Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Unemployment

President Trump’s Hollow Job Promises

President Trump’s election success rested to a considerable degree on his pre-election attack on globalization and verbal pledge to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. However, as I argued in a previous post, there is no reason to believe that President Trump is serious about wanting to restrict corporate mobility or fashion new, more domestically-centered, worker-friendly trade relations.

In fact, several of his appointees to key economic policy positions are people whose past work was promoting the very globalization he criticized.

Still, there are some in the labor and progressive communities who continue to hold out hope that they can find common ground with the Trump administration on trade.  Unfortunately, it appears that these people are ignoring what we do know about the nature of existing manufacturing jobs in the globalized industries that President Trump claims he will target for restructuring.  Sadly, the experience of workers in many of those jobs reveals the hollowness of Trump’s promises to working people.

The Southern Strategy of the Automobile Industry

The automobile industry, one of the most globalized of US manufacturing industries, offers a powerful example of the dangers of thinking simply about employment numbers. As an Economic Policy Institute report describes:

Political and market pressure on Japanese and European (and later, Korean) manufacturers to reduce imports to the United States has led to a rising number of “transplants” supplying auto components and assembling autos.

Initially, the transplants operated in the Midwest, including assembly plants in Illinois (Mitsubishi), Michigan (Mazda), Ohio (Honda), and Pennsylvania (Volkswagen), along with California (Toyota’s joint venture with General Motors, now a Tesla facility). More recently, however, the growth has been in Southern states, including assembly plants in Alabama (Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz), Georgia (Kia), Kentucky (Toyota), Mississippi (Nissan and Toyota), South Carolina (BMW and Mercedes-Benz), Tennessee (Nissan and Volkswagen), and Texas (Toyota).

As a result of these trends, the weight of motor vehicle manufacturing employment (including parts suppliers) in the United States has shifted from the Midwest to the South.  And what kind of jobs has this investment brought?  The title of a Bloomberg Businessweek article – Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs – sums it up all too well.

As the article explains:

Alabama has been trying on the nickname “New Detroit.” Its burgeoning auto parts industry employs 26,000 workers, who last year earned $1.3 billion in wages. Georgia and Mississippi have similar, though smaller, auto parts sectors. This factory growth, after the long, painful demise of the region’s textile industry, would seem to be just the kind of manufacturing renaissance President Donald Trump and his supporters are looking for.

Except that it also epitomizes the global economy’s race to the bottom. Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.

“The supply chain isn’t going just to Bangladesh. It’s going to Alabama and Georgia,” says David Michaels, who ran OSHA for the last seven years of the Obama administration. Safety at the Southern car factories themselves is generally good, he says. The situation is much worse at parts suppliers, where workers earn about 70¢ for every dollar earned by auto parts workers in Michigan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Many plants in the North are unionized; only a few are in the South.)

In 2014, OSHA’s Atlanta office, after detecting a high number of safety violations at the region’s parts suppliers, launched a crackdown. The agency cited one year, 2010, when workers in Alabama parts plants had a 50 percent higher rate of illness and injury than the U.S. auto parts industry as a whole. That gap has narrowed, but the incidence of traumatic injuries in Alabama’s auto parts plants remains 9 percent higher than in Michigan’s and 8 percent higher than in Ohio’s. In 2015 the chances of losing a finger or limb in an Alabama parts factory was double the amputation risk nationally for the industry, 65 percent higher than in Michigan and 33 percent above the rate in Ohio.

The article provides several stories of low paid workers forced to work in unsafe conditions who suffered devastating injuries.  “OSHA records obtained by Bloomberg document burning flesh, crushed limbs, dismembered body parts, and a flailing fall into a vat of acid. The files read like Upton Sinclair, or even Dickens.”

The Story of Reco Allen

Here is one story from the article: in 2013 Reco Allen, a 35 year old father of three, with a wife working at Walmart, took at $9 an hour job with Surge Staffing, a temp agency that provides workers to Matsu Alabama, a Honda parts supplier.  Allen sought and was given a janitorial position at Matsu.  But after six weeks on the job, he was pressured by a supervisor to finish his shift by working on a metal-stamping press.  Matsu was in danger of not meeting its parts quota and the company “could have been fined $20,000 by Honda for every minute its shortfall held up the company’s assembly line.”

Allen received no training on operating the machine.  Moreover, there were known problems with the vertical safety beam that was supposed to keep the machine from operating if a worker was in danger of being caught in the stamping process.  Tragically, Allen’s arm was indeed caught by the die that stamped the metal parts.  As Businessweek reports:

He stood there for an hour, his flesh burning inside the heated press. Someone brought a fan to cool him off. . . . When emergency crews finally freed him, his left hand was “flat like a pancake,” Allen says, and parts of three fingers were gone. His right hand was severed at the wrist, attached to his arm by a piece of skin. A paramedic cradled the gloved hand at Allen’s side all the way to the hospital. Surgeons removed it that morning and amputated the rest of his right forearm to avert gangrene several weeks later.

The company had been told by the plant’s safety committee several times that the machine needed horizontal as well as vertical safety beams. In fact, one year before Allen’s accident, another worker suffered a crushed hand on the same machine.  Moreover, the company’s treatment of Allen was far from unusual.  Matsu “provided no hands-on training, routinely ordered untrained temps to operate machines, sped up presses beyond manufacturers’ specifications, and allowed oil to leak onto the floor.”

And what happened to the company?  They received a $103,000 fine from an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

The Businessweek article includes several other stories of workers maimed because of unsafe work conditions at firms with long histories of safety violations.  And they all ended in much the same way: with corporations paying minimal fines.  And, apparently with little change in corporate behavior.

Known Knowns

We know that most employers will push production as hard as they can to cut costs, with little regard for worker safety.  We also know that union jobs are better than non-union jobs in terms of wages and benefits, and safety.

We also know that President Trump is taking steps to weaken labor laws and unions, as well as gut federal and state agencies charged with protecting worker health and safety and the environment.

Thus, even if President Trump does succeed in enticing some globalized corporations to shift parts of their respective production networks back to the US, the experience of the auto industry demonstrates that the resulting job creation is unlikely to satisfy worker demands for safe, living wage jobs.

In sum, no matter the campaign rhetoric, and no matter the twists and turns in policy, it should be clear to all that President Trump is committed to an anti-worker agenda.

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.

We Need To Once Again Take “The Working Class” Seriously

The great majority of working people in the US have experienced tough times over the last few decades.  And all signs point to the fact that those in power are committed to policies that will mean a further deterioration in majority living and working conditions.

One obvious response to this situation is organizing; working people need strong organizations that are capable of building the broad alliances and advancing the new visions necessary to challenge and transform existing political-economic relationships and institutions. Building such organizations requires, as a first step, both acknowledging the existence of the working class and taking the concerns of its members seriously.

Unfortunately, as Reeve Vanneman shows in a Sociological Images blog post, writers appear to have largely abandoned use of the term “working class.”  One indicator is the trend illustrated in the chart below, which is derived from Google Books’ Ngram Viewer.  The Ngram Viewer is able to display a graph showing how often a particular word or phrase appears in a category of books over selected years.  In this case, the chart below shows how often the two-word phrase “working class” (a bigram) appears as a percentage of all two word phrases used in all books written in American English.

google

As Vanneman explains:

a Google ngram count of the phrase “working class” in American books shows a spike in the Depression Thirties and an even stronger growth from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. But after the mid-1970s, there is a steady decline, implying a lack of discussion just as their problems were growing.

A similar overall trend emerges from “a count of the frequencies of ‘working class’ in the titles or abstracts of articles in the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review.”  As we see in the chart below, there was a rapid growth in the use of the phrase from the late 1950s through most of the 1960s, followed by a slow but steady decline until the mid-1980s, and then, after a brief resurgence, a dramatic fall off in its use.

sociology

As Vanneman comments: “These articles on the working class were not insignificant; even through the 21st century, the authors include a number of ASA presidents. But overall, working-class issues seem to have lost their salience, as if even American sociology was also telling them that they didn’t matter.”

While there is no simple relationship between working class activism and scholarship on the working class, the synergy is important.  Now is the time to take working class issues seriously.  Given current trends, we desperately need a revival of labor activism and the development of labor-community alliances around issues such as housing, health care, discrimination, and the environment.  And we also need new scholarship that shines a light on as well as engages the challenges of our time from a working class standpoint.

The Devastating Transformation Of Work In The US

Two of the best-known labor economists in the US,  Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the rise of so-called alternative work arrangements.

Here is what they found:

The percentage of workers engaged in alternative work arrangements – defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers – rose from 10.1 percent [of all employed workers] in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.

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 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.

Take a moment to let that sink in—and think about what that tells us about the operation of the US economy and the future for working people.  Employment in so-called traditional jobs is actually shrinking. The only types of jobs that have been growing in net terms are ones in which workers have little or no security and minimal social benefits.

Figure 2 from their study shows the percentage of workers in different industries that have alternative employment arrangements.  The share has grown substantially over the last ten years in almost all of them.  In Construction, Professional and Business Services, and Other Services (excluding Public Services) approximately one quarter of all workers are employed using alternative work arrangements.

distribution

The study

Because the Bureau of Labor Statistics has not updated its Contingent Work Survey (CWS), the authors contracted with the RAND institute to do their own study.  Thus, Rand expanded its own American Life Panel (ALP) surveys in October and November 2015 to include questions similar to those asked in the CWS.   They surveys only collected information about the surveyed individual’s main job.  And, to maintain compatibility with the CWS surveys, day laborers were not included in the results.  Finally, the authors only included information from individuals who had worked in the survey reference week.

People were said to be employed under alternative work arrangements if they were “independent contractors,” “on-call workers,” “temporary help agency workers,” or “workers provided by contract firms.  The authors defined these terms as follows:

“Independent Contractors” are individuals who report they obtain customers on their own to provide a product or service as an independent contractor, independent consultant, or freelance worker. “On-Call Workers” report having certain days or hours in which they are not at work but are on standby until called to work. “Temporary Help Agency Workers” are paid by a temporary help agency. “Workers Provided by Contract Firms” are individuals who worked for a company that contracted out their services during the reference week.

The results in more detail

All four categories of nonstandard work recorded increases:

Independent contractors continue to be the largest group (8.9 percent in 2015), but the share of workers in the three other categories more than doubled from 3.2 percent in 2005 to 7.3 percent in 2015. The fastest growing category of nonstandard work involves contracted workers. The percentage of workers who report that they worked for a company that contracted out their services in the preceding week rose from 0.6 percent in 2005 to 3.1 percent in 2015.

Table 4 shows the percentage of workers in different categories that are employed for their main job in one of the four nonstandard work arrangements.  The relevant comparisons over time are with the two CPS studies and the Alternative Weighted results from the Rand study.

4b

Here are some of the main findings:

There is a clear age gradient that has grown stronger, with older workers more likely to have nonstandard employment than younger workers.  In 2015, 6.4 percent of those aged 16 to 24 were employed in an alternative work arrangement, while 14.3 percent of those aged 25-54 and 23.9 percent of those aged 55-74 had nonstandard work arrangements.

The percentage of women with nonstandard work arrangements grew dramatically from 2005 to 2015, from 8.3 percent to 17 percent.  Women are now more likely to be employed under these conditions than men.

Workers in all educational levels experienced a jump in nonstandard work, with the increase greatest for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.  “Occupational groups experiencing particularly large increases in the nonstandard work from 2005 to 2015 include computer and mathematical, community and social services, education, health care, legal, protective services, personal care, and transportation jobs.”

The authors also tested to determine “whether alternative work is growing in higher or lower wage sectors of the labor market.”  They found that “workers with attributes and jobs that are associated with higher wages are more likely to have their services contracted out than are those with attributes and jobs that are associated with lower wages. Indeed, the lowest predicted quintile-wage group did not experience a rise in contract work.”

The take-away

The take-away is pretty clear.  Corporate profits and income inequality have grown in large part because US firms have successfully taken advantage of the weak state of unions and labor organizing more generally, to transform work relations.  Increasingly workers, regardless of their educational level, find themselves forced to take jobs with few if any benefits and no long-term or ongoing relationship with their employer.  Only a rejuvenated labor movement, one able to build strong democratic unions and press for radically new economic policies will be able to reverse existing trends.

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.

EPI Data Library On State Of Working America

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has just published an on-line data library on “The State of Working America.”  Lots of good information and easy to use.

As EPI explains:

Data on wages is reported by decile, sex, race, and education, and will be updated annually.

Employment data is updated monthly and includes the unemployment rate, the long-term unemployment rate, the underemployment rate, the labor force participation rate, and the employment-to-population ratio—with previously not publicly accessible demographic data.

The Data Library also contains EPI’s unique wage gap analyses—such as the black-white wage gap and the college wage premium.

The data goes back to the 1970s and will help you answer labor force questions, ask new ones, and find solutions to the most pressing issues of our time: stagnant wages, and income and wealth inequality.

The following, on the black-white wage gap, is an example of what you can find on the site:

epi-data

As you can see, inflation-adjusted white median hourly wages have slowly but steadily grown over the last few years, although they still remain below their 2009 level.  The same is not true for black median wages.  As a consequence, the black-white median hourly wage gap has been growing.

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.

Recession On The Horizon

Economic trends do not look promising, at least for working people.

The UN publication World Economic Situation and Prospects 2016 highlights the dramatic slowdown in economic activity in the years following the world recession.

Looking at the 20 leading developed economies we see that average growth fell from 2.8 percent over the period 3rd quarter 2002 to 4th quarter 2007 to 1.3 percent over the period 1st quarter 2010 to 2nd quarter 2015.  At the same time, growth became more unstable as shown by the rise in volatility. Consumption growth and investment growth also fell dramatically with volatility increasing. Trends were similar, although not as drastic for the 20 leading developing nations.

growth trends

The UN study paid careful attention to the collapse in investment.  The authors note:

The global financial crisis has had the most pronounced negative effect on investment rates. . . . After an early recovery in 2010-2011, the growth rates of fixed capital formation have sharply slowed down since 2012, exerting downward pressure on productivity, employment and growth. The growth rates of fixed capital formation nearly collapsed since 2014, registering negative quarterly growth in as many as 9 large developed and developing countries and economies in transition. . . .

Investment in productive capital has been even weaker than the total investment figures suggest, as dwelling and intangible assets account for the majority of investment in developed economies. According to OECD data on fixed capital formation, investments in intangible and intellectual property assets together represent the largest share of fixed capital formation in a number of developed economies in 2014, including in Germany (47.2 per cent) and the United States (42.3 per cent). Acquisition of intangible assets, such as trademarks, copyrights and patents, may increase financial returns to firms without necessarily increasing labor productivity or productive capacity.

Especially noteworthy is that despite their lack of investment in plant and equipment, non-financial corporations have resumed their borrowing.  As the authors of the UN study explain:

A growing disconnect between finance and real sector activities is evident in the data: fixed investment growth nearly collapsed, while debt securities (a financial instrument to raise capital) issued by non-financial corporations increased by more than 55 per cent between 2008 and 2014, representing a nearly 8 per cent increase per year [as the table below shows].

This is noteworthy because it means firms are largely going into debt to engage in mergers and acquisitions, stock repurchases and dividend payments. If world economic growth continues to slide, many of these firms are likely to find themselves in serious debt difficulties.

debt trends

For most of the post-recession period, world growth was sustained by the high rates of growth in the third world, in particular China.  However, the decline in growth in the developed world eventually produced a slowdown in Chinese exports and growth, which caused a decline in Chinese demand for commodities, triggering a dramatic slide in commodity prices and rates of growth in many developing economies.

commodity trends

The slowdown in third world growth is gathering speed.  One factor is the growing capital flight from the third world.  As the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Hamid Rashid explain:

The real worry, however, is not just falling commodity prices, but also massive capital outflows. During 2009-2014, developing countries collectively received a net capital inflow of $2.2 trillion, partly owing to quantitative easing in advanced economies, which pushed interest rates there to near zero.

The search for higher yields drove investors and speculators to developing countries, where the inflows increased leverage, propped up equity prices, and in some cases supported a commodity price boom. Market capitalization in the Mumbai, Johannesburg, São Paulo, and Shanghai stock exchanges, for example, nearly tripled in the years following the financial crisis. Equity markets in other developing countries also witnessed similar dramatic increases during this period.

But the capital flows are now reversing, turning negative for the first time since 2006, with net outflows from developing countries in 2015 exceeding $600 billion – more than one-quarter of the inflows they received during the previous six years. The largest outflows have been through banking channels, with international banks reducing their gross credit exposures to developing countries by more than $800 billion in 2015. Capital outflows of this magnitude are likely to have myriad effects: drying up liquidity, increasing the costs of borrowing and debt service, weakening currencies, depleting reserves, and leading to decreases in equity and other asset prices. There will be large knock-on effects on the real economy, including severe damage to developing countries’ growth prospects.

This is not the first time that developing countries have faced the challenges of managing pro-cyclical hot capital, but the magnitudes this time are overwhelming. During the Asian financial crisis, net outflows from the East Asian economies were only $12 billion in 1997.

The US financial sector is one of the main beneficiaries of this capital flight.  However, the inflow of funds tends to drive up the value of the dollar to the detriment of US manufacturing, investment, and employment.

It is hard to see positive signs for the world economy.  In fact, many analysts are now predicting recession for the US.  The economist Michael Roberts has long argued that key to “the health of a modern capitalist economy is . . . the direction of average profitability of capital, total business profits and its impact on business investment.” In other words, a decline in profit rates will eventually lead to a fall in total corporate profits and then investment.  When that happens a recession is not far behind.

As Roberts describes:

[R]ecently some mainstream economists have paid the movement in profits a bit more attention. . . . And . . . the economists at the investment bank JP Morgan have started to use profits and profitability as a guide to the likelihood of an oncoming recession.

They first noted that global profit margins have been drifting lower for the past two years, mainly driven by a falling profitability in emerging capitalist economies as the great commodity price boom reversed and China’s economy slowed sharply.

And now DM (developed market) margins have begun to fall as US corporations come under pressure from the rising dollar and the concentrated hit to the energy sector, JPM noted.  In another note, JPM economists looked at overall US corporate profits and calculated that corporate profits were likely down 11% annualized last quarter, and down 7% over year-ago levels.”

They “now put the probability of a recession starting within three years at a startling 92%, and the probability within two years at 67%”. However, they temper this result by pointing out that profit margins are still historically high so there is room for a fall without economic contraction and also the expectation that the US Fed will not continue with its rate hikes as quickly or as far as previously planned. On that basis, their forecast of a US recession is beginning within three years at about 2/3 and within two years at close to 1/2″. 

It is difficult to predict economic turning points, but the trends appear clear—the long post-crisis expansion is nearing its end.  Tragically, few people have benefited from the expansion and our social structures are far from sufficient to see us through the new approaching recession.

 

Threatening Trends in US Trade

The US government continues to press ahead negotiating new trade agreements.  And the US trade deficit in goods continues to grow.

According to the US Census Bureau:

For 2015, the goods and services deficit was $531.5 billion, up $23.2 billion or 4.6 percent from 2014. Exports were $2,230.3 billion, down $112.9 billion or 4.8 percent. Imports were $2,761.8 billion, down $89.7 billion or 3.1 percent.

While the trade balance covers both goods and services, the trade in goods dominates; trade in services totaled only 24.1 percent of total U.S. trade in 2015.

The figure below shows the US monthly trade balance.  As we can see monthly trade deficits reached their peak in the period before the start of the Great Recession.  Then, as the economy collapsed, demand for imports rapidly fell.  Over the last few years, the monthly deficit appears quite stable.  Of course, this stability still produces a large annual deficit, which means each year the US adds to its overall foreign debt.  If interest rates do start to climb, foreign debt payments will quickly become substantial.

 

trade deficit

However, this apparent stability hides a new exploding deficit in the trade of non-oil commodities.  Oil prices have been falling for some time.  That decline, along with new production in the US, has produced a significant fall in the value of petroleum imports, as we see below, from a high of $50 billion a month in 2008 down to less than $15 billion a month in 2015.

oil imports

Subtracting the value of oil imports from our goods trade deficit yields a dramatically different picture of US trade dynamics.  The deficit in non-oil goods increased by $108 billion in 2015, from $547.7 billion to $655.9 billion.  As the next two figures show, the non-oil goods deficit is fast approaching record levels, whether measured in dollars or as a percent of GDP.  And this growing deficit means job losses for US workers.

non-oil monthly deficits

 

goods deficit

As Robert Scott explains:

Most U.S. goods trade consists of manufactured products. In 2015, manufacturing constituted 86.9 percent of total U.S. goods trade, and 94.3 percent of total trade in non-oil goods. Because manufacturing is such a large employer, rapidly growing trade deficits in non-oil goods are a threat to future employment in this sector. The growing trade deficit in manufactured products rose to 3.8 percent of GDP, only 0.7 percent (7 tenths) of a percentage point below the maximum reached in 2005. The manufacturing trade deficit also reached a record high of $681 billion in 2015, well in excess of the previous peak $619.7 in 2007. Rapidly growing manufacturing trade deficits were responsible for most, if not all, of the 4.8 million U.S. manufacturing jobs lost between December 2000 and December 2015, and there’s every reason to believe that these job losses will continue if the non-oil trade deficits keeps growing.

And, with the likely approval of new so-called free trade agreements, those deficits are likely to keep growing.