Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Unemployment

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.

Stop the TPP

Members of the Obama administration continue to promote the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) agreement as a boon to the US economy.  Freeing trade, they claim, will boost economic activity which means more investment, production, and employment.  And, when challenged, they point to the work of prominent economists whose research is said to substantiate their claim.

map

A January 2016 study of the economic consequences of the TPP by the Peterson Institute for International Economics is an example.  This study, which calls the agreement “a notable accomplishment” and “a substantial positive response to slowing world trade growth”, has been touted by the US government and received positive media coverage.

The Washington Post says:

The Peterson Institute study is the most thorough independent assessment of the economic impact of the TPP, the largest regional trade accord in history. The Obama administration hopes the findings will help persuade Republican leaders in Congress to schedule a vote on the deal before the November presidential vote.

However, a careful look at its projections and even more importantly its assumptions, makes clear that we are not being told the truth about the real aims or intended beneficiaries of the agreement.

The authors of the Peterson Institute study find that approval of the agreement will bring the following benefits to the US:

Economic modeling can show . . . the effects of the scheduled liberalization elements of the TPP, provided it is ratified by its members. The estimates reported here suggest that the TPP will increase annual real incomes in the United States by $131 billion or 0.5 percent of GDP, and annual exports by $357 billion, or 9.1 percent of exports, over baseline projections by 2030, when the agreement is nearly fully implemented. Incomes after 2030 will remain above baseline results by a similar margin. Both labor and capital will benefit, but labor will get a somewhat more than proportionate share of the gains in total.

It is worth emphasizing that this study has been the most positive in terms of estimated gains so far published.  For example, an earlier study by the Department of Agriculture concluded, “Eliminating intraregional tariffs and TRQs [tariff rate quotas] will have zero or small positive effects on [TPP] members’ real gross domestic product (GDP). There are no measurable effects on U.S. real GDP in 2025 relative to the baseline scenario.”

Despite its positive assessment of the agreement, the Peterson study’s projected gains are strikingly small.  While an income boost of $131 billion by 2030 may sound like a lot, it is basically a rounding error in an economy with a current GDP of approximately $18 trillion.

Dean Baker makes the same point this way:

it is important to put the projected gain of 0.5 percent of GDP as of 2030 in some context.  [A Washington] Post article told readers:

“If those projections [from the Peterson Institute study] are correct, that additional growth would help a domestic economy that has struggled to regain the growth rates of previous decades in the wake of the Great Recession.”

The study’s projection of a cumulative gain to GDP of 0.5 percent by 2030 implies an increase in the annual growth rate of 0.036 percentage points. This means that if the economy was projected to grow by 2.2 percent a year in a baseline scenario, it will instead grow at a 2.236 percent rate with the TPP, assuming the Peterson Institute projections prove correct.

The claim that the agreement will boost exports by $357 billion also gets positive media attention.  It makes for a nice headline, but if reporters had only read the study itself they would find, on page 7, the following statement about the model used for the study:

The model assumes that the TPP will affect neither total employment nor the national savings (or equivalently trade balances) of countries. This “macroeconomic closure” assumption allows modern trade models to focus on the goals of trade policy—namely sustained productivity and wage increases through changes in trade patterns and industry output levels.

Almost all mainstream economists use computable general equilibrium models to estimate the effects of trade agreements.  These models require researchers to assume, as a condition of the model, that the tariff changes under study will have no effect on employment or trade balances, both of which are assumed to be in equilibrium.  So, while the Peterson Institute study projects a boost in exports of $357 billion, it also must project a boost of imports of $357 billion.

In other words, when economists use computable general equilibrium models to estimate the consequences of trade agreements they are, by assumption, ruling out the possibility of any increase in unemployment, capital flight, or trade deficits.  Isn’t that reassuring?  No wonder that these studies all tend to sing the praises of free trade agreements.

Of course, there are other ways to model free trade agreements, and economists that use them come to very different conclusions.  But of course their studies get little attention.

A case in point: In January 2016, economists with the Global Development And Environment Institute at Tufts University published a study of the TPP that uses the United Nations Global Policy Model.  This model allows changes in tariffs to change employment and inequality and incorporates the impact of such changes on aggregate demand and economic growth as well as trade balances.

The authors of this study conclude:

The TPP would generate net GDP losses in the USA and Japan. For the USA, GDP would be 0.54 percent lower than it would be without the TPP, ten years after the treaty enters into force. We also project that Japan’s GDP would decrease by 0.12 percent as a consequence.

Economic gains would be negligible for other participating countries – less than one percent over ten years for developed countries, and less than three percent for developing countries. These projections are similar to the Peterson Institute’s finding that TPP gains would be small for many countries.

The TPP would lead to employment losses in all countries, totaling 771,000 lost jobs. The USA would be the hardest hit, with a loss of 448,000 jobs. Participating developing economies would also suffer employment losses, as greater competitive pressures force them to limit labor incomes and increase production for export.

All of these studies are concerned only with trade, narrowly defined.  They don’t take up the likely consequences of the many other chapters of the TPP that are designed to boost corporate power and profitability.  For example, as Dean Baker explains:

It is also worth noting that the [Peterson Institute] study does not appear to factor in the losses associated with higher prices for the items that will be subject to stronger and longer patent and copyright protection. Stronger intellectual property protections were quite explicitly one of the main goals of the deal and were one of the last major issues to be resolved. As a result of the TPP, the countries that are party to the agreement will be paying more for prescription drugs and other protected products. The effect of longer and stronger IP rules is the same as a tariff, except we are talking about raising the price of protected items by many times above their free market price. This is equivalent to a tariff of several thousand percent on the protected items.

And then there is the investment chapter, with its investor state dispute settlement mechanism, which empowers transnational corporations to sue governments in a special tribunal if public policy reduces their “distinct, reasonable investment-backed [profit] expectations.  No doubt about who gains from this power.

The takeaway: the TPP is bad for working people, in the US as well as in the other member countries.  And, the US government, US transnational corporations, and the US media are engaged in a deceitful sell job.  The TPP, as well as other similarly structured trade agreements currently being negotiated, such as the European-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), must be opposed.

stop-tpp-640x437

Problematic US Labor Market Trends

It seems like everyone talks about the importance of education to our economy.  Unfortunately, the US business community, the people our politicians call the “job creators,” doesn’t seem to care.  To be blunt: they continue to create jobs that don’t require higher education skills.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics regularly does employment projections.  The table below shows their recent projection for the 15 fastest growing occupations over the next decade in terms of numbers of workers.  The list accounts for more than a third of all projected labor growth.

job growth

As you can see eight of the fifteen require “no formal educational credential.”  One requires only a high school diploma. Just four require a bachelor’s degree.  Only four have an annual wage above the median.

Doug Henwood, who blogs at LBO news, summarized the educational requirements for the entire projected labor force as follows:

Just over half, 51%, require no more than a high school diploma for entry, and another 14% some post-high school education short of a bachelor’s.  Just 35% require a bachelor’s, and 9% an advanced degree.  The educational distribution of the workforce will change little from today.  For example, 25.6% of today’s jobs require a bachelor’s or more for entry; in a decade, that will rise 0.6 point to a dizzying 26.2%.  Today 63.6% of jobs require no more than a high school diploma; in 2004, that will plummet by 0.8 point to 62.8%.

education

To be clear, these are the educational requirements associated with the jobs to be created according to Bureau projections.  Nothing says that growing numbers of jobs requiring only a high school diploma won’t be filled by college educated workers.  In fact, the Wall Street Journal highlights the growing possibility of just such a trend:

Underemployment—skilled workers doing jobs that don’t require their level of education—has been one of the hallmarks of the [current] slow recovery. By some measures, nearly half of employed college graduates are in jobs that don’t traditionally require a college degree.

Economists have generally assumed the problem was temporary: As the economy improved, companies would need more highly educated employees. But in a [2013] paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a team of Canadian economists argues that the U.S. faces a longer-term problem.

They found that unlike the 1990s, when companies needed hundreds of thousands of skilled workers to develop, build and install high-tech systems—everything from corporate intranets to manufacturing robots—demand for such skills has fallen in recent years, even as young people continued to flock to programs that taught them. . . .

[U]sing Labor Department data, Mr. Beaudry and his coauthors found that demand for college-level occupations—primarily managers, professionals and technical workers—peaked as a share of the workforce in about 2000, just as the dot-com bubble was about to burst, and then began to decline. The supply of such workers, meanwhile, continued to grow through the 2000s. The subsequent housing boom helped mask the problem by creating artificially high demand for workers of all kinds, but only temporarily.

While it is impossible to know the future course of the economy, projected trends are far from worker-friendly.