Posts Tagged ‘profits’

AETNA

The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, was always a three-legged stool tottering on two fragile legs: healthy competition among healthcare insurance companies and the ability of each insurance company to make healthy profits.

In its $37 billion bid to take over Humana, Aetna (one of the five largest insurance companies in the United States) decided to lower the level of competition. And in order to safeguard both its profits (which increased 38 percent in the final quarter of 2015) and its takeover of Humana (in a game of chicken with the Justice Department), Aetna has announced its decision to “reduce its individual public exchange participation from 778 to 242 counties for the 2017 plan year.”

Aetna’s basic complaint (in addition to its beef with the administration over the Humana merger) is that too many Americans suffer from poor health and thus need too much health care. Or, in its own language:

Providing affordable, high-quality health care options to consumers is not possible without a balanced risk pool. Fifty-five percent of our individual on-exchange membership is new in 2016, and in the second quarter we saw individuals in need of high-cost care represent an even larger share of our on-exchange population. This population dynamic, coupled with the current inadequate risk adjustment mechanism, results in substantial upward pressure on premiums and creates significant sustainability concerns.

Clearly, Aetna (not to mention the other healthcare insurance companies) wants both healthy people (who are much cheaper to insure) and healthy profits (which will increase if it is allowed to acquire Humana).

The problem of Obamacare—as against a single-payer plan or, even more, a single-provider plan—is it can’t guarantee both. And when push comes to shove, for companies like Aetna, the decision to continue healthy profits wins out over coverage of unhealthy people.

fredgraph

We’re been through this before (e.g., here and here). But no matter. Let’s take it up again.

Even as the overwhelming evidence is U.S. corporate taxes have been decreasing and workers’ wages have also been falling (both, in the chart at top of the post, as a percentage of gross domestic income), there are still those who try to convince us corporate taxes should be lowered still further—and workers are the ones who will benefit.

Really?!

I know. It goes against all logic (and, as it turns out, the empirical evidence). But, according to Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute, lowering corporate taxes is the only real cure for wage stagnation among American workers.

They’re right about wage stagnation (although they miss the declining share of national income going to workers). But lowering corporate taxes is not going to solve that problem. Raising workers’ wages will.

I wrote above that it was against all logic. Actually, it is consistent with the logic of neoclassical economics, which goes as follows: capital moves to or stays in lower tax zones (states or countries), which boosts the productivity of workers (who are not as mobile), which in turn leads to higher wages (since the presumption is workers are paid according to their productivity). And, on the reverse side, if corporate taxes go up (as some, like me, have argued they should), corporations will shift the burden of the tax to workers, who will then be paid less.

The holes in the logic are, to use the current vernacular, HUUGE. Where corporations decide to realize their profits may shift according to tax rates but that doesn’t mean capital itself moves to those zones. Even if capital moves, it can often replace workers (or leading to the hiring of other, lower-waged workers). And, even if workers become more productive, they’re not necessarily paid more.

And then there’s the evidence—or lack thereof. As Kimberly Clausing explains, “a review of the prior empirical work in this area fails to reveal persuasive empirical evidence of adverse effects on labor.” And that’s because of globalization itself:

First, if corporations are mere intermediaries in global capital markets in which a wide assortment of investors with different tax treatments invest, tax policy changes could affect the ownership and financing patterns of assets more than they affect the aggregate level of investment in different countries. Second, since multinational firms have become increasingly adept at separating the reporting of income from the true location of the underlying economic activities, international tax avoidance itself comes with a silver lining. Mobile firms move profits without needing to substantially alter the underlying investments, whereas immobile firms do not respond like the open-economy actors of modern corporate tax incidence models. In both cases, workers in high-tax countries are relatively insulated from adverse wage effects due to capital reallocation toward low-tax countries.

So, if the logic is faulty and the empirical evidence questionable, what’s left? Merely one more attempt to lower the tax burden on corporations—and thus put private profits even more out of the reach of public claims on those profits.

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I know I shouldn’t. But there are so many wrong-headed assertions in the latest Bloomberg column by Noah Smith, “Economics Without Math Is Trendy, But It Doesn’t Add Up,” that I can’t let it pass.

But first let me give him credit for his opening observation, one I myself have made plenty of times on this blog and elsewhere:

There’s no question that mainstream academic macroeconomics failed pretty spectacularly in 2008. It didn’t just fail to predict the crisis — most models, including Nobel Prize-winning ones, didn’t even admit the possibility of a crisis. The vast majority of theories didn’t even include a financial sector.

And in the deep, long recession that followed, mainstream macro theory failed to give policymakers any consistent guidance as to how to respond. Some models recommended fiscal stimulus, some favored forward guidance by the central bank, and others said there was simply nothing at all to be done.

It is, in fact, as Smith himself claims, a “dismal record.”

But then Smith goes off the tracks, with a long series of misleading and mistaken assertions about economics, especially heterodox economics. Let me list some of them:

  • citing a mainstream economist’s characterization of heterodox economics (when he could have, just as easily, sent readers to the Heterodox Economics Directory—or, for that matter, my own blog posts on heterodox economics)
  • presuming that heterodox economics is mostly non-quantitative (although he might have consulted any number of books by economists from various heterodox traditions or journals in which heterodox economists publish articles, many of which contain quantitative—theoretical and empirical—work)
  • equating formal, mathematical, and quantitative (when, in fact, one can find formal models that are neither mathematical nor quantitative)
  • also equating nonquantitative, broad, and vague (when, in fact, there is plenty of nonquantitative work in economics that is quite specific and unambiguous)
  • arguing that nonquantitative economics is uniquely subject to interpretation and reinterpretation (as against, what, the singular meaning of the Arrow-Debreu general equilibrium system or the utility-maximization that serves as the microfoundations of mainstream macroeconomics?)
  • concluding that “heterodox economics hasn’t really produced a replacement for mainstream macro”

Actually, this is the kind of quick and easy dismissal of whole traditions—from Karl Marx to Hyman Minsky—most heterodox economists are quite familiar with.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there’s no need for work in economics to be formal, quantitative, or mathematical (however those terms are defined) in order for it be useful, valuable, or insightful (again, however defined)—including, of course, work in traditions that run from Marx to Minsky, that focused on the possibility of a crisis, warned of an impending crisis, and offered specific guidances of what to do once the crisis broke out.

But if Smith wants some heterodox macroeconomics that uses some combination of formal, mathematical, and quantitative techniques he need look no further than a volume of essays that happens to have been published in 2009 (and therefore written earlier), just as the crisis was spreading across the United States and the world economy. I’m referring to Heterodox Macroeconomics: Keynes, Marx and Globalization, edited by Jonathan P. Goldstein and Michael G. Hillard.

There, Smith will find the equation at the top of the post, which is very simple but contains an idea that one will simply not find in mainstream macroeconomics. It’s merely an income share-weighted version of a Keynesian consumption function (for a two-class world), which has the virtue of placing the distribution of income at the center of the macroeconomic story.* Add to that an investment function, which depends on the profit rate (which in turn depends on the profit share of income and capacity utilization) and you’ve got a system in which “alterations in the distribution of income can have important and potentially offsetting impacts on the level of effective demand.”

And heterodox traditions within macroeconomics have built on these relatively simply ideas, including

a microfounded Keynes–Marx theory of investment that further incorporates the external financing of investment based upon uncertain future profits, the irreversibility of investment and the coercive role of competition on investment. In this approach, the investment function is extended to depend on the profit rate, long-term and short-term heuristics for the firm’s financial robustness and the intensity of competition. It is the interaction of these factors that fundamentally alters the nature of the investment function, particularly the typical role assigned to capacity utilization. The main dynamic of the model is an investment-induced growth-financial safety tradeoff facing the firm. Using this approach, a ceteris paribus increase in the financial fragility of the firm reduces investment and can be used to explain autonomous financial crises. In addition, the typical behavior of the profit rate, particularly changes in income shares, is preserved in this theory. Along these lines, the interaction of the profit rate and financial determinants allows for real sector sources of financial fragility to be incorporated into a macro model. Here, a profit squeeze that shifts expectations of future profits forces firms and lenders to alter their perceptions on short-term and long-term levels of acceptable debt. The responses of these agents can produce a cycle based on increases in financial fragility.

It’s true: such a model does not lead to a specific forecast or prediction. (In fact, it’s more a long-term model than an explanation of short-run instabilities.) But it does provide an understanding of the movements of consumption and investment that help to explain how and why a crisis of capitalism might occur. Therefore, it represents a replacement for the mainstream macroeconomics that exhibited a dismal record with respect to the crash of 2007-08.

But maybe it’s not the lack of quantitative analysis in heterodox macroeconomics that troubles Smith so much. Perhaps it’s really the conclusion—the fact that

The current crisis combines the development of under-consumption, over-investment and financial fragility tendencies built up over the last 25 years and associated with a nance- led accumulation regime.

And, for that constellation of problems, there’s no particular advice or quick fix for Smith’s “policymakers and investors”—except, of course, to get rid of capitalism.

 

*Technically, consumption (C) is a function of the marginal propensity to consume of labor, labor’s share of income, the marginal propensity to consume of capital, and the profit share of income.

 

fredgraph

Greg Ip would like us to believe that, right now, in labor versus capital, labor is winning.

Really?!

That’s certainly not the case if we actually look at the official data on the wage share of U.S. national income.* As it turns out, the share of income going to workers has fallen from a high of 51.5 percent (in both 1953 and 1970) to a low of 42.2 percent (in 2013), with a slight uptick to 42.9 percent (in 2015).

Clearly, even with recent increases in real wages, labor has not been winning in its war with capital.

wage share

So, how does Ip get his result, showing very little trend in labor’s share of national income? Well, by changing the facts. First, he subtracts capital depreciation from national income (and calls that, incorrectly, net national income).**

fredgraph (1)

OK, let’s do that—and much the same result as at the top of the post emerges: a long-term decline in the wage share (from 69 percent in 1982 to a low of 60 percent in 2012-14).

That means Ip’s surprising (and ultimately deceptive) result actually relies on his second modification: taking out rental income. Clearly here he is on shakier ground: rental income is mostly another form of the return on capital, distributed not to “households,” but to the owners of most of the buildings and land (both residential and corporate) in the U.S. economy. It’s just another distribution of the surplus to those at the top, which is a key component of both national income and capital’s share.

So, no, labor’s share is not back to where it was prior to the crash of 2007-08. And even if it’s moving in that direction, it’s well below its postwar peaks.

Capital is still winning its war against labor.

 

*And, remember, my preference is to subtract CEO and other 1-percent “wages” (and add them to capital’s share) to get the real wage share.

**By rights, he should subtract all capital expenditures (not just depreciation) to obtain net national income, that is, new value added. Then, we’d be left with the three components of the infamous Trinity Formula—wages, profit, and rent—all of which are created by the labor of the working-class.

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Special mention

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I keep finding myself reminding relatives and friends that, when it comes to the pronouncements of mainstream economists (like Greg Mankiw) and presidential candidates (of which we’re now down to two, at least in terms of major political parties), there’s another America out there, which many of us only dimly view.

But every once in a while, we get a sense of what is going on, often through good reporting (in addition to, as Bill Moyers suggests, short stories, novels, and plays by working-class writers).

One example is the remarkable—and bone-chilling—article by Shane Bauer for Mother Jones. Back in 2014, Bauer went undercover at a private, for-private prison in Louisiana, working as a guard. Conditions at the prison were extraordinarily bad, for inmates and guards alike. Four months later he was found out, when a Mother Jones videographer was arrested while gathering footage nearby. The resulting essay is 35,000-word opus accompanied by a six-part video series (of which the first is at the top of this post). Basically, it’s a story of how the corporate search for profits led to a lack of resources in the cell blocks Bauer patrolled, while low wages created a constant turnover among employees. Inmates lived in overcrowded squalor and were routinely denied health care for serious psychological and physical sickness. And prison officials and guards resorted to the use of arbitrary force in the absence of of proper staffing and facilities.

Here’s a short excerpt (from chapter 3):

The walk is eerily quiet. Crows caw, fog hangs low over the basketball courts. The prison is locked down. Programs have been canceled. With the exception of kitchen workers, none of the inmates can leave their dorms. Usually, lockdowns occur when there are major disturbances, but today, with some officers out for the holidays, guards say there just aren’t enough people to run the prison. (CCA says Winn was never put on lockdown due to staffing shortages.) The unit manager tells me to shadow one of the two floor officers, a burly white Marine veteran. His name is Jefferson, and as we walk the floor an inmate asks him what the lockdown is about. “You know half of the fucking people don’t want to work here,” Jefferson tells him. “We so short-staffed and shit, so most of the gates ain’t got officers.” He sighs dramatically. (CCA claims to have “no knowledge” of gates going unmanned at Winn.)

“It’s messed up,” the prisoner says.

“Man, it’s so fucked up it’s pitiful,” Jefferson replies. “The first thing the warden asked me [was] what would boost morale around here. The first two words out of my mouth: pay raise.” He takes a gulp of coffee from his travel mug.

“They do need to give y’all a pay raise,” the prisoner says.

It’s a story, in other words, of contemporary America—not just of private prisons (although it is an indictment of the growth of for-private incarceration), but also of the frustrations associated with the military-like occupation of U.S. streets (with an understanding of what that means for both the occupiers and the occupied).

The second article appeared in Tuesday’s New York Times, on the uneven recovery in Las Vegas, the epicenter of the housing crisis. The story is very different, about middle-class people who couldn’t be more different from inmates and prison guards, who are suffering from being underwater on their mortgages and struggling to negotiate a sale to avoid foreclosure.

But I was struck by two similarities—of people imprisoned in their homes (because they can’t get out from under their high mortgage payments) and of the violence (real or perceived) of their once-prosperous housing developments. Consider the story of Michael Hutchings who, with his wife and their children, still lives in their 10-year-old dream home.

A Marine veteran, Mr. Hutchings is now a block captain for the neighborhood association near Sunrise Mountain, 10 miles east of the Strip. Like many residents of the scattered American cities where violent crime is rising, he got so concerned that he installed iron gates and 12 security cameras to watch over his 1-year-old son, Maxim, and 3-year-old daughter, Natalia, as they play. When he takes them to the park, he goes armed.

The inmates and guards of the Winn Correctional Center and the Las Vegas homeowners who still have not experienced a recovery from the crash of 2007-08 are, in their different ways, prisoners of the American Dream.

fredgraph (2)

One thing is clear in the current conjuncture: corporate investment in capital equipment is declining, and it’s dragging overall economic growth and labor productivity down with it.

In the second quarter of 2016, the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of only 1.2 percent, which caught business commentators and Wall Street analysts by surprise. They expected something closer to 2.6 percent. And while consumer spending continued to increase (at at rate of 4.2 percent in the second quarter), business investment fell (at a 2.2 percent pace), and companies ran down inventories for the fifth consecutive quarter.

So,  what’s going on?

Given the centrality of business investment to capitalist growth, you’d think the business press would have a cogent, carefully elaborated analysis of why it’s declining during the current recovery.

Well, they don’t. All they can do is invoke their usual hand-waving gesture, “political uncertainty,” as the underlying cause. Political uncertainty is blamed for the slowdown in mergers and acquisitions and for sputtering business investment.

Most CEOs will be risk-averse and conservative with their balance sheets until they see signs of a growth rebound, even though they’re sitting atop piles of cash and the cost of capital is at all-time lows. They will also hold off investing until they have a better sense of the future tax and regulatory burdens they are likely to face next year.

Yes, there is a high degree of political uncertainty (in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere). But that doesn’t explain corporate behavior, especially their investment decisions.

One can just as easily reverse the argument: Political realities have to respond to corporate decisions (especially when growth is slowing). And the slowing of economic growth itself is a consequence of the corporate decisions to curtail private nonresidential fixed investment.

The alternative explanation is that corporations are responding quite certainly to their own market signals. First, they’re choosing to substitute labor for capital, given depressed wage growth around the globe.

“Instead of buying an expensive piece of machinery, businesses are hiring really cheap workers they can fire whenever they want,” said Megan Greene, chief economist at Manulife Asset Management.

And they’re reacting to the decline in their own index of success and failure, the corporate profit rate (which, as one can see in the chart of the top of the post, has been falling during the last two years).

m&a

It’s not that corporations are doing nothing: they are engaged in massive mergers and acquisitions (just not at the same pace of 2015) and they’re using the profits they’ve accumulated since the recovery began to increase dividends, buy back stock, and reward their top managers.

So, is capital on strike? The Wall Street Journal suggests it is: “The investment plunge is a signal that business is on strike.”

And, given the way the economy is currently organized, the rest of us are forced to endure the consequences of capital’s decision to do whatever is necessary to restore its profitability.