Posts Tagged ‘profits’

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The largest university in the United States—the University of Phoenix, part of the Apollo Education Group [ht: ja]—has been given an F by Wall Street investors. Its stock tumbled almost 30 percent in today’s trading.

A key problem is that, while for-profit colleges only enroll roughly 12 percent of the nation’s students, students at those colleges accounted for about half of student loan defaults in 2013. And, as we know, the quality of education continues to be dismal.

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Student enrollments and revenues have thus been falling in recent years. Degreed enrollment in the Apollo Education Group was most recently 227,400 students, less than half its own peak five years ago and down 13.5 percent from the first quarter of fiscal 2014. This year it will be lucky to take in $2.7 billion, although it had revenues close to $5 billion in 2010.

This would be the perfect time for public colleges and universities to attract many of the students who are leaving the for-profit sector of higher education. The problem is, public institutions are behaving more and more like their for-profit counterparts, being forced to rely more and more on tuition payments from students, who are taking on increasing levels of debt, instead of public financing.

In that sense, the country as a whole deserves an F for its failure to provide high-quality, affordable higher education to its citizens.

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As it turns out, crows are even smarter than we thought possible.

And CEOs at large U.S. companies have collectively captured more in compensation than we thought possible.

According to Reuters [ht: ja], 300 CEOs who served throughout the 2009-2013 period at S&P 500 companies together realized about $22 billion in compensation—that’s $6 billion more in compensation than initially estimated in annual disclosures—in the form of pay, bonuses and share and option grants, or an average of $73 million each.

To put those numbers in perspective, the AFL-CIO estimates that, in 2013, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 331:1.* That ratio was 46:1 in 1983, 195:1 in 1993, 301: 1 in 2003.

Like any ratio, the result depends on both the denominator and the numerator. The CEO-to-worker pay ratio has grown because, during the 2009-2013 recovery, workers’ wages have remained roughly unchanged while CEO compensation has soared. Thus, the combination of falling unemployment, growing productivity, and higher corporate profits and stock prices we’ve seen in recent years hasn’t helped workers but only the owners and executives of the corporations where they work.

“The numbers can be obscene, particularly when you look at the general challenges we face as an economy and society,” said Matthew Benkendorf, a portfolio manager at Vontobel Asset Management, which oversees about $50 billion.

We’ve long known that crows are pretty clever. Remember Aesop’s famous fable “The Crow and the Pitcher”? The thirsty crow drops pebbles into a pitcher with water near the bottom, thus raising the fluid level high enough to permit the bird to drink.

Do we really need to be any more clever to figure out that—as CEO compensation continues to grow, leaving workers and everyone else further and further behind—existing economic institutions have failed us and need to be replaced?

*The CEO-to-minimum-wage-worker pay ratio in 2013 was, of course, much higher—774:1

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The discussion of capital and labor shares puts the issue of class at the top of the agenda. No wonder, then, that mainstream economists are expending so much effort these days attempting to define away the problem.

Let me explain.

If we look at changes in capital and labor shares (measured in terms of corporate profits before tax and compensation of employees as shares of gross domestic product, as in the chart on the left), we can clearly see that, in recent decades, the profit share has been rising and the labor share has been falling. In other words, labor has been losing out to capital—and we need to focus on solving that class problem.

But, of course, the share of income accruing to capital doesn’t just show up in corporate profits; some of that capital share is also distributed to a small portion of income-earners in the corporate (both financial and nonfinancial) sector. The share of income of the top one percent (as in the chart on the right) is a good approximation. If we therefore added the top-one-percent to corporate profits, and at the same time subtracted it from the compensation of employees, the divergence between the capital and labor shares would be even greater—and the class problem would be even more acute.

MIT’s Matthew Rognlie understands this perfectly. He notes that David Ricardo pronounced the issue of how aggregate income is split between labor and capital the “principal problem of Political Economy” and that the recent explosion of research on inequality has both called into question the postwar presumption of constant capital and labor shares and emphasized the increasing share of income accruing to the richest individuals. In other words, class has once again reared its ugly head.

Instead of trying to solve this class problem, Rognlie attempts to define away the problem—first, by focusing on net income shares and, then, by including housing in capital. He concludes that, once those adjustments are made,

concern about inequality should be shifted away from the split between capital and labor, and toward other aspects of distribution, such as the within-labor distribution of income.

The problem with focusing on net income shares—that is, in the case of capital, gross profits minus depreciation—is that it confuses flows of value (corporate profits before taxes, plus incomes to the top one percent, in the way I suggested above) with expenditures (e.g., by corporations to replace the value of plant, building, and machinery that has depreciated in value during the course of production).

The problem with including housing in the capital stock is that it doesn’t form part of the capital from which capitalists derive a flow of new value added or created. Housing industry profits are already accounted for in gross corporate profits. The fact that individuals may own housing doesn’t allow them to capture any of that new value; it just allows them to enjoy the benefits of have a home and to pay the costs (to banks and other financial institutions) of financing their homeownership.

While I agree with Rognlie that the “story of the postwar net capital share is not a simple one,” the fall and then recovery of the capital share (in the form of both corporate profits and one-percent incomes), which is mirrored by the rise and then fall of the wage share, can’t simply be defined away.

In other words, just as it was in the early-nineteenth century, class remains the “principal problem of Political Economy” in our own times.

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Recovery: New Job, Day One

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As I have explained to generations of students, Americans like to think that education is the solution to all economic and social problems. Including, of course, growing inequality.

Why? Because focusing on education—encouraging people to get more higher education—involves no particular tradeoffs. More education for some doesn’t mean less education for others (at least in principle). And providing more education doesn’t involve any structural changes in society—just more funding. (Of course, suggesting more education under current conditions—when public financing of higher education continues to decline, and students and their families are forced to take on more and more debt—is itself disingenuous).

As a result, there’s a broad consensus in the middle—among conservatives and liberals alike—that encouraging more young people who have yet to enter the labor market and existing workers who want to get ahead to obtain a college education will solve the problem of inequality.

Uh, no. That’s because, as Paul Krugman points out, focusing on education is an elaborate dodge from the real issues.

the reason this is an evasion is that whatever serious people may want to believe, soaring inequality isn’t about education; it’s about power. . .

The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated. So what we need is more and better education. . .

As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees — all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance. Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.

There are two ways to look at this. One, using the chart above (from the Economic Policy Institute), is to see how workers with different levels of education have fared since 2007. It is clear that those in every education category experienced falling or, at best, stagnant wages since 2007. And while the data do show that college graduates have fared slightly better than high school graduates since 2007, this is not because of spectacular gains in the wages of college graduates, but because their wages fell more slowly than the wages of high school graduates.

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The other way is to look at changes in average incomes within the top 10 percent, most of whom have college and advanced degrees. As we can see, the top 1 percent (blue line) has been pulling away from everyone below them (such that, between 1976 and 2012, the ratio of the average incomes of the top 1 percent to the bottom 90 percent rose from 10.5 to 33.5). But the top .01 percent (bright green line) has been pulling away even faster—from the bottom 90 percent (the ratio of their incomes to the bottom 90 percent increased over the same period from 80 to 661) and from their fellow college graduates in the top 1 percent (that ratio increased from 7 to 21).

In other words, the wages of college graduates haven’t been faring all that well in recent years and, over the longer term, inequality has been growing among college graduates. Thus, the lack of education is not the problem, and more education is not the solution.

The fact is, in recent years and since the mid-1970s, wages of most workers have been stagnant, while productivity has continued to grow. As a result, corporate profits have soared to new record highs and a tiny minority at the top has been able to capture a share of those profits in the form of spectacularly high earnings and capital gains. That’s not because they have more education; it’s because they happen to be at the right place at the right time.

The “very serious people” at the top may try to convince the rest of us that obtaining more education will make us “worthy” of more income, thus leading to less inequality. But that’s just an attempt to deflect attention from the real causes.

And, to be honest, it doesn’t take a college education to understand the real causes of growing inequality in the United States.