Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Structural Crisis

Trump’s Economic Policies Are No Answer To Our Problems

President Trump has singled out unfair international trading relationships as a major cause of US worker hardship.  And he has promised to take decisive action to change those relationships by pressuring foreign governments to rework their trade agreements with the US and change their economic policies.

While international economic dynamics have indeed worked to the disadvantage of many US workers, Trump’s framing of the problem is highly misleading and his promised responses are unlikely to do much, if anything, to improve majority working and living conditions.

President Trump and his main advisers have aimed their strongest words at Mexico and China, pointing out that the US runs large trade deficits with each, leading to job losses in the US.  For example, Bloomberg News reports that Peter Navarro, the head of President Trump’s newly formed White House National Trade Council “has blamed Nafta and China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization for much, if not all, of a 15-year economic slowdown in the U.S.” In other words, poor negotiating skills on the part of past US administrations has allowed Mexico and China, and their workers, to gain at the expense of the US economy and its workers.

However, this nation-state framing of the origins of contemporary US economic problems is seriously flawed. It also serves to direct attention away from the root cause of those problems: the profit-maximizing strategies of large, especially US, multinational corporations.  It is the power of these corporations that must be confronted if current trends are to be reversed.

Capitalist Globalization Dynamics

Beginning in the late 1980s large multinational corporations, including those headquartered in the US, began a concerted effort to reverse declining profits by establishing cross border production networks (or global value chains).  This process knitted together highly segmented economic processes across national borders in ways that allowed these corporations to lower their labor costs as well as reduce their tax and regulatory obligations.   Their globalization strategy succeeded; corporate profits soared.  It is also no longer helpful to think about international trade in simple nation-state terms.

As the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development explains:

Global trade and foreign direct investment have grown exponentially over the last decade as firms expanded international production networks, trading inputs and outputs between affiliates and partners in GVCs [Global Value Chains].

About 60 per cent of global trade, which today amounts to more than $20 trillion, consists of trade in intermediate goods and services that are incorporated at various stages in the production process of goods and services for final consumption. The fragmentation of production processes and the international dispersion of tasks and activities within them have led to the emergence of borderless production systems – which may be sequential chains or complex networks and which may be global, regional or span only two countries.

UNCTAD estimates (see the figure below) that some 80 percent of world trade “is linked to the international production networks of TNCs [transnational corporations], either as intra-firm trade, through NEMs [non-equity mechanisms of control] (which include, among others, contract manufacturing, licensing, and franchising), or through arm’s-length transactions involving at least one TNC.”

tnc-involvement

In other words, multinational corporations have connected and reshaped national economies along lines that best maximize their profit.  And that includes the US economy.  As we see in the figure below, taken from an article by Adam Hersh and Ethan Gurwitz, the share of all US merchandise imports that are intra-firm, meaning are sold by one unit of a multinational corporation to another unit of the same multinational, has slowly but steadily increased, reaching 50 percent in 2013.  The percentage is considerably higher for imports of manufactures, including in key sectors like electrical, machinery, transportation, and chemicals.

onea

The percentage is lower, but still significant for US exports.  As we see in the following figure, approximately one-third of all merchandise exports from the US are sold by one unit of a multinational corporation to another unit of the same company.

oneb

The percentage of intra-firm trade is far higher for services, as illustrated in the next figure.

services

As Hersh and Gurwitz comment,

The trend is clear: As offshoring practices increase, companies need to provide more wraparound services—the things needed to run a businesses besides direct production—to their offshore production and research and development activities. Rather than indicating the competitive strength of U.S. services businesses to expand abroad, the growth in services exports follows the pervasive offshoring of manufacturing and commercial research activities.

Thus, there is no simple way to change US trade patterns, and by extension domestic economic processes, without directly challenging the profit maximizing strategies of leading multinational corporations.  To demonstrate why this understanding is a direct challenge to President Trump’s claims that political pressure on major trading partners, especially Mexico and China, can succeed in boosting the fortunes of US workers, we look next at the forces shaping US trade relationships with these two countries.

The US-Mexican Trade Relationship

US corporations, taking advantage of NAFTA and the Mexican peso crisis that followed in 1994-95, poured billions of dollars into the country (see the figure below).  Their investment helped to dramatically expand a foreign-dominated export sector aimed at the US market that functions as part of a North American region-wide production system and operates independent of the stagnating domestic Mexican economy.

fdi-mexico

Some 80 percent of Mexico’s exports are sold to the US and the country runs a significant merchandise trade surplus with the US, as shown in the figure below.

trade-mexico

Leading Mexican exports to the US include motor vehicles, motor vehicle parts, computer equipment, audio and video equipment, communications equipment, and oil and gas.  However, with the exception of oil and gas, these are far from truly “Mexican” exports.  As a report from the US Congressional Research Service describes:

A significant portion of merchandise trade between the United States and Mexico occurs in the context of production sharing as manufacturers in each country work together to create goods. Trade expansion has resulted in the creation of vertical supply relationships, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border. The flow of intermediate inputs produced in the United States and exported to Mexico and the return flow of finished products greatly increased the importance of the U.S.- Mexico border region as a production site. U.S. manufacturing industries, including automotive, electronics, appliances, and machinery, all rely on the assistance of Mexican [based] manufacturers. One report estimates that 40% of the content of U.S. imports of goods from Mexico consists of U.S. value added content.

Because foreign multinationals, many of which are US owned, produce most of Mexico’s exports of “advanced” manufactures using imported components, the country’s post-Nafta export expansion has done little for the overall health of the Mexican economy or the well-being of Mexican workers. As Mark Weisbrot points out:

If we look at the most basic measure of economic progress, the growth of gross domestic product, or income per person, Mexico, which signed on to NAFTA in 1994, has performed the 15th-best out of 20 Latin American countries.

Other measures show an even sadder picture. The poverty rate in 2014 was 55.1 percent, an increase from the 52.4 percent measurement in 1994.

Wages tell a similar story: There’s been almost no growth in real inflation-adjusted wages since 1994 — just about 4.1 percent over 21 years.

Representative Sander Levin and Harley Shaiken make clear that the gains have been nonexistent even for workers in the Mexican auto industry, the country’s leading export center:

Consider the auto industry, the flagship manufacturing industry across North America. The Mexican auto industry exports 80 percent of its output of which 86 percent is destined for the U.S. and Canada. If high productivity translated into higher wages in Mexico, the result would be a virtuous cycle of more purchasing power, stronger economic growth, and more imports from the U.S.

In contrast, depressed pay has become the “comparative advantage”. Mexican autoworker compensation is 14 percent of their unionized U.S. counterparts and auto parts workers earn even less–$2.40 an hour. Automation is not the driving force; its depressed wages and working conditions.

In other words, US workers aren’t the only workers to suffer from the globalization strategies of multinational corporations.  Mexican workers are also suffering, and resisting.

In sum, it is hard to square this reality with Trump’s claim that because of the way NAFTA was negotiated Mexico “has made us look foolish.” The truth is that NAFTA, as designed, helped further a corporate driven globalization process that has greatly benefited US corporations, as well as Mexican political and business elites, at the expense of workers on both sides of the border.  Blaming Mexico serves only to distract US workers from the real story.

The US-Chinese Trade Relationship

The Chinese economy also went through a major transformation in the mid-1990s which paved the way for a massive inflow of export-oriented foreign investment targeting the United States.  The process and outcome was different from what happened in Mexico, largely because of the legacy of Mao era policies.  The Chinese Communist Party’s post-1978 state-directed reform program greatly benefited from an absence of foreign debt; the existence of a broad, largely self-sufficient state-owned industrial base; little or no foreign investment or trade; and a relatively well-educated and healthy working class.  This starting point allowed the Chinese state to retain considerable control over the country’s economic transformation even as it took steps to marketize economic activity in the 1980s and privatize state production in the 1990s.

However, faced with growing popular resistance to privatization and balance of payments problems, the Chinese state decided, in the mid-1990s, to embrace a growing role for export-oriented foreign investment.  This interest in attracting foreign capital dovetailed with the desire of multinational corporations to globalize their production.  Over the decade of the 1990s and 2000s, multinational corporations built and expanded cross border production networks throughout Asia, and once China joined the WTO, the country became the region’s primary final assembly and export center.

As a result of this development, foreign produced exports became one of the most important drivers, if not the most important, of Chinese growth.  For example, according to Yılmaz Akyüz, former Director of UNCTAD’s Division on Globalization and Development Strategies:

despite a high import content ranging between 40 and 50 percent, approximately one-third of Chinese growth before the global crisis [of 2008] 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

The figure below illustrates the phenomenal growth in Chinese exports.

china-exports

The US soon became the primary target of China’s exports (see the trade figures below).   The US now imports more goods from China than from any other country, approximately $480 billion in 2015, followed by Canada and Mexico (roughly $300 billion each).  The US also runs its largest merchandise trade deficit with China, $367 billion in 2015, equal to 48 percent of the overall US merchandise trade deficit.  In second place was Germany, at only $75 billion.

china-trade-us

Adding to China’s high profile is the fact that it is the primary supplier of many high technology consumer goods, like cell phones and laptops. More specifically:

(F)or 825 products, out of a total of about 5,000, adding up to nearly $300 billion, China supplies more than all our other trade partners combined. Of these products, the most important is cell phones, where $40 billion in imports from China account for more than three-quarters of the total value imported.

There are also 83 products where 90 percent or more of US imports come from China; together these accounted for a total of $56 billion in 2015. The most important individual product in this category is laptop computers, which alone have an import value of $37 billion from China, making up 93 percent of the total imported.

Of course, China is also a major supplier of many low-technology, low-cost goods as well, including clothing, toys, and furniture.

Not surprisingly, exports from China have had a significant effect on US labor market conditions. Economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson “conservatively estimate that Chinese import competition explains 16 percent of the U.S. manufacturing employment decline between 1990 and 2000, 26 percent of the decline between 2000 and 2007, and 21 percent of the decline over the full period.”  They also find that Chinese import competition “significantly reduces earnings in sectors outside manufacturing.”

President Trump has accused China of engaging in an undeclared trade war against the United States.   However, while Trump’s charges conjure up visions of a massive state-run export machine out to crush the United States economy for the benefit of Chinese workers, the reality is quite different.

First, although the Chinese state retains important levers of control over economic activity, especially the state-owned banking system, the great majority of industrial production and export activity is carried out by private firms.  In 2012, state-owned enterprises accounted for only 24 percent of Chinese industrial output and 18 percent of urban employment.  As for exports, by 2013 the share of state-owned enterprises was down to 11 percent.  Foreign-owned multinationals were responsible for 47 percent of all Chinese exports.  And, most importantly in terms of their effect on the US economy, multinational corporations produce approximately 82 percent of China’s high-technology exports.

Second, although these high-tech exports come from China, for the most part they are not really “Chinese” exports.  As noted above, China now functions as the primary assembly point for the region’s cross border production networks.  Thus, the majority of the parts and components used in Chinese-based production of high-technology goods come from firms operating in other Asian countries.  In many cases China’s only contribution is its low-paid labor.

A Washington Post article uses the Apple iPhone 4, a product that shows up in trade data as a Chinese export, to illustrate the country’s limited participation in the production of its high technology exports:

In a widely cited study, researchers found that Apple created most of the product’s value through its product design, software development and marketing operations, most of which happen in the United States. Apple ended up keeping about 58 percent of the iPhone 4’s sales price. The gross profits of Korean companies LG and Samsung, which provided the phone’s display and memory chips, captured another 5 percent of the sales price. Less than 2 percent of the sales price went to pay for Chinese labor.

“We estimate that only $10 or less in direct labor wages that go into an iPhone or iPad is paid to China workers. So while each unit sold in the U.S. adds from $229 to $275 to the U.S.-China trade deficit (the estimated factory costs of an iPhone or iPad), the portion retained in China’s economy is a tiny fraction of that amount,” the researchers wrote.

The same situation exists with laptop computers, which are assembled by Chinese workers under the direction of Taiwanese companies using imported components and then exported as Chinese exports.  Economists have estimated that the US-Chinese trade balance would be reduced by some 40 percent if the value of these imported components were subtracted from Chinese exports.  Thus, it is not Chinese state enterprises, or even Chinese private enterprises, that are driving China’s exports to the US.  Rather it is foreign multinationals, many of which are headquartered in the US, including Apple, Dell, and Walmart.

And much like in Mexico, Chinese workers enjoy few if any benefits from their work producing their country’s exports.  The figure below highlights the steady fall in labor compensation as a share of China’s GDP.

china-labor

Approximately 80 percent of Chinese manufacturing workers are internal migrants with a rural household registration.  This means they are not entitled to access the free or subsidized public health care, education, or other social services available in the urban areas where they now work; the same is true for their children even if they are born in urban areas.  Moreover, most migrants receive little protection from Chinese labor laws.

For example, as the China Labor Bulletin reports:

In 2015, seven years after the implementation of the Labor Contract Law, only 36 percent of migrant workers had signed a formal employment contract with their employer, as required by law. In fact the percentage of migrant workers with formal contracts actually declined last year by 1.8 percent from 38 percent. For short-distance migrants, the proportion was even lower, standing at just 32 percent, suggesting that the enforcement of labor laws is even less rigid in China’s inland provinces and smaller cities.

According to the [2014] migrant worker survey . . . the proportion of migrant workers with a pension or any form of social security remained at a very low level, around half the national average. In 2014, only 16.4 percent of long-distance migrants had a pension and 18.2 percent had medical insurance.

Despite worker struggles, which did succeed in pushing up wages over the last 7 years, most migrant workers continue to struggle to make ends meet.   Moreover, with Chinese growth rates now slipping, and the government eager to restart the export growth machine, many local governments have decided, with central government approval, to freeze minimum wages for the next two to four years.

In short, it is not China, or its workers, that threaten US jobs and well-being.  It is the logic of capitalist globalization.  Thus, Trump’s call-to-arms against China obfuscates the real cause of current US economic problems and encourages working people to pursue a strategy of nationalism that can only prove counterproductive.

The Political Challenge Facing US Workers

The globalization process highlighted above was strongly supported by all major governments, especially by successive US administrations.  In contrast to Trump claims of a weak US governmental effort in support of US economic interests, US administrations used their considerable global power to secure the creation of the WTO and approval of a host of other multilateral and bilateral trade agreements, all of which provided an important infrastructure for capital mobility, thereby supporting the globalizing efforts of leading US multinational corporations.

President Trump has posed as a critic of existing international arrangements, claiming that they have allowed other countries, such as Mexico and China, to prosper at US expense.  He has stated that he will pursue new bilateral agreements rather than multilateral ones because they will better serve US interests and he has demanded that US multinational corporations shift their investment and production back to the US.

Such statements have led some to believe that the Trump administration is serious about challenging globalization dynamics in order to rebuild the US economy in ways that will benefit working people.  But there are strong reasons to doubt this.  Most importantly, he seems content to threaten other governments rather than challenge the profit-maximizing logic of dominant US companies, which as we have seen is what needs to happen.

One indicator: an administration serious about challenging the dynamics of globalization would have halted US participation in all ongoing negotiations for new multilateral agreements, such as the Trade in Services Agreement which is designed to encourage the privatization and deregulation of services for the benefit of multinational corporations.  This has not happened.

Such an administration would also renounce support for existing and future bilateral agreements that contain chapters that strengthen the ability of multinational corporations to dominate key sectors of foreign economies and sue their governments in supranational secret courts.  This has not happened.

Another indicator: an administration serious about creating a healthy, sustainable, and equitable domestic economy would strengthen and expand key public services and programs; rework our tax system to make it more progressive; tighten and increase enforcement of health and safety and environmental regulations; strengthen labor laws that protect the rights of workers, including to unionize; and boost the national minimum wage.  The Trump administration appears determined to do the opposite.

Such an administration would also begin to develop the state capacities necessary to redirect existing production and investment activity along lines necessary to rebuild our cities and infrastructure, modernize our public transportation system, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  The Trump administration appears committed to the exact opposite.

In short, if we take Trump’s statements seriously, that he actually wants to shift trading relationships, then it appears that his primary strategy is to make domestic conditions so profitable for big business, that some of the most globally organized corporations will shift some of their production back to the United States.  However, even if he succeeds, it is very unlikely that this will contribute to an improvement in majority living and working conditions.

The main reason is that US corporations, having battered organized labor with the assistance of successive administrations, have largely stopped creating jobs that provide the basis for economic security and well-being.  Economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger examined the growth  from 2005 to 2015 in “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 workers employed in such arrangements rose from 10.1 percent of all employed workers in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.  But their most startling finding is the following:

A striking implication of these estimates 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. Total employment according to the CPS increased by 9.1 million (6.5 percent) over the decade, from 140.4 million in February 2005 to 149.4 in November 2015. The increase in the share of workers in alternative work arrangements from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015 implies that the number of workers employed in alternative arrangement increased by 9.4 million (66.5 percent), from 14.2 million in February 2005 to 23.6 million in November 2015. Thus, these figures imply that employment in traditional jobs (standard employment arrangements) slightly declined by 0.4 million (0.3 percent) from 126.2 million in February 2005 to 125.8 million in November 2015.

A further increase in employment in such “alternative work arrangements,” which means jobs with no benefits or security, during a period of Trump administration-directed attacks on our social services, labor laws, and health and safety and environmental standards is no answer to our problems. Despite what President Trump says, our problems are not caused by other governments or workers in other countries.  Instead, they are the result of the logic of capitalism. The Trump administration, really no US administration, is going to willingly challenge that. That is up to us.

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.

Capitalist Globalization: Running Out Of Steam?

The 2016 edition of the Trade and Development Report (TDR 2016), an annual publication of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, is an important study of the changing nature of capitalist globalization and its failure to promote third world development.

The post-1980 period was marked by an explosion of transnational corporate activity, with investment increasingly taking place in the third world, especially Asia.  The resulting investment created a system of cross border production networks in which workers in third world countries produced and assembled parts and components of increasingly advanced manufactures under transnational capital direction for sale in developed country markets.

Mainstream economists supported this process, arguing that it would promote rapid industrialization and upgrading of third world economies and the eventual convergence of third world and advanced capitalist living standards.  However, the TDR 2016 makes the case that the globalization process appears to have run its course and that mainstream predictions were not realized.

Capitalist globalization under pressure

The TDR 2016 shows that the post-2008 slowdown in developed capitalist country growth has led to a significant downturn in third world exports and economic activity.  The following charts show that while international trade has long grown faster than global output, the ratio grew dramatically bigger over the first decade of the 2000s.  This was in large part the result of the expansion of cross border production networks.  This explosion of trade also brought ever expanding trade imbalances.

trade-trends

But, as the above charts also show, globalization dynamics appear to have lost momentum.  According to the TDR 2016:

International trade slowed down further in 2015. This poor performance was primarily due to the lackluster development of merchandise trade, which increased by only around 1.5 per cent in real terms. After the roller-coaster episode of 2009–2011, in the aftermath of the global financial and economic crisis, the growth of international merchandise trade was more or less in line with global output growth for about three years. In 2015, merchandise trade grew at a rate below that of global output, a situation that may worsen in 2016, as the first quarter of the year showed a further deceleration vis-à-vis 2015.

This loss of momentum has hit the third world, which has become ever more export-dependent, especially hard. As the following table shows, the growth rate of third world exports has dramatically slowed, and is now below that of the developed capitalist countries.  East Asian export growth actually turned negative in 2015.

table-1

This slowdown in trade has been accompanied by growing capital outflows from the third world, again especially Asia, as shown in the following chart.

capital-flows

The combination of developed country stagnation and dramatically slowing international trade has begun to stress the logistical infrastructure that has underpinned capitalist globalization dynamics.  This is well illustrated by Sergio Bologna’s description of the consequences of Hanjin’s bankruptcy:

The world’s seventh largest shipping company, the Korean company Hanjin, went bankrupt. Overburdened by $4.5-billion in debt, it has not been able to convince the banks to continue their support.

As a matter of fact, it did not convince the government of South Korea, because the main financier of Hanjin is the Korean Development Bank, a public institution, which is also struggling with the critical situation of the other major shipping company, Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM), and the two Korean shipyards, STX Offshore & Shipbuilding and Daewoo. It may sound like a mundane administrative issue, but imagine what it means to have a fleet of about 90 ships, loaded with freight containers valued at $14-billion, roaming the seas because if they touch a port their loads are likely to be seized at the request of creditors.

In fact, the Daily Edition of the Lloyd’s List dated September 13th . . . reported that 13 vessels had been detained. Other ships are being held in different ports, waiting for judiciary sentences. Others are at anchor and maybe had to refuel. Not to mention the 1,200-1,300 crew members who are not able to find suppliers willing to sell them a can of tuna or a bottle of water. In a Canadian port, the crew had to be assisted by the mission Stella Maris.

The intertwining of the ramifications of this problem is impressive. Hanjin must face legal proceedings at courts in 43 countries. For starters: Most of the ships are not owned by Hanjin, and those it owns, to a large extent, are not worth much. Sixty per cent of the fleet is leased, and Hanjin has not been paying the leases for a long time. This threatens to bankrupt old-name companies like Hamburg’s Peter Dohle, the Greek Danaos, and the Canadian Seaspan; there are about 15 companies who leased their ships to Hanjin, but in terms of loading capacity, the first four add up to more than 50 per cent.

Then there are the ports and other infrastructure service providers. The ports are owed fees for services (towing, mooring); the terminals, for load/unload operations to Hanjin ships on credit; the Suez Canal has not been paid the passage tolls and today won’t let the Hanjin ships through; in addition, the onboard suppliers, recruiting agencies of the crews, the ship management firms. The list does not end here, it has just begun. Because the bulk of creditors are thousands of companies, freight forwarders and logistics operators who have entrusted their merchandise to Hanjin, around 400,000 containers (the total capacity of the Hanjin fleet is estimated at 600,000 TEUs), goods that are stuck on board.

Why did this happen? Why did it have to happen? . . .

Because for years, the shipping companies have been transporting goods at a loss. They have put too many ships into service and they continued to order increasingly larger ships at shipyards. The ships competed fiercely for the orders and built the ships at bargain prices, although they are technological jewels. With the increase in freight capacity, freight rates plummeted, volumes grew but the income per unit of freight transported decreased. Then, China slowed exports, creating the perfect storm. . . .

And now? How many of the 10 to 15 most important companies still active on the market are zombie carriers?

The false promise of capitalist globalization

Critically, the globalization process has been aided by labor repression.  The transnational corporate drive for market share encouraged state policies designed to hold down labor costs.  And the resulting decline in wage demand reinforced the pursuit of exports as the “natural” engine of growth.  As TDR 2016 explains:

those countries that did exhibit increases in their global share of manufacturing exports did not show similar increases in wage shares of national income relative to the global average. . . . This suggests that increased access to global markets has typically been associated with a relative deterioration of national wage income compared with the world level.

The following chart illustrates the global ramifications of the globalization process for worker earnings.wage-share

As for convergence, the TDR 2016 compared the performance of third world economies relative to that of the United States using several different criteria.  The chart below looks at the ratio of per capita GDP of select countries and country groups relative to that of the United States.  We see that Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa have actually lost ground since the 1980s.  This is especially striking since the US growth rate also slowed over the same period.  Only in Asia do we see some catch-up, and outside the so-called first-tier NIEs and China the gains have been small.

comparisons-with-us

In fact, as the TDR 2016 explains: “The chances of moving from lower to middle and from middle- to higher income groups during the recent period of globalization show no signs of improving and have, if anything, weakened.”

This conclusion is buttressed by the following table which shows “estimate chances of catching up over the periods 1950–1980 and 1981–2010.”  The United States is the target economy in both periods with countries “divided into three relative income groups: low (between 0 and 15 per cent of the hegemon’s income), middle (between 15 and 50 per cent) and high (above 50). The table reports transition probabilities for the two sub-periods and the three income levels.”

catch-up

The TDR 2016 drew two main conclusions from these calculations:

First, convergence from the low- and the middle-income groups has become less likely over the last 30 years (1981–2010) relative to the previous period (1950–1980). As reported in the table, the probability of moving from middle- to the high-income status decreased from 18 per cent recorded between 1950 and 1980 to 8 per cent for the following 30 years. Analogously, the probability of catching up from the low- to the middle-income group was reduced approximately by the same factor, from 15 per cent to 7 per cent.

Second, and perhaps more strikingly, the probability of falling behind has significantly increased during the last 30 years. Between 1950 and 1980 the chances of falling into a relatively lower income group amounted to 12 per cent for middle-income economies and only 6 per cent for high-income countries.  These numbers climbed to 21 per cent and 19 per cent respectively in the subsequent period.

Uncertain times lie ahead

In short, globalization dynamics have restructured national economies in ways that have enriched an ever smaller group of transnational corporations.  At the same time, they have set back national development efforts with few exceptions and generated serious contradictions that are largely responsible for the stagnation and downward pressures on working and living conditions experienced by the majority of workers in both advanced capitalist countries and the third world.

While globalization dynamics have lost momentum the economic restructuring it achieved remains in place.  And to this point, dominant political forces appear to believe that they can manage whatever economic challenges may appear and thus remain committed to existing international institutions and patterns of economic activity.  Whether they are correct in their belief remains to be seen.  As does the response of working people, especially in core countries, to their ever more precarious conditions of employment and living.

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.

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.

Brexit and Grexit

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

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

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

Greece-real-HH-consumption-590x290

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

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

Greece-HH-deposits-by-type-590x303


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

Greece-HH-net-investment-rate-590x303
Greek business has also been disinvesting.  And until recently so was the government.  “The combined effect [of household, business and government disinvestment] is Greece’s capital stock has been shrinking by about 6 to 7 per cent of output since 2012.”

Greece-disinvestment1-590x301

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IMF’s Skewed Forecasts

The IMF, eager to defend the status quo, has consistently and incorrectly predicted recovery for the post-Great Recession world economy.

The figure below highlights the overly optimistic forecasting bias of recent IMF growth projections.  For example, the green line represents the September 2011 IMF forecast for future world GDP growth.  In each case illustrated, the IMF forecast is for a significant boost in future world GDP growth. And in each case not only did that boost not materialize, growth actually declined.

imf_growth

Sadly, it does not appear that this dismal forecasting record has led the IMF to engage in any meaningful reconsideration of their modeling assumptions.

Third World Countries Lose Ground

Globalization advocates celebrated the 2003-08 period, pointing to the rapid rate of growth of many third world countries as proof of capitalism’s superiority as an engine of development.  Overlooked in the celebration was that fact that growth and development are not the same thing, and in most countries the benefits of growth were only enjoyed by a small minority.  Also overlooked was the fact that this growth was achieved at the cost of ever increasing damage to the health of our planet.  Finally, these cheerleaders also minimized the unbalanced, unstable, and unsustainable nature of the growth process; some seven years after the end of the Great Recession most countries continue to struggle with stagnation, with working people disproportionately suffering the social consequences.

The following figures, taken from the World Bank’s latest annual Global Economic Prospects report, highlight the severity of the post-crisis growth slowdown.

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the extent of the growth slowdown.   Emerging Market and Developing Economy (EMDE) commodity exporters have suffered the worst declines.  In terms of region, EMDEs in Europe and Central Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean recorded the lowest rates of growth.  Sub Saharan African countries experienced one of the sharpest declines in growth relative to the 2003-08 period.

Figure 1: Gowth By Group

Growth by group

 

Figure 2: Regional Growth EMDEs (weighted average)

regional growth weighted

This ratcheting down of EMDE growth rates means a significant setback in progress towards achieving advanced economy levels as shown in Figure 3 A and B.

Figure 3: Catch-Up of EMDE Income To Advanced Economies

catch up

The Financial Times discusses the significance of this development:

That downgrade [in world growth] came alongside a new analysis showing that for the first time since the turn of the century a majority of emerging and developing economies were no longer closing the income gap with the US and other rich countries.

Last year just 47 per cent of 114 developing economies tracked by the bank were catching up with US per capita gross domestic product, below 50 per cent for the first time since 2000 and down from 83 per cent of that same sample in 2007 as the global financial crisis took hold.

That, the bank’s economists warned, would have a meaningful impact on the future people in those countries could expect.

“Whereas, pre-crisis, the average [emerging market] could expect to reach advanced country income levels within a generation, the low growth of recent years has extended this catch-up period by several decades,” they wrote.

Leading International Monetary Fund officials have warned in recent months that the so-called process of “economic convergence” had slowed to two-thirds of its pre-crisis rate. But the warning from the bank paints an even starker picture.

In the five years before the 2008 financial crisis, emerging markets could expect to take an average of 42.3 years to catch up with US per capita GDP, according to the bank’s analysis.

But over the past three years, as major emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia and South Africa have slowed or fallen into recession, the slower average growth means the number of years it would take to catch up with the US has grown to 67.7 years.

For frontier markets, those more fragile economies further down the development scale, such as Nigeria, the catch-up period more than doubled from 43.1 years to 109.7 years.

And, it is important to add, even these projections are likely optimistic.  The IMF and World Bank have repeatedly overestimated future rates of growth and tend to downplay the possibilities of yet another global crisis.