over the period, while the decline in the relative value of the minimum wage has been far more modest.  However, national experiences differ greatly.  In the case of union density, some countries actually registered an increase while in others density declined by almost 50 percent. Interestingly, the authors find no evidence of a relationship between changes in union density and changes in the minimum wage.

Union strength reduces inequality

The authors begin their test of the relationship between labor market institutions and inequality by running simple correlations between the two.  They find

a strong negative relation between the top 10 percent income share and union density, both within and across countries. The Gini of gross income is also negatively related with union density, but the relationship is somewhat weaker and mostly present within countries. The correlation coefficients for the minimum wage and the various inequality measures are more mixed. A similar exercise suggests a positive association between union density and redistribution: while the correlation between union density and the Gini coefficient of gross income is weak, its correlation with the Gini of net income is clearly negative.

While these correlation results suggest that greater union density helps workers claw back income from those at the top and improve the overall income distribution, simple correlations are far from conclusive because they do not hold other factors that might influence the variables constant.

Therefore, the authors use sophisticated econometric methods to try and isolate the importance of labor market institutions on inequality.  Among the factors they control for are:

technology (the share of information and communications technology capital in the total capital stock); globalization (the share of China in world exports interacted with the country’s lagged level of income per capita); financial reform (the index constructed by Abiad, Detragiache, and Tressel, 2008, which varies with changes in credit controls and reserve requirements, interest rate controls, entry barriers, state ownership, securities market policies, banking regulations, and capital account restrictions); the top marginal personal income tax rate; and a banking crisis dummy variable.

The authors find, consistent with the literature, that technology, globalization, financial liberalization, and tax reductions all increase inequality, with the latter two variables positively associated with an increase in top income shares.  But they also find a significant negative relationship between union strength and inequality and income concentration:

Our benchmark estimates of gross income inequality indicate that the weakening of unions is related to increases in the top 10 percent income share. A 10 percentage point decline in union density is associated with a 5 percent increase in the top 10 percent income share. The relation between union density and the Gini of gross income is also negative and significant.

At the other end of the income distribution, the minimum wage is closely associated with the Gini coefficient of gross income but not with the top income share. A 10 percentage point decline in the ratio of the minimum wage to the median wage is related to a 5 percent increase in the Gini coefficient of gross income.

The authors then test the robustness of their results by adding additional labor market, economic, and social variables, but with little change in outcome.  Their strong conclusion remains: an increase in union density reduces the share of income going to the top 10 percent and improves the overall distribution of income.

Magnitude of the effects

The authors illustrate the relative importance union density and the minimum wage to the growth in inequality in Figure 7, below. “The height of each bar measures the contribution of a variable to the rise in inequality over the period 1980–2010—calculated as the product of the change in the variable over the period and its coefficient—averaged across countries.”

More specifically, as the authors explain:

On average, the decline in union density explains about 40 percent of the 5 percentage point increase in the top 10 percent income share (top panel). . . . By contrast, the decline in unionization contributes more modestly to the rise of the gross income Gini, reflecting the somewhat weaker relation between these variables. However, about half of the increase in the Gini of net income is explained by the decline in union density, evidencing the additional and statistically significant relation between this institution and redistribution. The decline in union density was a widespread phenomenon which, as our estimation results suggest, could be an important contributing factor to the rise in top income shares (middle panel).

Contributions of changes in the minimum wage to inequality appear close to zero on average. However, averaging its contribution across countries hides the important role the minimum wage has played in driving inequality in some countries, as its evolution has been highly heterogenous. Bottom panel in Figure 7 shows the country-specific impact of changes in the minimum wage on the Gini of gross income. In countries where the minimum wage declined the most, it accounts for about 2 percentage points of the increase in the Gini coefficient. Conversely, where the minimum wage rose substantially, it appears to have contributed to reduce the Gini coefficient by 2 percentage points. Overall, these illustrative calculations suggest that changes in labor market institutions are key drivers of the evolution of inequality, alongside other determinants.

Next steps: Movement building

Living conditions have deteriorated for majorities in most advanced capitalist countries.  The rise in inequality, driven by the ever-increasing concentration of income at the top of the distribution, is one major reason.  The IMF has laid out a clear program of action to improve things: strengthen unions and boost minimum wages.  Of course, our fight against inequality would be greatly enhanced if we also intensified our efforts to stop the advance of capitalist globalization, reverse the financialization of economic activity, and raise taxes on the wealthy.

I am not sure that we needed IMF researchers to clarify our tasks, but thanks anyway IMF!

Secular Stagnation

Government policy makers, no matter the party in power, like to project a rosy future. However, claims of economic renewal, absent fundamental changes in the structure and workings of the US economy, should not be taken seriously.  The fundamental changes I would advocate are those that would: dramatically boost worker power; secure a progressive and growing funding base for a needed expansion of public housing and infrastructure and public spending on health care, education, and transportation; and end the production and use of fossil fuels and significantly reduce greenhouse emissions.

Fundamental changes are needed because the United States is suffering from an extended period of slow and declining growth, what is known as secular stagnation.

The following figure, taken from a Financial Times blog post, shows the duration and average rate of growth of every economic expansion in the postwar period.  The current expansion, which started in the second quarter of 2009, is the third longest, although soon to become the second.  Among other things, that means that a new recession is likely not far off (especially with the Federal Reserve Board apparently committed to boosting interest rates).

As we can see, the current expansion has recorded the slowest rate of growth of any expansion.  Moreover, as Cardiff Garcia, the author of the blog post, points out: “Also worrying is the observation from the chart that every subsequent expansion since 1970 has grown at a slower pace than its predecessor, regardless of what caused the downturn from which it was recovering.”

Michalis Nikiforos and Gennaro Zezza begin their Levy Economics Institute report on current economic trends as follows:

From a macroeconomic point of view, 2016 was an ordinary year in the post–Great Recession period. As in prior years, the conventional forecasts predicted that this would be the year the economy would finally escape from the “new normal” of secular stagnation. But just as in every previous year, the forecasts were confounded by the actual result: lower-than-expected growth—just 1.6 percent.

The following figures illustrate the overall weakness of the current expansion.  Each figure shows, for every postwar expansion, a major macro indicator and its growth over time since the end of its preceding recession.  The three most recent expansions, including the current one, are color highlighted.

Figure 1A makes clear that growth has been slower in this expansion than in any previous expansion. Figure 1B shows that “real consumption has grown only about 18 percent compared to the trough of 2009—similar to the expansion of GDP—and also stands out as the slowest recovery of consumption growth in the postwar period.”

Perhaps most striking is the actual decrease in real government expenditure shown in figure 1D.  Real government expenditure is some 6 percent lower than it was eight years ago.  In no other expansion did real government expenditure fall.  Without doubt austerity is one of the main reasons for our current slow expansion.

Significantly, as we see in figure 7 below, the stock market has continued to boom in spite of the weak performance of the economy.  This figure shows that the total value of the stock market has risen sharply, regardless of whether compared to the growth in personal income or profits (measured by net operating surplus).   This rise has generally kept those at the top of the income pyramid happy despite the country’s weak overall economic performance.

No doubt, on-going wage stagnation, which has depressed consumption, and privatization, which has grown in concert with austerity, has helped to fuel this new stock market bubble.  One reason top income earners have been so favorable to the broad contours of Trump administration policy is that it is designed to strengthen both trends.

Recession will come.  In an era of secular stagnation that means the downturn will hit an already weak economy and struggling working class.  And the upturn that follows will likely be weaker than the current one.  Market forces will not save us.  Real improvements demand transformative policy changes.

Monopolization and Labor Exploitation

Those who advocate “freeing the market” claim that doing so will encourage competition and thereby increase majority well-being.  These advocates have certainly had their way shaping economic policies.  And the results?  According to several leading economists, the results include the growing monopolization of product markets and steady decline in labor’s share of national income.  Neither outcome desirable.

The economists—David Autor, David Dorn, Lawrence F. Katz, Christina Patterson, and John Van Reenen—did not actually seek to examine the consequences of decades of neoliberal economic policies.  Rather they sought to understand why “there has been a decline in the U.S. labor share since the 1980s particularly in the 2000s.”  (See the figure below.)

What they found was evidence that sales have become increasingly concentrated in a small number of firms across many industries.  And, that “those industries where concentration rises the most have the sharpest falls in the labor share.”  Thus, “the [overall] fall in the labor share is mainly due to a reallocation of labor towards firms with lower (and declining) labor shares, rather than due to declining labor shares within most firms.”

The growing monopolization of the US economy

The authors calculated sales concentration in six large sectors—manufacturing, retail trade, wholesale trade, services, finance, and utilities and transportation—for the years 1982 to 2012.  They used two different measures of sales concentration: the fraction of sales in an “average industry” accounted for by its four largest firms (CR4 with Sales) and by its twenty largest firms (CR20 with Sales).  The results are illustrated in the figure below.

As the authors explain:

There is a remarkably consistent upward trend in concentration in each sector. In manufacturing, the sales concentration ratio among the top 4 increases from 38% to 43%; in finance, it rises from 24% to 35%; in services from 11% to 15%; in utilities from 29% to 37%; in retail trade from 15% to 30% and in wholesale trade from 22% to 28%. Over the same period, there were similar or larger increases in CR20 for sales.

The authors explain this growth in concentration by the rise of so-called “superstar” firms. These firms are characterized by rapid productivity growth and their dominance comes from the ways in which technological change has made most markets “winner take most.”  In other words, innovative firms are able to quickly assert market dominance thanks to “the diffusion of new competitive platforms (e.g. easier price/quality comparisons on the Internet), the proliferation of information-intensive goods that have high fixed and low-marginal costs (e.g., software platforms and online services), or increasing competition due to the rising international integration of product markets.”  And thanks to first mover advantages, this success builds upon itself, allowing superstar firms to further strengthening their market position.

Whatever the reason, clearly “market competition” has strengthened monopoly power, especially in manufacturing, finance, utilities, and retail trade, all sectors where the top four firms now account for at least 30 percent of average industry sales.

Labor’s declining share of national income

It is the rise of these superstar firms, according to the authors, that best explains the decline in labor’s share of national income.  They test and reject several other explanations.  For example, some economists argue that international trade is key.  But the authors point out that it is not just import-competing industries in which labor’s share is falling; it is also falling in non-traded sectors like retail trade, wholesale trade, and utilities.

Other economists point to the decline in capital costs, which they believe has encouraged firms to increase spending on capital goods, leading to falling labor shares in all industries.  But the authors find no support for this.  In fact, they find that “the unweighted mean labor share across firms has not increased much since 1982. Thus, the average firm shows little decline in its labor share.”

All of this points to the growth of superstar firms as the key to explaining labor’s declining share of national income.  According to the authors, superstar firms have a lower labor share than do most other firms.  One reason is that these firms tend to enjoy significant markup pricing power which allows them to boost their profits without adding labor.  Another is that they also tend to enjoy great economies of scale; with a relatively fixed amount of overhead labor, they are able to boost production without a commensurate increase in employment.

The authors calculated concentration measures for employment (CR4 with Employment, CR20 with Employment) much as they did for sales; see above figure.  As they note:

Again, we observe a rising concentration in all six sectors for 1982 to 2012, although employment concentration has grown notably more slowly than sales concentration in finance, services, and especially in manufacturing. The pattern suggests that firms may attain large market shares with a relatively small workforce, as exemplified by Facebook and Google.

And as these firms increase their market dominance, labor’s overall share tends to fall.  As the authors explain: “those industries where concentration rises the most have the sharpest falls in the labor share . . . [Thus] the fall in the labor share is mainly due to a reallocation of labor towards firms with lower (and declining) labor shares, rather than due to declining labor shares within most firms.”  In fact, the strength of this negative relationship between market concentration and labor’s share grew stronger over the period of study.

A look behind the curtain

These results are important, suggesting that capitalism’s motion itself is driving labor’s declining share.  However, I think that there is good reason to believe that the underlying dynamics at work are different from those highlighted above.  To state it bluntly, superstar firms are driving down labor’s share because they are increasingly using strategies of profit maximization that have them replace direct labor with contract labor, franchising, and supply chains.

Over most of the post-war period, until the late 1970s, large corporations tended to directly employ the workers needed to produce the goods or services they sold.  But starting in the 1980s, and especially in the 2000s, these firms began actively shedding employees and hiring smaller firms to carry out the tasks that were once done in-house.  This enabled these lead corporations to greatly expand production and boost profits with a minimal increase in direct employment.

David Weil calls this strategy “fissuring the workplace” and his book, The Fissured Workplace Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It, documents how this has become the preferred strategy of most of our major companies.  Here, from Weil’s book, are three examples of fissured workplaces:

A maid works at the San Francisco Marriott on Fisherman’s Wharf. The hotel property is owned by Host Hotels and Resorts Inc., a lodging real estate company. The maid, however, is evaluated and supervised daily and her hours and payroll managed by Crestline Hotels and Resorts Inc., a national third- party hotel management company. Yet she follows daily procedures (and risks losing her job for failure to accomplish them) regarding cleaning, room set- up, overall pace, and quality standards established by Marriott, whose name the property bears.

A cable installer in Dayton, Ohio, works as an independent contractor (in essence a self-employed business provider), paid on a job-by-job basis by Cascom Inc., a cable installation company. Cascom’s primary client is the international media giant Time Warner, which owns cable systems across the United States. The cable installer is paid solely on the basis of the job completed and is entitled to no protections normally afforded employees. Yet all installation contracts are supplied solely by Cascom, which also sets the price for jobs and collects payment for them. The installer must wear a shirt with the Cascom logo and can be removed as a contractor at will for not meeting minimum quotas or quality standards, or at the will of the company.

A member of a loading dock crew working in Southern California is paid by Premier Warehousing Ventures LLC (PWV)— a company providing temporary workers to other businesses— based on the total time it takes him and members of his crew to load a truck. PWV, in turn, is compensated for the number of trucks loaded by Schneider Logistics, a national logistics and trucking company that manages distribution centers for Walmart. Walmart sets the price, time requirements, and performance standards that are followed by Schneider. Schneider, in turn, structures its contracts with PWV and other labor brokers it uses to provide workers based on those prices and standards and its own profit objectives.

At one time, large corporations like Marriott, Time Warner, and Walmart directly employed the workers that labored on their behalf.  But no more.  Now, these large corporations are able to escape paying many of those who “work for them” the wages and benefits offered to their other employees.  Instead, their salaries are paid by other smaller firms, whether they be independent businesses, temporary work agencies, or franchise owners, or in more extreme cases so-called independent contractors.  And because these second-tier businesses operate in highly competitive markets, with substantially lower profit margins than the lead corporations they service, these workers now receive far lower salaries with few if any benefits and protections.

As Weil summarizes:

This [business strategy] creates downward pressure on wages and benefits, murkiness about who bears responsibility for work conditions, and increased likelihood that basic labor standards will be violated. In many cases, fissuring leads simultaneously to a rise in profitability for the lead companies who operate at the top of industries and increasingly precarious working conditions for workers at lower levels.

This strategy is the domestic counterpoint to the globalization strategies of the large multinationals like Dell Computers and Apple.  And it has come to dominate and structure US labor markets.  As the Wall Street Journal explains:

Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry. . . .

The contractor model is so prevalent that Google parent Alphabet Inc., ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place to work for seven of the past 10 years, has roughly equal numbers of outsourced workers and full-time employees, according to people familiar with the matter.

About 70,000 TVCs—an abbreviation for temps, vendors and contractors—test drive Google’s self-driving cars, review legal documents, make products easier and better to use, manage marketing and data projects, and do many other jobs. They wear red badges at work, while regular Alphabet employees wear white ones. . . .

Companies, which disclose few details about their outside workers, are rapidly increasing the numbers and types of jobs seen as ripe for contracting. At large firms, 20% to 50% of the total workforce often is outsourced, according to staffing executives. Bank of America Corp. ,Verizon Communications Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and FedEx Corp. have thousands of contractors each. . . .

Janitorial work and cafeteria services disappeared from most company payrolls long ago. A similar shift is under way for higher-paying, white-collar jobs such as research scientist, recruiter, operations manager and loan underwriter.

Two labor economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the rise of so-called alternative work arrangements, which they “defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers.”

They found that the percentage of US workers with alternative work arrangements rose from 10.1 percent [of all employed workers] in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015. (See the figure below).

That is a huge jump, especially since the percentage of workers with alternative work arrangements barely budged over the period February 1995 to February 2005; it was only 9.3 in 1995.  But their most startling finding is that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.”

Looking behind the curtain shows that the decline in labor’s share is the result of a brutal process of work restructuring that affects a rapidly growing percentage of US workers.  Reversing the decline will require both a broader awareness of the negative social consequences of the private pursuit of profit and a far stronger labor movement than we have today.

China’s Downward Growth Trajectory

China remains one of the most dynamic and important growth centers in the world economy.  The country is the single largest contributor to world GDP growth, accounting for almost 40 percent of global growth in 2016.  As I argued in a previous post, China’s rise owes much to its post-1990 embrace of an export-led growth strategy and resulting restructuring as the premier assembly/production base for transnational capital’s East Asia-centered cross-border production networks.

China recorded an unprecedented average rate of growth of nearly 10 percent over the years 1978 to 2008.  However, the slowdown in international trade and continuing economic difficulties in the advanced capitalist countries some seven years after the end of the Great Recession signals a significant change in the global economic environment.  China’s rate of growth has been steadily falling.  But Chinese leaders claim that the country has significantly lessened its trade dependence and begun a successful transformation to a more domestically centered economy.  They speak confidently of achieving an average rate of growth of 6.5 percent over the next five years.  I am dubious that such a transformation is taking place and that the target growth rate can be achieved.  If Chinese rates of growth do continue to fall, as I expect, perhaps to the 2-4 percent range, internal class pressures will likely build for a radical change in China’s current social and economic policies.  And, given China’s key position in the international economy, its slowdown will likely also have important negative consequences for the growth and political stability of many countries, especially those in East Asia, Latin America, and Sub Saharan Africa.

China’s Growth Trajectory

The chart below shows China’s growth performance since 1961.  From 1991 until 2015, the country’s yearly rate of growth never fell below 7.3 percent.  In ten of those years, Chinese GDP grew by at least 10 percent.   With this record as backdrop, the recent downturn in China’s economy stands out.  Not only did the country’s rate of growth fall to 6.9 percent in 2015, a 25 year low, it fell again, to an estimated 6.6 percent in 2016.  And, as noted above, the Chinese government has lowered its target growth rate to an average 6.5 percent for the next five years.

gdp-growth

Moreover, as the chart below highlights, China’s growth over the last few years has consistently fallen short of consensus forecasts.

forecasts

Of course, a slowdown in growth would have been hard to avoid, given China’s reliance on international trade and the severity of the Great Recession and weak post-Recession recovery in the advanced capitalist world.  Still, at the time of the crisis, it appeared that the Chinese economy would just power through the recession.  For example, the economy recorded growth of 9.7 percent in 2008, 9.4 percent in 2009, and 10.6 percent in 2010.   (In fact, a significant minority of economists pointed to this performance to argue that China’s trade dependence had been vastly overstated—more on this below.)  It is now clear that this was a temporary, stimulus-driven, growth spurt and not sustainable. However, the Chinese government, as well as many analysts, are now claiming that the Chinese economy is finally undergoing a long-delayed rebalancing away from its past reliance on external demand.  New policies designed to boost domestic consumption will, they believe, produce a more stable and egalitarian Chinese economy.  And while these policies are unlikely to generate the extraordinary growth rates of the past, they will allow the Chinese government to meet its current growth target and the country to continue to anchor world growth.

I disagree with this consensus.  As far as I can tell, the Chinese government has not achieved (or even pursued, for that matter) a meaningful rebalancing of the Chinese economy.  Thus, I expect the country’s rate of growth to continue to fall well below the target 6.5 percent growth rate.  To understand why I disagree with the consensus requires that we first investigate the Chinese growth experience.

The Chinese Growth Experience

The Chinese economy has gone through several major transformations.

Here I focus on post-1990 developments because it is in this period that the Chinese economy gradually becomes enmeshed in transnational capital’s accumulation dynamics and, as a result, a major force in the global economy.  The Chinese government’s decision to marketize the country’s economy and then privatize state enterprises came at roughly the same time that transnational capital was aggressively looking to internationalize its operations through the establishment of cross border production networks.  The two developments intertwined, and the consequence was that China, with the support of the Chinese state, gradually became the central player in East Asia’s regionally structured production-export networks.

We can see, in the chart below, the steady increase in China’s merchandise exports.  The major acceleration took place after 2001, which is when China joined the WTO.  In 2015, Chinese exports declined.

exports

The following chart puts this export growth in perspective, by showing the rise in China’s exports relative to the growth of the country’s GDP.  The export ratio climbed from 14 percent in 1990, to 21.2 percent in 2000, before reaching its peak in 2006 at a whopping 37.2 percent.  By 2015, the ratio had fallen back to a still considerable 22.1 percent.

exports-to-gdp

The next chart shows the movement in China’s current account balance (which is dominated by movements in the trade balance) as a percent of the country’s GDP.    The current account ratio rose from a relatively insignificant 0.22 percent in 1995, to 1.7 percent in 2000, before dramatically climbing in the period following China’s 2001 membership in the WTO.  The current account ratio went from 2.4 percent in 2002, to 8.4 percent in 2006, before peaking at an extraordinary 9.9 percent in 2007.  The current account ratio rose from 2014 (2.6 percent) to 2015 (3 percent) despite the absolute decline in exports, because imports fell by more.

current-account

To state the obvious: it takes a lot of investment to produce these trade numbers.  Factories have to be built and machinery purchased.  Transportation networks–highways, ports, rail lines, airports–have to be built.  Urban infrastructure—communication, energy, water, and waste systems as well as worker housing—has to be constructed.  We can get some idea of the scale of the Chinese effort by looking the dramatic rise in the ratio of gross fixed capital formation to GDP.  As we can see in the chart below, it reached historic highs of 38.9 percent in 2007, before moving to an even higher 45 percent in 2010.  In 2015 the ratio stood at 44 percent.

gross-fixed-capital-formation

Finally, as we see below, in sharp contrast to the growth in exports and fixed investment, household consumption as a share of GDP steadily declined until the last few years, with the first half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s standing out for the steepest declines.  The consumption ratio stood at 56.2 percent in 1970, 46.2 percent in 2000, and a low of 36.4 percent in 2006.  In 2015 the ratio was 37 percent.

consumption

In broad brush, the Chinese state promoted the country’s growth though policies that prioritized the construction of a massive infrastructure for production; the transfer of hundreds of million peasants from farms into cities to serve as wage labor; and the creation of a welcoming environment for export-oriented transnational corporations.   The results, in addition to rapid and sustained rates of economic growth and elevation to one of the world’s largest exporters and destinations for foreign direct investment, include socially devastating environmental destruction, world-ranking inequality, and—key to our discussion here–an export-driven economy.

Now, as noted above, the statement that China’s growth has heavily depended on exports was challenged by some economists who pointed to the country’s high rates of growth over the years 2008 to 2010 in the face of the collapse in international economic activity and trade.  They defended their position using data designed to measure the contribution of different economic sectors to growth.  The table below, which comes from the Asian Development Bank, presents such data for China.

The table provides estimates of the percentage contributions made by consumption (government and private), investment, and net exports to China’s economic growth.  As we can see, net exports, except for the year 1990, make a relatively small contribution to Chinese growth.  In fact, in 2003 and 2004, when exports were rapidly growing, net exports actually subtracted from growth.  To clarify: a negative contribution by net exports during those years does not mean that exports fell, only that the trade surplus narrowed, thereby reducing trade’s contribution to growth.  Viewed from this perspective, Chinese growth is overwhelmingly explained by domestic demand—investment and consumption–even during the years 2005 to 2007, when net exports made its biggest recent contribution.

table-china-growth

However, focusing on net exports is not a useful way to understand the importance of export activity.  The fact is that Chinese imports could be used to support consumption, investment, or export production.  Thus, to test the importance of exports, one would have to adjust each of these three sectors by subtracting the value of imports used by that sector.  The table above is constructed on the assumption that imports are used only in the export sector, an assumption that cannot help but minimize the contribution of trade to Chinese growth.  In addition, given what we know about China’s economic transformation, it seems hard to deny that a significant share of investment, whether in plant and equipment or infrastructure, was also triggered by export activity.  Moreover, the country’s export activity, by generating income for a growing share of China’s workforce, had to have increased the country’s private consumption.  In short, calculating the contribution of exports to Chinese growth requires far more than a simple examination of the contribution of net exports.

A number of economists, using different methods, have concluded that external demand has played a very significant role in driving Chinese growth.  For example, consultants for the McKinsey company, using their own measure of domestic value-added exports, estimated that exports accounted for some 30 percent of Chinese growth over the period 2002 to 2006.

Two Asia Development Bank economists used a different measure to calculate the contribution of external demand to Chinese growth, one that included inflows of foreign direct investment as well as their own estimate of domestic value added exports.  Their measure of external demand “grew steadily and maintained a two-digit annual growth rate [from 2000] until the global financial crisis in 2008. The estimates suggest that the weight of [external demand] on the economy increased gradually during this period—in 2001 it accounted for 18.3 percent of GDP growth; by 2004, almost half of the 10.2 percent GDP growth could be attributed to [it]. During 2005–07, the share of external demand dropped slightly, but remained 38 percent–40 percent.”

Yılmaz Akyüz, Special Economic Advisor to the South Center and former Director of UNCTAD’s Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, using detailed input-output tables, concluded that:

despite a high import content ranging between 40 and 50 percent, approximately one-third of Chinese growth before the global crisis was a result of exports, due to their phenomenal growth of some 25 percent per annum. This figure increases to 50 percent if spillovers to consumption and investment are allowed for. The main reason for excessive dependence on foreign markets is under consumption. This is due not so much to a high share of household savings in GDP as to a low share of household income and a high share of profits.

In short, it seems clear that exports and foreign direct investment have played a major role in China’s high speed growth.  Therefore, it is to be expected that a global recession and very weak post-crisis global recovery would cause a fall in China’s rate of growth.  But that raises these two important questions: by how much and for how long?  And not surprisingly, the answers to those questions depends, in part, on the response of the Chinese government.

The Misleading Rebalancing of the Chinese Economy

In a trivial sense, if exports fall, then domestic spending will become more important to growth.  However, a meaningful rebalancing must mean more than that.  The economy should be transformed in ways that allow for sustainable growth based on domestic demand that is underpinned by and contributes to a rising majority standard of living.  That is what I do not see.

The Chinese government’s immediate response to the global recession was a massive stimulus program supported by a highly expansionary monetary policy.  In November 2008 the government announced a stimulus package, heavily weighted toward infrastructure spending, equal to $586 billion or about 14 percent of the country’s gdp.   Thanks to the government’s control over key state industrial enterprises and the country’s banking system, the spending began one month later and continued throughout 2009.

Two Chinese economists describe the impact of this program on the country’s growth as follows:

Directly after the unveiling of the stimulus package, the year-over-year growth rate of fixed asset investment in China jumped 9 percentage points from 2008:Q4 to 2009:Q1 and accelerated further to 38 percent per year in 2009:Q2. So for the entire year of 2009 the yearly growth rate of fixed investment reached 30.9 percent, almost twice as high as its average pre-crisis growth rate. As a result, gross fixed capital formation contributed a phenomenal 8.06 percentage points to China’s 9.1 percent per year real GDP growth in 2009. In other words, investment alone was responsible for nearly 90% of the robust GDP growth in 2009 when Chinese exports collapsed and shrank by nearly 45 percent. . .

(T)he People’s Bank of China started to expand money supply by the end of 2008. The monetary injection immediately led to sharp increases in credit lending at nearly the same speed and magnitude. Despite positive inflation, the real growth rate of outstanding loan balances increased from 5 percent per year in mid-2008 to 12.49 percent per year in December 2008, and further up to 32.5 percent per year in June 2009, a historical peak during the entire reform era since 1978.

Accompanying this explosion of investment was a change in its composition.  Investment by private sector manufacturing firms fell, while investment by key state owned industries tied to the government’s infrastructure program–which targeted the construction of new roads, railway lines, ports, airports, and the like–grew.  Local governments pursued their own investment activity, supported by cheap and plentiful loans, promoting construction of new industrial parks, shopping centers, and apartment complexes.

All this investment powered the Chinese economy through the period of global collapse; China’s gdp grew by 9.4 percent in 2009 and 10.6 percent in 2010.  However, as to be expected, the effects of the stimulus program gradually weakened, leaving in its wake massive excess capacity in many state owned firms; under-used airports, highways, railways, and shopping centers; and enormous environmental damage.  Determined to keep growth up, the government maintained its expansionary monetary policy.  However, given the continued weakness in the global economy, little of the money was used for productive investment.  Instead businesses, local governments, and wealthy citizens tended to borrow to purchase assets, more specially stocks and housing, producing bubbles in each.  The stock market bubble was popped by policy in 2015.   The housing bubble is ongoing.  Construction of housing has helped offset the decline in state investment in infrastructure.  And the wealth effect from the stock and housing bubbles has boosted consumption (by high income families), as we can see in the chart below. But housing construction is too limited and personal consumption is too small a share of the economy to halt the steady slide in the country’s gdp growth rate.

household-consumption

Underpinning and now threatening the Chinese government’s growth strategy has been a rapid and extreme build up in debt.  Chinese debt levels soared from 150 percent of gdp in 2009 to approximately 280 percent of gdp in 2016.  And the debt build up is accelerating.  In other words ever more debt appears needed to produce a slowing gdp.  And the debt build-up appears to be running up against its own limits.  As the China specialist Michael Pettis wrote in his May 2016 monthly report on the Chinese economy:

in order to achieve current levels of GDP growth, China’s debt is growing at least two-and-a-half times as fast as debt-servicing capacity and is probably growing three or four times as fast. Clearly this isn’t sustainable. And it must become even less sustainable as long as the process continues. If China attempts to maintain GDP growth of 6.5% for the next five years, it won’t be enough for debt to continue growing at the same already-alarming rate relative to GDP growth. In the late stages of overinvestment growth cycles, credit must grow exponentially relative to GDP growth. . . .

If China manages the targeted 6.5% GDP growth over the next five years, in short, so that by the end of 2021 its GDP will be double the 2011 level, its GDP will be nearly 40% larger than it is today. If we assume that it takes 15-16% growth in credit, gradually rising to 20-22% growth in credit, to achieve this GDP growth target, China’s debt will have risen to become between 110% and 170% larger than it is today. This represents an enormously high growth rate on an already high level of debt.

And, as Pettit goes on to say, these projected debt levels “are simply too implausible to take seriously. In my opinion it is, in other words, extremely unlikely that China can follow the targeted GDP growth path because the target can only be met if debt is able to grow to what are effectively impossibly high levels.”

The Chinese government has tried several times over the last years to tighten credit, but each time, worried about the consequences, they have reversed course.  George Magnus, writing in the Financial Times, provides a useful summary of this experience:

Total Social Financing, a broad measure of monthly credit creation, is growing at nearly three times the rate of officially recorded money GDP growth, or more if you don’t believe the official GDP data. Curiously, many private companies face tight credit conditions and so rapid credit creation may be largely for the benefit of the cash-flows of already highly indebted real estate sector, local governments and state enterprise sectors.

Some financial policies have been introduced by way of countermeasures, but to little effect. For example, the government clamped down in 2013 on borrowing by local government financing vehicles, only to relax the curbs last year [2015]. It also introduced a local government bond debt swap scheme last year to allow expensive bank debt to be swapped for cheaper debt instruments. Banks duly bought more than Rmb3tn of bonds, but traditional lending growth continued regardless.

After encouraging the development of shadow banking between 2009 and 2013, lending restrictions were enforced in 2014, but a fall in financial institutions’ off-balance sheet assets simply showed up in an expansion in the main banking system’s assets. . . .

Instead, all we are likely to see is more credit easing, in the wake of the six initiatives since late 2014 to cut interest rates and banks’ reserve requirements, albeit to no economic effect. The credit binge, then, will continue until it can’t.

The decisive factors will be the already compromised debt servicing capacity of borrowers, and the behavior of banks under the weight of rising non-performing and bad loans and emerging funding difficulties as loan to deposit ratios increase further.

Thus, even while demonstrating a willingness to tolerate deepening imbalances, the Chinese government has been forced to accept ever lower rates of growth.  And, there are good reasons to believe that the trade-offs facing the Chinese government are worsening, leaving the government with little choice but to accept a lower growth target.  One reason is that China’s housing bubble will, like all bubbles, eventually come to an end.  C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh provide the following overview of developments in China’s housing market:

What exactly is going on in the Chinese housing market? Over the past year, there has been a dramatic rise in prices of residential property in many cities, and especially in some of the large metros. This comes after a period just before, when everyone was talking about the “softening” of the Chinese real estate market as the authorities sought to clamp down on what they believed was speculative activity that was leading to excessively high prices and making housing unaffordable for many ordinary Chinese. But since then – and really from early 2015, as [the chart below shows] – prices seem to have gone completely berserk, increasing at unprecedented rates.

housing

The problem, as in most housing booms, is that house purchases are leveraged (albeit to a lesser extent in China than in other countries because of higher down payment requirements). The extent of debt flowing into housing has increased sharply in the current year. According to Bloomberg, outstanding housing mortgages in China increased by 31 percent just in the first half of 2016, three times more than the increase in overall lending. Loans to households increased to account for as much as 71 percent of total new lending in August 2016, compared to 24 percent in January. And this excludes the shadow banking activities that are also dominantly geared to real estate and construction lending. This means that there is bound to be a knock-on effect on banks and other lenders, once the bubble bursts and house prices start coming down. The Chinese authorities are trying to walk the tightrope to bring stability and greater affordability into the housing market without simultaneously destabilizing finance, but this is a difficult task. Indeed, the problem may be urgent, because in fact in many cities the downslide in house prices has already started – and indeed it is evident that in recent months the trend has got aggravated.

The housing market boom has encouraged new home construction and greater consumption, both of which have helped moderate the decline in Chinese growth rates.  Letting the air out of the bubble, even assuming that this can be done in a controlled way, will weaken an important force supporting economic growth.

A second reason for pessimission about Chinese growth is the increasing problem of capital flight.  In brief, rich Chinese and foreign investors are now moving money out of China.  As the New York Times reports:  “In Beijing, confidence has given way to a case of nerves. Local residents often sense trouble coming before foreign investors and are the first to flee before a crisis. Chinese moved a record $675 billion out of the country in 2015, some of it for purchases of foreign real estate.”

money-flows

And, as Bloomberg News points out, this problem will not be easily managed:

China’s balancing act isn’t getting any easier.

Policy makers are grappling with how to attack excessive borrowing and rein in soaring property prices while maintaining rapid growth. They’re also battling yuan depreciation and capital outflow pressures as U.S. interest rates rise, while on the horizon looms the risk of confrontation with America’s President-elect Donald Trump on trade and Taiwan. . . .

Outflows will exceed $200 billion in the fourth quarter [2016] and rise further in the first quarter, said Pauline Loong, managing director at research firm Asia-Analytica in Hong Kong.

Capital is leaving for more fundamental reasons than rising U.S. rates and a stronger dollar, she said. Drivers include rising expectations of yuan weakness, fears of an abrupt policy U-turn trapping funds in the country, and a lack of profitable investment opportunities at home amid rising costs and slowing growth.

“The real nightmare for Beijing – and for markets – is a vicious cycle of capital outflows triggering bigger devaluations of the yuan that in turn drive bigger and faster outflows,” Loong said. “We expect capital outflows to increase in the coming months as Chinese money seeks to maximize exit quotas in case of more stringent restrictions later on.”

The most effective way to halt a capital outflow is to reduce credit and raise interest rates.  However, doing so would likely topple the housing market and threaten the financial health of bank and non-bank lenders and high income borrowers, and push down growth rates.  On the other hand, to do nothing means a continuing rundown in reserves and a self-reinforcing currency decline.

A third reason is the enormous excess capacity of key Chinese industries and continuing slow growth in the world economy.  The consequences of these interrelated problems are well described by two analysts:

As officials from China and the US meet this week [June 2016], they’re scheduled to talk about everything from the US Federal Reserve’s decision-making process to the disputed South China Sea. But China’s “excess capacity” problem is top of the agenda.

US treasury secretary Jack Lew called the problem “distorting” and “damaging” in remarks in Beijing on Monday (June 6) and said it was critical to global markets that China cut its production.

That’s because some of China’s factories have been pumping out more steel, solar panels, and other goods than the world wants or needs—in order to keep China’s GDP growing and citizens employed.

Widespread labor strikes and a slowing domestic economy have put pressure on local Chinese officials to keep factories going, even as leaders in Beijing have pledged to cut capacity and said they could lay off millions. Most of these factories are state-owned, meaning they’re subsidized by the government, rather than making market-driven decisions.

That means Chinese manufacturers can lower prices of what they make to keep factories busy more easily than private companies. China’s producer price index, which measures wholesale prices they command for their goods, has fallen for 50 months in a row.

The net effect for some industries outside of China has been devastating, marked by mass layoffs and closing factories, as lower-priced Chinese goods flood the market—and that has been no where more apparent than the steel industry.

producer-prices

This is not a sustainable situation.  The combination of growing debt with falling producer prices is a deadly one for business stability.

And it is worth mentioning a fourth: the changing labor situation in China.  Workers are increasingly fighting and winning wage increases despite Chinese government efforts to the contrary.   As a result, as the New York Times explains:

Labor costs in China are now significantly higher than in many other emerging economies. Factory workers in Vietnam earn less than half the salary of a Chinese worker, while those in Bangladesh get paid under a quarter as much.

Rising costs are driving many companies in a variety of sectors to relocate business to a wide range of other countries. In the most recent survey from the American Chamber of Commerce in China, a quarter of respondents said they had either already moved or were planning to move operations out of China, citing rising costs as the top reason. Of those, almost half are moving into other developing countries in Asia, while nearly 40 percent are shifting to the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Many of the factories moving away make the products often found on the shelves of American retailers.

Stella International, a footwear manufacturer headquartered in Hong Kong that makes shoes for Michael Kors, Rockport and other major brands, closed one of its factories in China in February and shifted some of that production to plants in Vietnam and Indonesia. TAL, another Hong Kong-based manufacturer that makes clothing for American brands including Dockers and Brooks Brothers, plans to close one of its Chinese factories this year and move that work to new facilities in Vietnam and Ethiopia.

Other companies with an extensive presence in China may not be closing factories, but are targeting new investments elsewhere.

Taiwan’s Foxconn, best known for making Apple iPhones in Chinese factories, is planning to build as many as 12 new assembly plants in India, creating around one million new jobs there. A pilot operation in the western Indian state of Maharashtra will start churning out mobile phones later this year.

To this point, labor activism largely remains limited to shop-floor struggles aimed at forcing corporations to meet wage, benefit, and safety standards mandated by law.  However, capitalist mobility gives the Chinese state little room to maneuver.  For now, state repression has kept the insurgency from become a movement.    But, a sustained slowdown could trigger more militant activism, and on a wider scale, which would negatively impact foreign investment and production.

What Lies Ahead For The Chinese Economy?

The Chinese government faces enormous challenges.  Its strategy of building a powerful export sector is now threatened by stagnation in the advanced capitalist countries.  It sought to compensate by directing a massive, wasteful, and environmentally destructive infrastructure program that has largely run its course.  It now confronts a growing debt spiral, a housing bubble, and capital flight, as well as industrial over capacity and a growing worker insurgency.  There is no simple set of policies that can solve any one of these problems without making another worse.  For example, government spending to sustain production will only add to capacity and debt problems as well as increase capital flight.  Tightening credit markets will help reduce over capacity and capital flight, but likely collapse the housing market and significantly dampen economic growth.

In making this case for difficult times ahead, I do not mean to suggest that the Chinese economy is on the verge of collapse.  Rather I mean to argue that the country’s growth can be expected to slow considerably, perhaps to the 2 to 4 percent range.  And for China that likely means an intensification of internal pressures for structural change, especially from workers who have enjoyed few of the gains they helped produce during the country’s many years of high-speed growth.

And, since most of the third world has become ever more export-dependent, and China has been the prime export market for the parts and components produced by Asian countries and the primary commodities sold by many Latin American and Sub Saharan African countries, China’s slowdown can be expected to have a significant negative effect on growth rates in most of the third world.   At the same time, unless the slowdown in China’s growth rate triggers a major restructuring of the Chinese economy that disrupts/reorients existing cross border production networks, something that has yet to happen, the effects on US and European economies should be far less.  The consequences might be greater for Japan, given its tighter integration with East Asian economies.

In sum, those expecting China, or East Asia more generally, to anchor a resurgent global economy, will be disappointed.  Transnational corporations have gone far in creating a world to their liking, but the resulting contradictions and tensions are multiplying rapidly, even in those countries and areas where accumulation dynamics have been the most robust.  The need is great for meaningful change in how economies are structured and interconnected.

Asia’s Economic Future

There is strong reason to expect a further weakening of global economic activity over the next several years, putting greater pressure on majority living and working conditions.

In brief, Asia’s economic dynamism is ebbing.  Given the region’s centrality in the international economy, this trend is both an indicator of current global economic problems and a predictor of a worsening global situation.

Asia’s central role in the global economy

Asia’s central role in the world economy is easily documented.  For example, as the Asian Development Bank points out, “Global headwinds notwithstanding, developing Asia will continue to contribute 60% of world growth.”

Asia’s key position is anchored by China.  China is the single largest contributor to world GDP growth, likely accounting for almost 40 percent of global growth in 2016.  Stephen Roach, former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm’s chief economist, estimates that China’s contribution to global growth was 50 percent larger than the combined contributions of all the advanced capitalist economies.

The rise of Asia, and in particular China, owes much to the actions of transnational corporations and their strategy of creating Asian-centered cross-border production networks or global value chains (GVC).  In the words of the Asian Development Bank, these networks or chains involve “dividing the production of goods and services into linked stages of production scattered across international borders.  While such exchange of inputs is as old as trade itself, rapid growth in the extent and complexity of GVCs since the late 1980s is unprecedented.”

The strategy was initiated by Japanese transnational corporations who began shifting segments of their respective production processes to developing Asian countries in the late 1980s; US and European firms soon followed.  The process kicked into high gear in the mid to late 1990s once China opened up to foreign investment and decided to pursue an export-led growth strategy.

Asia, as a consequence, became transformed into a highly efficient, integrated, regional export machine, with China serving as the region’s final assembly platform.  Developing Asian economies became increasingly organized around the production of manufactures for export; their share of total world manufacturing exports rose from 18.4 percent to 32.5 percent over the period 1992-3 to 2011-12.   And, following the logic of cross border production, a growing share of these exports were parts and components, which were often traded multiple times within the region before arriving in China for final assembly.   Parts and components accounted for more than half of all developing Asian intra-regional manufacturing trade in 2006-7.

China, befitting its regional role, became the first or second largest export market for almost every developing Asian country, with the majority of those exports the parts and components needed for the assembly of advanced electronics.  Between 1995 and 2014, the electronics share of manufacturing exports to China from Korea grew from 8.5 percent to 32.2 percent.  Over the same period, the electronics share from Taiwan exploded from 9.1 percent to 63.7 percent, for Singapore the share grew from 17.5 percent to 36.8 percent, and for the Philippines it rose from 3.4 percent to 78.3 percent.  China’s exports to the region, and especially outside the region, were mostly final goods, with the most technologically advanced assembled/produced under the direction of foreign transnational corporations.  In line with this development, China became the premier location for foreign investment by transnational corporations from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, as well as leading non-Asian corporations.

This history allows us to appreciate the forces that powered Asia’s growth.  Growing demand for manufactures by consumers and retailers in the US and the Eurozone became increasingly satisfied by exports from Asia.  The production of these exports triggered the production of and trade in parts and components by developing East Asian countries and their final assembly in China, as well as massive investment in new factories and supportive infrastructure, especially in China.  East Asian export production also required significant imports of primary commodities, which were largely purchased from countries in Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa, who experienced their own growth spurt as a result.

As we now well know, this growth was heavily dependent on the borrowing capacity of working people in the advanced capitalist world, especially in the US, whose incomes had been falling in large part because of the shift of production to Asia.  The collapse of the debt-driven US housing bubble in 2008 triggered a major financial crisis and global recession, which also greatly depressed international trade.   A weak international recovery has followed; international trade and growth remain far below pre-crisis levels, raising questions about Asia’s future economic prospects.  To appreciate why I am pessimistic about Asia’s economic future requires us to delve more deeply into the ways in which Asian economies have been restructured by transnational capital’s accumulation dynamics.

The Dynamics of Asia’s Economic Transformation

The three charts below, which come from an article authored by the Monetary Authority of Singapore in collaboration with Associate Professor Davin Chor of the National University of Singapore, provide a useful visualization of the Asian economic transformation described above, in particular, changes in the trading relationships of the countries, with each other and with the rest of the world.  The authors use what they call a measure of “upstreamness” to highlight “where a country fits in the operation of cross border production networks, more particularly whether it specialized in producing raw input, intermediate inputs or finished goods.”  The more a country specializes in producing raw inputs, the greater is the value of its upstreamness index; the more it specializes in producing final goods, the smaller is its upstreamness index.

More precisely: the upstreamness index for an industry takes on values equal to or larger than 1.  A value of 1 means that the industry’s output “is just one stage removed from final demand.” A greater value means that the industry’s output enters the relevant production process as an input that is a number of stages removed from final demand.  Here are some examples of upstreamness values for select US industries:

index-values

For the charts below, the upstreamness measure for each country is calculated by weighting the upsteamness of its export industries by the share of each industry in the country’s total exports for the year in question.

As the authors explain:

Charts 2 to 4 depict the changing networks of trade flows between the Asian economies, and in relation to the US, UK, Eurozone (EZ), Australia, as well as the rest of the world (ROW). In these charts, the arrows indicate the direction of the net trade balance between each pair of economies, while the width of each arrow is proportional to the magnitude of this balance.

The arrows are color-coded to reflect the upstreamness of the export flows that move in the same direction as the net trade balance between each pair of nodes. For simplicity, export upstreamness values lying between 1 and 2 are labelled as “downstream” (green), those between 2 and 2.5 as “midstream” (yellow), and those above 2.5 as “upstream” (red).

As we can see in Chart 2, in 1995, a time when cross boarder production networks were still limited, Japan dominated the Asian region.  It was a significant downstream (green) exporter to the US, the Eurozone, the UK, and China.  And it was a significant supplier of key midstream machinery to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.  It generally purchased its upstream inputs from the ROW.   As we can also see, China was well on its way to becoming a major exporter of final goods to the US, the world’s dominant consumer of both downstream and midstream goods.

chart-2

chart-3

By 2005, as illustrated in Chart 3, Japan’s role in the region had dramatically diminished.  China was now the region’s hub, and as such, the dominant exporter of finished goods to the US, the Eurozone, Hong Kong, and the ROW.  The economies of Korea and Taiwan had also been transformed, increasingly oriented to supplying upstream parts and components to China-based exporters.

chart-4

Chart 4, which captures conditions in 2014, shows a deepening of the trade patterns of the previous period.  China’s export dominance is greater yet, as illustrated by the increase in the width of its green trade arrows pointing to the US, ROW, EZ, and Hong Kong.  The Korean and Taiwanese economies are even more dependent on sales of parts and components to China.  Because of their relatively small trade activity, it is difficult to appreciate the transformations experienced by other Asian countries.  Many ASEAN countries, as noted above, had become suppliers of key electronic components to China.  Vietnam, due in large part to the expansion of South Korean production networks, has become an important assembly and export location for some consumer electronics such as smart phones.

What is also not visible from these charts is the effect that transnational corporate-driven regionalization dynamics have had on the structures and stability of individual countries, and of course on the working and living conditions of Asian workers.  One consequence of the rise of China as the region’s key final assembly and production platform is that leading firms from other Asian countries significantly reduced their domestic investment activity as they located operations in China. This deliberate deindustrialization was a natural outcome of the establishment of cross border production networks which involve, as stated above, the dividing of production activities into segments and the location of one or more of these segments in other countries.

The chart below highlights the dramatic decline in Japanese investment as Japanese firms shifted segments of production overseas.   This ongoing decline in investment is one of the most important reasons for the country’s ongoing economic stagnation.

japan

The following chart shows a similar sustained decline in investment, although beginning at a later date than for Japan, for the grouping “Rest of emerging Asia,” which includes Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.   China, on the other hand, has experienced a dramatic and sustained rise in its investment ratio. Chinese state activity, rather than foreign direct investment, accounts for the great majority of this investment, although in many cases it was undertaken to attract and support foreign production.

asian-investment

As leading Asian transnational corporations expanded their production networks, their actions tended to restructure their respective home economies in ways that left these economies more unbalanced and crisis prone.  For example, almost all Asian economies became increasingly export dependent at the same time that their exports narrowed to a limited range of parts and components.   And with transnational corporations increasingly able to shift production from one national location to another, China’s pull became ever stronger.  One consequence was that governments throughout Asia were forced to match China’s relatively low labor costs and corporate friendly business environment.  In many cases, they did so by transforming their own labor markets though the introduction of new laws and actions designed to weaken labor rights.  This, in turn, tended to suppress regional purchasing power, thereby reinforcing the region’s export dependence.  Not surprisingly then, the decline in exports that has followed the post 2008 Great Recession poses a serious challenge to Asia’s growth strategy.

According to the Asian Development Bank:

Developing Asia’s exports grew rapidly in real terms at an annual rate of 11.2 percent in 2000–2010 (Figure 1.2.1). Excepting a brief rebound in 2010, the region’s export volume growth has slowed since the crisis, recording annual growth of 4.7 percent in 2011–2015. A major concern is that developing Asia’s exports actually declined by 0.8 percent in 2015, which was a particularly bad year for world trade. Regional trends follow the lead of export growth in the PRC, which contributes about 40 percent of developing Asia’s export value.  PRC export growth slowed from an annual average of 18.3 percent in 2001–2010 to 6.4 percent in 2011–2015, falling into a 2.1 percent decline in 2015. The slowdown in developing Asia excluding the PRC was less pronounced as growth halved from 8.0 percent in 2001–2010 to 4.1 percent in 2011–2015, still growing marginally in 2015 at 0.8 percent. . . .

The slowdown has meant that developing Asia’s export growth in 2011–2015 was, at 4.1%, similar to the 4.3% averaged by other developing economies and not much higher than the 3.6% of the advanced economies—two groups that developing Asia has historically outperformed in export growth.

trade-trends

And as the region’s export growth rate declined, so did overall rates of GDP growth, as we see in the table below.

rates-of-growth

Still, these growth rates remain impressive, especially in light of the steep decline in regional exports.  Perhaps not surprisingly, developing Asia’s buoyancy owes much to China’s ability to maintain its relatively high rates of economic growth.  However, as I will discuss in a following post, contradictions and pressures are mounting in China that will intensify its economic slowdown and significantly depress growth in the rest of Asia, with negative consequences for the rest of the world.

Capitalism and Inequality

Defenders of capitalism in the United States often choose not to use that term when naming our system, preferring instead the phrase “market system.”  Market system sounds so much better, evoking notions of fair and mutually beneficial trades, equality, and so on.  The use of that term draws attention away from the actual workings of our system.

In brief, capitalism is a system structured by the private ownership of productive assets and driven by the actions of those who seek to maximize the private profits of the owners.  Such an understanding immediately raises questions about how some people and not others come to own productive wealth and the broader social consequences of their pursuit of profit.

Those are important questions because it is increasingly apparent that while capitalism continues to produce substantial benefits for the largest asset owners, those benefits have increasingly been secured through the promotion of policies – globalization, financialization, privatization of state services, tax cuts, attacks on social programs and unions–that have both lowered overall growth and left large numbers of people barely holding the line, if not actually worse off.

The following two figures come from a Washington Post article by Jared Bernstein, in which he summarizes the work of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The first figure shows the significant decline in US pre-tax income growth.  In the first period (1946-1980), pre-tax income grew by 95 percent.  In the second (1980-2014), it grew by only 61 percent.

income-trends

This figure also shows that this slower pre-tax income growth has not been a problem for those at the top of the income distribution.  Those at the top more than compensated for the decline by capturing a far greater share of income growth than in the past.  In fact, those in the bottom 50 percent of the population gained almost nothing over the period 1980 to 2014.

The next figure helps us see that the growth in inequality has been far more damaging to the well-being of the bottom half than the slowdown in overall income growth.  As Bernstein explains:

The bottom [blue] line in the next figure shows actual pretax income for adults in the bottom half of the income scale. The top [red] line asks how these folks would have done if their income had grown at the average rate from the earlier, faster-growth period. The middle [green] line asks how they would have done if they experienced the slower, average growth of the post-1980 period.

The difference between the top two lines is the price these bottom-half adults paid because of slower growth. The larger gap between the middle and bottom line shows the price they paid from doing much worse than average, i.e., inequality (aging demographics are also in play, but the researchers show that they do not explain the extent of the slowdown in income growth). That explains about two-thirds of the difference in endpoints. Slower growth hurt these families’ income gains, but inequality hurt them more.

inequality-versus-growth

A New York Times analysis of pre-tax income distribution over the period 1974 to 2014 reinforces this conclusion about the importance of inequality.  As we can see in the figure below, the top 1 percent and bottom 50 percent have basically changed places in terms of their relative shares of national income.

changing-places

The steady ratcheting down in majority well-being is perhaps best captured by studies designed to estimate the probability of children making more money than their parents, an outcome that was the expectation for many decades and that underpinned the notion of “the American dream.”

Such research is quite challenging, as David Leonhardt explains in a New York Times article, “because it requires tracking individual families over time rather than (as most economic statistics do) taking one-time snapshots of the country.”  However, thanks to newly accessible tax records that go back decades, economists have been able to estimate this probability and how it has changed over time.

Leonhardt summarizes the work of one of the most important recent studies, that done by economists associated with the Equality of Opportunity Project.   In summary terms, those economists found that a child born into the average American household in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of making more than their parents.  This falls to 79 percent for a child born in 1950, 62 percent for a child born in 1960, 61 percent for a child born in 1970, and only 50 percent for a child born in 1980.

The figure below provides a more detailed look at the declining fortunes of most Americans.   The horizontal access shows the income percentile a child is born into and the vertical access shows the probability of that child earning more than their parents.   The drop-off for children born in 1960 and 1970 compared to the earlier decade is significant and is likely the result of the beginning effects of the changes in capitalist economic dynamics that started gathering force in the late 1970s, for example globalization, privatization, tax cuts, union busting, etc.  The further drop-off for children born in 1980 speaks to the strengthening and consolidation of those dynamics.

american-dream

The income trends highlighted in the figures above are clear and significant, and they point to the conclusion that unless we radically transform our capitalist system, which will require building a movement capable of challenging and overcoming the power of those who own and direct our economic processes, working people in the United States face the likelihood of an ever-worsening future.

The Trump Victory

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the latest example of the rise in support for right-wing racist and jingoistic political forces in advanced capitalist countries.  Strikingly this rise has come after a sustained period of corporate driven globalization and profitability.

As highlighted in the McKinsey Global Institute report titled Playing to Win: The New Global Competition For Corporate Profits:

The past three decades have been uncertain times but also the best of times for global corporations–and especially so for large Western multinationals. Vast markets have opened up around the world even as corporate tax rates, borrowing costs, and the price of labor, equipment, and technology have fallen. Our analysis shows that corporate earnings before interest and taxes more than tripled from 1980 to 2013, rising from 7.6 percent of world GDP to almost 10 percent.  Corporate net incomes after taxes and interest payments rose even more sharply over this period, increasing as a share of global GDP by some 70 percent.

global-profit-pool

As we see below, it has been corporations headquartered in the advanced capitalist countries that have been the biggest beneficiaries of the globalization process, capturing more than two-thirds of 2013 global profits.

advanced-economies-dominate

More specifically:

On average, publicly listed North American corporations . . . increased their profit margins from 5.6 percent of sales in 1980 to 9 percent in 2013. In fact, the after-tax profits of US firms are at their highest level as a share of national income since 1929. European firms have been on a similar trajectory since the 1980s, though their performance has been dampened since 2008. Companies from China, India, and Southeast Asia have also experienced a remarkable rise in fortunes, though with a greater focus on growing revenue than on profit margins.

And, consistent with globalizing tendencies, it has been the largest corporations that have captured most of the profit generated.  As the McKinsey report explains:

The world’s largest companies (those topping $1 billion in annual sales) have been the biggest beneficiaries of the profit boom. They account for roughly 60 percent of revenue, 65 percent of market capitalization, and 75 percent of profits. And the share of the profit pool captured by the largest firms has continued to grow. Among North American public companies, for instance, firms with $10 billion or more in annual sales (adjusted for inflation) accounted for 55 percent of profits in 1990 and 70 percent in 2013. Moreover, relatively few firms drive the majority of value creation. Among the world’s publicly listed companies, just 10 percent of firms account for 80 percent of corporate profits, and the top quintile earns 90 percent.

bigger-the-better

Significantly, most large corporations have chosen not to use their profits for productive investments in new plant and equipment.  Rather, they built up their cash balances.  For example, “Since 1980 corporate cash holdings have ballooned to 10 percent of GDP in the United States, 22 percent in Western Europe, 34 percent in South Korea, and 47 percent in Japan.”  Corporations have often used these funds to drive up share prices by stock repurchase, boost dividends, or strengthen their market power through mergers and acquisitions.

In short, it has been a good time for the owners of capital, especially in core countries.  However, the same is not true for most core country workers.  That is because the rise in corporate profits has been largely underpinned by a globalization process that has shifted industrial production to lower wage third world countries, especially China; undermined wages and working conditions by pitting workers from different communities and countries against each other; and pressured core country governments to dramatically lower corporate taxes, reduce business regulations, privatize public assets and services, and slash public spending on social programs.

The decline in labor’s share of national income, illustrated below, is just one indicator of the downward pressure this process has exerted on majority living and working conditions in advanced capitalist countries.labor-share

Tragically, thanks to corporate, state, and media obfuscation of the destructive logic of contemporary capitalist accumulation dynamics, worker anger in the United States has been slow to build and largely unfocused.  Things changed this election season.  For example, Bernie Sanders gained strong support for his challenge to mainstream policies, especially those that promoted globalization, and his call for social transformation.  Unfortunately, his presidential candidacy was eventually sidelined by the Democratic Party establishment that continues, with few exceptions, to embrace the status-quo.

However, another “politics” was also gaining strength, one fueled by a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic right-wing movement that enjoyed the financial backing of the most reactionary wing of the capitalist class.  That movement, speaking directly to white (and especially male) workers, offered a simplistic and in its own way anti-establishment explanation for worker suffering: although corporate excesses were highlighted, the core message was that white majority decline was caused by the growing demands of “others”—immigrants, workers in third world countries, people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and Jews—which in aggregate worked to drive down wages, slow growth, and misuse and bankrupt governments at all levels.  Donald Trump was its political representative, and Donald Trump is now the president of the United States.

His administration will no doubt launch new attacks on unions, laws protecting human and civil rights, and social programs, leaving working people worse off.  Political tensions are bound to grow, and because capitalism is itself now facing its own challenges of profitability, the new government will find it has little room for compromise.

According to McKinsey,

After weighing various scenarios affecting future profitability, we project that while global revenue could reach $185 trillion by 2025, the after-tax profit pool could amount to $8.6 trillion. Corporate profits, currently almost 10 percent of world GDP, could shrink to less than 8 percent–undoing in a single decade nearly all the corporate gains achieved relative to world GDP over the past three decades. Real growth in corporate net income could fall from 5 percent to 1 percent per year. Profit growth could decelerate even more sharply if China experiences a more pronounced slowdown that reverberates through capital-intensive sectors.

future

History has shown that we cannot simply count on “hard times” to build a powerful working class movement committed to serious structural change.  Much depends on the degree of working class organization, solidarity with all struggles against exploitation and oppression, and clarity about the actual workings of contemporary capitalism.  Therefore we need to redouble our efforts to organize, build bridges, and educate. Our starting point must be resistance to the Trump agenda, but it has to be a resistance that builds unity and is not bounded in terms of vision by the limits of a simple anti-Trump alliance.   We face great challenges in the United States.

The Fading Magic Of The Market

Poorer than their Parents?  That was the question McKinsey & Company posed and attempted to answer in their July 2016 report titled: Poorer Than Their parents? Flat or Falling Incomes in Advanced Economies.

Here is the report’s key takeaway, which is illustrated in the figure below:

Our research shows that in 2014, between 65 and 70 percent of households in 25 advanced economies were in income segments whose real market incomes—from wages and capital—were flat or below where they had been in 2005.  This does not mean that individual households’ wages necessarily went down but that households earned the same as or less than similar households had earned in 2005 on average.  In the preceding years, between 1993 and 2005, this flat or falling phenomenon was rare, with less than 2 percent of households not advancing.  In absolute numbers, while fewer than ten million people were affected in the 1993-2005 period, that figure exploded to between 540 million and 580 million people in 2005-14.chart-1

More specifically, McKinsey & Company researchers divided households in six advanced capitalist countries (France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States) into various income segments based on their rank in their respective national income distributions.  They then examined changes in the various income segments over the two periods noted above.  Finally, they “scaled up the findings to include 19 other advanced economies with similar growth rates and income distribution patterns, for a total of 25 countries with a combined population of about 800 million that account for just over 50 percent of global GDP.”

The following figure illustrates market income dynamics over the 2005-14 period in the six above mentioned advanced capitalist countries. For example, 81 percent of the US population were in groups with flat or falling market income.

six-target-countries

The next figure provides a more detailed look at these market income dynamics.

market-income-six-target-countries

McKinsey & Company researchers also looked at disposable income trends, which required them to incorporate taxes and transfer payments.  As seen in the first figure of this post, government intervention meant that the percentage of households experiencing flat or declining disposable income was considerably less than the percentage experiencing flat or declining market incomes, 20-25 percent versus 65-70 percent.

The researchers attempted to explain these trends by analyzing “the patterns of median market and median disposable incomes for two periods: 1993 to 2005 and 2005 to 2014.  We focus on income changes of the median income household because middle-income households are representative of the overall flat or falling income trend in most countries, with the singular exception of Sweden.”

They highlighted five factors: aggregate demand factors, demographic factors, labor market factors, capital income factors, and tax and transfer factors.  As we can see from the second figure above, labor market changes hammered median market income in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.  And as we can also see, tax reductions and transfer payments helped to offset declines in median market disposable income in those three countries. In the case of the United States, while median market income fell by 3 percent over the period, median disposable income grew by 2 percent.

What is the answer to the question posed by McKinsey & Company?  Most likely large numbers of people will indeed be poorer than their parents.  Why?  Aggregate demand continues to stagnate as does investment and productivity.  Employment growth remains weak while precariousness of employment continues to grow.  Finally, the elite embrace of austerity works against the likelihood of new progressive government social interventions.  Without significant change in the political economies of the major capitalist countries, the next 14 years are going to be painful for billions of people.

Yes on Oregon Measure 97

Straight Talk About Measure 97

If we want Oregon to prosper we need to dramatically improve our state’s badly underfunded public schools, health care system, and senior services.  Here are some of the consequences of current funding levels: Oregon ranks 38th in school funding, has the 3rd largest class sizes, and has the 4th lowest graduation rate in the country.  Growing numbers of working people are unable to afford health care or financially survive a medical emergency; Oregon ranks 39th in the country for public health funding.  The number of seniors being forced to leave their homes because of a lack of social services also continues to grow.

The primary reason our state doesn’t have the funds it needs is that corporations operating in Oregon have quietly but steadily found ways to stop paying state income taxes.  As the Oregon Center for Public Policy pointed out in a recent study, “In the 1973-75 budget period, corporations paid 18.5 percent of all Oregon income taxes. Today they pay just 6.7 percent, a decline of nearly two-thirds. Absent any significant policy change, corporations are projected to pay just 4.6 percent of all Oregon income taxes by the mid 2020s.”  A study funded by The Council On State Taxation, a business lobbying group, found Oregon tied with Connecticut for the lowest “total effective business tax rate” in the country.

There is no point in beating around the bushes.  The only reasonable way to generate the tax revenue we need to fund critical state programs is by forcing corporations to pay more in taxes. If we don’t, as bad as things are now, they will get worse.  The state Chief Financial Officer, George Naughton, reports that the state of Oregon is facing a $1.4 billion gap between projected revenue and what it needs to maintain existing service levels.  State officials are talking possible 7 percent cuts across state programs.

There is an answer: Pass Measure 97 in November.

The virtues of Measure 97

Measure 97 will tax few corporations and the heaviest burden will fall on large out of state corporations.  Measure 97 makes one change to the existing Oregon tax code: it raises the corporate minimum tax on Oregon sales over $25 million for the largest C-corporations selling in the state.

Currently, the state minimum tax for C-corporations with sales of 25 to 50 million is $30,000 and tops out at $100,000 for C-corporations with sales above $100 million.  Measure 97 would impose a new tax rate of 2.5% on sales above the $25 million threshold.  The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office (LRO) offers the following example: “a C-corporation with Oregon sales of $50 million would pay a corporate minimum tax of $30,001 for the first $25 million in sales (the current tax) plus 2.5% on the second $25 million ($625,000) for a total minimum tax of $655,001.”

Oregon has some 400,000 businesses, 30,000 of which are classified as C-corporations.  According to the LRO, only 1051 of these corporations have more than $25 million in state sales and would be required to pay the higher minimum tax; that is approximately one-quarter of one percent of all businesses and 3 percent of all C-corporations selling in the state.  The real burden of the tax will fall on even fewer firms: the LRO estimates that the top 50 C-corporations would likely be responsible for more than 50 percent of the resulting increase in tax revenue.  And most of the money raised by the tax, more than 80 percent, will come from companies headquartered outside the state.

Measure 97 is an effective tax that will raise significant funds.  Measure 97 raises the minimum tax on large C-corporation sales, not profits.  By taxing sales rather than profits firms will not be able to fudge accounts and escape their responsibilities.  And Measure 97 taxes large C-corporations on their sales in Oregon.  Because the tax is on where the sales take place rather than where the goods are produced, firms cannot escape the tax by shifting production outside the state.  As for revenue, the LRO estimates that the tax would raise some $6 billion each biennium, which would boost the state budget by more than 15 percent; we are talking real money.

Measure 97 also makes clear where the money is to be spent.  The measure says that the funds generated by the tax are to be used to “provide additional funding for: public early childhood and kindergarten through twelfth grade education; health care; and services for senior citizens.” While it is true that the legislature will have the final say, passage of the measure will send a clear signal of our priorities to our elected leaders.

Misleading controversies over Measure 97’s effectiveness

The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office studied the likely impact of Measure 97 on the Oregon economy.  Some who oppose the measure have drawn on parts of its report to buttress their opposition.  Unfortunately, most of their objections to Measure 97 have been based on a misunderstanding of both the LRO’s methodology and the report’s conclusions.

Let’s be clear on what the report does say:

First, the report finds that Measure 97 will raise more than $6 billion in each of the next two budget cycles and that the new tax will ensure a more stable funding base for the state going forward.

Second, the report also shows that there is little reason to fear tax pyramiding.  Tax pyramiding is a common consequence of what are called gross receipt taxes, which are taxes that are levied on all business transactions.  As goods and services are sold from one business to another the tax tends to pyramid, growing larger and larger.  Measure 97 is not a typical gross receipts tax.  First, it is not levied on all business transactions.  As we saw above, only 1000 firms will likely pay the tax.  Competition within the economy will make it difficult for these firms to pass on the cost of the tax and other firms that may purchase their products will not be responsible for paying an additional tax.  Second, the LRO report shows that the tax will fall heaviest on large firms that are engaged in “final” rather than “intermediate sales,” for example, retail sales.  Thus, there is no evidence to support fears that Measure 97 will result in significant tax pyramiding and escalating tax rates.

Third, the report also concludes that the gains from greater and more stable funding of vital services come with minimal negative economic consequences.  The LRO study does find, as critics of Measure 97 point out, that the Oregon economy with Measure 97 in place will grow more slowly and create fewer jobs over the next five years than if the measure were not passed.  However, the negative impact of the tax is quite small.  For example, the LRO model predicts that there will be 20,000 fewer jobs in Oregon if Measure 97 is passed, but this is out of a projected labor force of some 2.7 million.  In reality we are talking about rounding errors.  This is highlighted by the results of a study of the effects of Measure 97 by the Northwest Economic Research Center (NERC) at Portland State University.  The NERC, using a similar methodology, concluded that adoption of the measure would generate a small overall gain in employment.

Most importantly, critics of Measure 97 do not appear to understand the LRO’s methodology and the biases that shape its conclusions.  The LRO did not use a forecasting model to assess the economic consequences of Measure 97.  In other words, the LRO never actually tried to predict what would happen to the Oregon economy if we passed or didn’t pass Measure 97.  For example, it did not try to model the consequences of slashing state budgets if the measure does not pass; it did not take the looming budget deficit into account at all.

Rather the LRO used an idealized model of the 2012 Oregon economy that operates in its own time and space, with firms that keep no profit (since all earnings are distributed to their owners) and full employment.  The authors of the study introduced the tax, made assumptions about firm responses, and used their model to simulate their created economy’s return to a new equilibrium state over a five year period.

While this model has its uses when comparing two different tax proposals, it is not very helpful for modeling the actual economic consequences of Measure 97.  In fact, its structure is such that its predicted results overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits of the measure.  One serious flaw in the model is its assumption that businesses have no retained profits.  This means that firms will automatically seek to pass the entire tax along to consumers, leading to higher prices and declines in real income.

However, there are many reasons to think that this outcome is unlikely.  First, competitive pressures will, in many cases, make it difficult for large firms to raise their prices.  After all, only some firms in each industry will be required to pay the new tax.  Second, studies have shown, including a recent one jointly authored by the Oregon Consumer League and Our Oregon, that large firms tend to have national pricing strategies.  In other words, these firms charge the same prices for the same products in every state in which they operate.  The study also found no relationship between state tax policies and the cost of living in each state.  Thus, it is likely that large multi-state firms operating in Oregon will simply absorb much of the new tax, accepting slightly lower profits, rather than try to pass it on to consumers through higher prices.

When you hear opponents of Measure 97 confidently predict that its passage will lead to higher prices and real income losses for consumers because businesses will simply pass on the cost of the tax to consumers, take a minute to investigate who is bankrolling the opposition to the measure.  Among the leading contributors to the no campaign are companies like Comcast, Standard Insurance, Procter and Gamble, Weyerhaeuser, Walmart, Well Fargo, and US Bank.  Would they be pouring tens of thousands of dollars each into the campaign if they didn’t fear that the tax will cost them profits?

Another serious flaw in that the model is that it does not try to capture any of the broader social benefits that would accrue to the state and its citizens from passage of Measure 97.  For example, the model does not account for the fact that a better educated and healthier population will likely attract new businesses and employment opportunities.  Or that well-funded social services would enable more people to work, boosting their incomes, or help families better weather hard times and plan and save for the future.   If the LRO had adjusted its model to compensate for these flaws, there is no doubt that its assessment of the effects of Measure 97 would have been far more positive.

In sum, most Oregonians know that many people are hurting.  And we are facing a huge budget deficit that will, if nothing is done, require more cuts to education and critical social services, leading to more suffering.  Measure 97 is a game changer.  Yes, this measure will force a large tax increase on some of the country’s biggest corporations.  But the reason that we need such a large increase is that these corporations have essentially been using our public services for close to nothing.  Until 2010 the state minimum tax was $10.  Even now, many corporations find ways to completely avoid paying even the minimum tax.  Measure 97 will put an end to that.  It will go a long way to creating an Oregon that works for the great majority.

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

Thus:

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.