Archive for May, 2017

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The business press is having a hard time figuring out this one: the combination of unrelenting drama in and around Donald Trump’s White House and the stability (signaled by the very low volatility) on Wall Street.

As CNN-Money notes,

One of the oldest sayings on Wall Street is that investors hate uncertainty. But that adage, much like other conventional wisdom, is being challenged during the Trump era.

Despite enormous question marks swirling around the fate of President Trump’s economic agenda and his political future, American financial markets have remained unusually calm.

What’s going on?

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What investors actually hate is not uncertainty but, rather, threats to profits. And corporate profits have been growing spectacularly during the recovery from the Second Great Depression. Between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2017, corporate profits rose more than 150 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. stocks (as measured by the Standard & Poor’s 500) increased by more than 200 percent. The rise in stock prices stems both from the growth in corporate profits and from gains in the stock market itself, which together have fueled further increases in the stock market with steadily declining levels of volatility.

As Ruchir Sharma admits,

Mr. Trump’s mercurial ways may be a source of great concern or indifference, depending on your ideological leanings. But Wall Street doesn’t seem to care one way or other.

What Wall Street cares about is not uncertainty but profits.

That’s the bottom line.

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CEO salaries continue to soar—last year reaching a ratio to average-worker pay of 347 to 1.

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While the profits of U.S. corporations have reached historic highs.

But corporate CEOs and boards of directors still want more—more deregulation, more tax cuts. And, as Matthew Goldstein explains, since his inauguration Donald Trump has met with hundreds of executives, including at least 41 of last year’s 200 best-paid CEOs.

Back in 1848, it was already clear that

The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

 

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Neil Irwin would like us to believe there’s a mystery surrounding the U.S. economy. But it’s not what one might expect:

The real mystery. . .isn’t why wages are rising so slowly, but why they’re rising so fast.

Really?!

In Irwin’s model, workers’ wages should rise at the same rate as productivity combined with inflation. And he’s worried that wages are rising faster than that right now.

Except they’re not. And they haven’t been for decades.

As is clear from the chart at the top of the post, the change workers’ wages (hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers) has often surprised the rate of growth of per capita output (GDP per capita) for long periods of time. But when we add in inflation (according to the Consumer Price Index), only rarely in recent decades have wages surpassed the sum of output and price changes (during some months of some recessions). In general, workers’ wages have fallen short—in many cases, by 4 and 5 percentage points.

And that’s been going on for decades, which is why the labor share of national income has been falling. Workers produce more, prices go up, and wages rise by much less.

Even recently, after a short period when wages were rising faster than productivity plus inflation (from the second quarter of 2015 to the third quarter of 2016), that trend has continued. In the first quarter of 2017, when wages rose at an annual rate of 2.4 percent, the rate of growth of output per capita and inflation was higher, at 3.9 percent.

For Irwin, as for most mainstream economists, the real mystery is why productivity has been growing so slowly—because they cling to the idea that everyone, including workers, will benefit if only they could find some way to boost productivity.

But that ship sailed long ago. Workers’ wages haven’t matched the growth of the value workers produce for decades. And there’s no reason to expect that trend to change in the foreseeable future—not when employers can get away with paying workers as little as possible.

As I see it, the real mystery is why Irwin and mainstream economists continue to hold to the myth that workers will benefit from rising productivity.

It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes (or, if you prefer, Kurt Wallander) to figure out that, if they continue to focus on productivity and its supposed benefits, they can try to keep things just as they are right now.

But the rest of us know the existing economic institutions have failed—and failed miserably for decades now—and that radically new ways of organizing the economy have to be imagined and enacted.

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Clay Bennett editorial cartoon  PettJ20170524A_low

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