profits

The Wall Street Journal reported today that U.S. corporations “posted record profits during the second quarter.”

After-tax corporate profits, without inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments, rose 6% from the first quarter to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1.840 trillion—after two consecutive quarters of declining profits. Profits last quarter were up 4.5% from a year earlier. Thursday’s report included the first profit estimates, which aren’t adjusted for inflation, for the second quarter. . .

As a share of nominal GDP, corporate profits rose last quarter but fell short of an all-time high.

Profits hit a record 10.7% of GDP in the third quarter of 2013, slipping to 10.5% in the fourth quarter and 10.2% in the first quarter. They totaled 10.6% of GDP in the second quarter.

At the same time, consumer spending declined in July. Why?

On the surface, the weak spending figures appear at odds with accelerating job creation. The last six months saw the strongest stretch of payroll gains since 2006. Underpinning those gains, however, was hiring in low-wage fields such as restaurants, retailers and temporary jobs. At the same time, a historically high number of Americans aren’t participating in the labor force or are working part time but would prefer a full-time job. . .

“Higher wages have been slow to appear and gains in the stock market are not enjoyed by all,” said Chris Christopher, an Global Insight economist. “More widespread income gains are needed to get all consumers back on solid footing.”

In other words, it’s still a tale of two recoveries: the best of times for corporate profits, the worst of times for the vast majority of the population.

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hourly wages-1979-2013

According to the Economic Policy Institute [pdf],

For all but the highest earners, hourly wages have either stagnated or declined since 1979 (with the exception of a period of strong across-the-board wage growth in the late 1990s). Median hourly wages rose just 6.1 percent (or 0.2 percent annually) between 1979 and 2013, compared with a decline of 5.3 percent (or -0.2 percent annually) for the 10th percentile worker (i.e., the worker who earns more than only 10 percent of workers). Over the same period, the 95th percentile worker saw growth of 40.6 percent, for an annual gain of 1.0 percent.

During that same period, productivity in the U.S. economy grew 64.9 percent.

annual wages-1979-2012

Only the “wages” of the top 1 percent (when measured in terms of real annual wages) surpassed the growth of productivity. The cumulative change in the wages of all other groups was less.

In other words, most of the growing amount of value produced by American workers wasn’t paid back to them in the form of wages but, instead, was either retained by their employers or distributed to a tiny group of CEOs and managers at the top.

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The original cartoon, by Adam Bessie and Dan Carino, includes links to further reading embedded within the images.

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According to USA Today, it costs about $130,000 for a household (of 2 parents and 2 children) in the United States to live the American Dream—to purchase the essentials, enjoy some extras, pay taxes, and put aside some money for retirement. (Yes, it surprised me, too.)

The issue of the American Dream comes up in many courses I teach. A typical definition?

the belief that with hard work and the freedom to pursue your destiny you can achieve success and provide better opportunities for your children.

Many of my students believe the American Dream has been achieved, or at least is within reach, for most people.

The problem is, according to the Census Bureau [pdf], only 15 percent of U.S. households (in 2012) had that kind of income. The rest may be chasing—but, in current circumstances, they’re falling short of achieving—that dream.