Posts Tagged ‘recovery’

robrogers

Special mention

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In retrospect, I can now recognize that we were both right and wrong, as is always the case when one tries to look into the future.

— Henning Mankell

Regular readers of this blog know two things about me: I don’t make predictions. And I use these posts not to pronounce firm conclusions or solutions, but to try to work through the issues and clarify my thinking.

So, think of this as an exercise in trying to make sense of the ongoing debate concerning the shape of the recession and the speed of the recovery from the severe economic crisis induced by the response—by U.S. corporations, banks, workers, various levels of the government, and others—to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Nothing more.

Moreover, I don’t have or offer a single theory of capitalists crises, no set of “laws of motion” that inexorably (at least in the last instance) work themselves out to produce every recession, depression, or other economic meltdown within capitalism. For me, every crisis is a singular event, which requires a conjunctural analysis—and this one is no different.

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That said, I think we can all agree that the current crisis is severe—in terms of a variety of indicators, from the projected decline in Gross Domestic Product to the current and projected additional rise in unemployment. It’s probably the most dramatic since the first Great Depression of the 1930s, and therefore worse than any of the eight other economic downturns (including what I have called the Second Great Depression) since 1960.*

The big question is, how long will it last—that is, will American capitalism rebound and how quickly will that occur?

That’s the question that seems to be on everyone’s minds these days, from Donald Trump and the right-wing anti-shutdown protestors through businesses and banks both large and small to the millions of workers whose lives have been decimated either by being laid off or being forced to have the freedom to continue to work under conditions that imperil their health and lives.

And the stakes couldn’t be higher. In Trump’s case, for example, a quick recovery increases his chances of reelection in November—although that might not work out exactly as he hopes if reopening the economy prematurely means thousands more American deaths. A longer downturn, on the other hand, calls into question capitalism’s resilience, highlights even more the grotesque levels of inequality that characterize the United States, and serves to legitimize more generous government-sponsored social programs (including, e.g., a universal or unconditional basic income) to mitigate the effects of the crisis on workers, their families, and their communities.

So, what will the COVID-19 recession look like: will it be V-shaped, U-shaped, or W-shaped (to use the alphabet soup most recently discussed by David Rodeck)?

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One possibility is for a relatively quick, V-shaped downturn and recovery such as occurred in the early 1990s (starting with a recession that lasted for 8 months, from July 1990 to March 1991, followed by a relatively speedy recovery).

It’s a rosy forecast that has been offered by such theoretical and politically different economists as Gregory Mankiw (putting on his optimist cap) and Dean Baker, as well as a couple of my friends (in private communications). The basic idea is that the crisis was caused not by capitalism’s “inner workings” (such as the bursting of a speculative bubble or a decline in the profit rate), but by the pandemic and the government-mandated shutdown of businesses. So, the logic goes, as soon as the shutdowns are lifted, businesses will reopen, workers who were furloughed or laid off will head back to their employers, and spending (both consumption and investment) will rebound.

In other words, capitalists will be able to bury the bodies (both literally and figuratively) and get back to business as usual—although it’s quite possible, even then, that U.S. capitalism itself will look quite different (with increased concentration, especially in the retail sector, and even more inequality).

U

A second, less-optimistic picture is a U-shaped cycle, with a prolonged downturn and extended trough, and thus a delayed recovery—something like the United States experienced during the Second Great Depression (the so-called Great Recession itself lasted 18 months from peak to trough). Here, we’re talking about a much longer decline in economic growth (comprising 5 quarters of negative real GDP growth, from early 2008 to mid-2009) with soaring unemployment (reaching a peak of 10 percent), and, of course, an almost complete meltdown of the financial sector.

We don’t yet know how severe economic growth is or will be (although the authors of a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper forecast a year-on-year contraction in U.S. real GDP of nearly 11 percent as of the fourth quarter of 2020, while the 90-percent confidence interval extends to a nearly 20-percent contraction) but unemployment is already at an alarming level (18 percent, by my estimate) and will no doubt increase in the coming months.** Moreover, it’s quite possible that many of the workers who have been furloughed or laid off will not soon be reintegrated into their previous jobs or find, at least in the medium term, new jobs. That’s because many businesses will not reopen or will be acquired, as happens during every capitalist crisis, and the remaining businesses will resume with smaller workforces (e.g., because of automation and speed-ups). And, of course, certain sectors (such as transportation and any activity that involves large gatherings, such as professional and collegiate sports) will likely reopen very slowly.

In addition, a recent study suggests that forecasters (both researchers and government agencies) tend to be too optimistic about when recession recoveries will begin, which means the return to a normal economy could be slower and bumpier than many economists are currently predicting.

Finally, we still don’t know the likely trajectory of the pandemic, both within and across countries. Especially as tentative steps are being taken to reopen the U.S. economy, it’s quite possible, without widespread testing and an effective vaccine, that we’ll see a second or third wave of COVID-19, which will require new shutdowns.***

W

That leaves us, then, with a third possibility: a W-shaped recession and recovery, such as took place in the early 1980s, with an initial downturn (from January to July 1980) followed in short order by a second, more severe one (from July 1981 to November 1982).

Such a double-dip recession, with a short recovery inbetween, might occur if the economy is reopened and pent-up demand (for everything, from cars to the commodities in brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants) leads to a surge in consumption, but the initial recovery is disrupted by households attempting to rebalance their finances (e.g., to pay for healthcare and to make up for foregone paychecks) and businesses that, after selling off their inventories, curtail both new purchases and longer-term investment projects in the face of considerable uncertainty. That would mean a new round of furloughs and layoffs, even without new waves of the pandemic.

Of course, if the novel coronavirus does get out of control again (e.g., as recently happened in Singapore), either because of its spread from one region to another the United States or because of outbreaks abroad (which in coming months may be experiencing only the initial stages of the pandemic), then the likelihood of a W-shaped cycle would increase.

As I wrote at the top, I don’t make predictions, and I have no idea which of these three possibilities is most likely. What I do know is that the existing way of organizing economic and social life in the United States, which was already inflicting its pains and punishments on most of the American people while favoring a tiny group at the top, has proven to be even more poorly equipped to handle a pandemic. The public healthcare system, notwithstanding the heroic work of its workers, has clearly come up short. And the way the system has stranded workers and the owners of small businesses, who have barely benefited from the bailouts that have mostly favored large banks and corporations, has made a terrible situation even worse.

Regardless of the depth of the recession and the speed of the recovery, the real debate in the months ahead will center on one question: what fundamental changes need to be made so that, in moving forward, the grotesquely unequal imposition and shifting of burdens favored by American economic and political elites can finally be eliminated?

 

*The designation of a recession is the province of a committee at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Contrary to popular belief, which equates a recession with two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, an NBER recession is a monthly concept that takes into account a number of monthly indicators—such as employment, personal income, and industrial production—as well as quarterly GDP growth. And just to be clear, the NBER does not have or utilize a separate category or metric for capitalism’s depressions.

**According to a newly released poll from the Pew Research Center, 43 percent of American adults say their households have suffered a job loss or a cut in pay since the start of the coronavirus crisis, marking a 10-point increase from a month ago. Among lower-income adults (with annual incomes less than roughly $37,500), an even higher share (52 percent) say they or someone in their household has experienced this type of job upheaval.

***The CDC is now warning that a second wave of the novel coronavirus later this year may be far more dire because it is likely to coincide with the start of flu season.

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Special mention

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Mainstream economists continue to discuss the two great crises of capitalism during the past century just like the pillars of society performed in the brothel—a “house of infinite mirrors and theaters”—in Jean Genet’s The Balcony.* The order they represent is indeed threatened by an uprising in the streets, and the only question is: can they reestablish the illusion of control?

The latest version of the absurdist economic play opens with Brad DeLong, who dons the costume of the liberal mainstream economist and argues that, while the Great Depression of the 1930s was far deeper than the Great Recession (what I have long referred to as the Second Great Depression), the recovery from the crash of 2007-08 was so mishandled that it casts a shadow over the U.S. economy in a way the first Great Depression did not.

now we are haunted by our Great Recession in a sense that our predecessors were not haunted by the Great Depression. Looking forward, it appears that we will be haunted for who knows how long. No unbiased observer projects anything other than slow growth, much slower than the years during and after World War II. Nobody is forecasting that the haunting will cease — that the shadow left from the Great Recession will lift.

Basically, DeLong blames two groups—conservative mainstream economists and policymakers (“including the decision makers at the top in the Obama administration”)—for a recovery that was both too long and too slow. The first claims the monetary and fiscal policies that were adopted were wrongheaded from the start, and fought every attempt to sustain or expand them. The second group claims they prevented a second Great Depression and refuses to acknowledge the failure of the policies they devised and adopted.

The customer who dresses up as a representative of the conservative wing of mainstream economics, Robert Samuelson, expresses his sympathy with DeLong’s analysis but considers it be overstated. Samuelson’s view is that slow growth is not caused by the shadow cast by inadequate economic policies, but is the more or less inevitable result of two exogenous events: reduced growth of the labor force and slower growth in productivity.

The retirement of baby-boom workers would have occurred without the Great Recession. The slowdown in productivity growth — reflecting technology, management and worker skills — is not well understood, but may also be independent of the Great Recession.

This is exactly what is to be expected in the high-end economic brothel. It’s a debate confined to growth rates and the degree to which economic policies or exogenous factors should ultimately shoulder the blame of the crisis of legitimacy of the current economic order. Each, it seems, wants to play the fantasy of the Chief of Police in order to create the illusion of restoring order.**

What DeLong and Samuelson choose not to talk about are the fundamental differences between the response to the 1929 crash and the most recent crisis of capitalism. As is clear from the data in the chart at the top of the post, the balance of power was fundamentally altered as a result of the New Deals (the first and especially the second), which simply didn’t occur in recent years. After 1929, the wage share (the green line) remained relatively constant, even in the face of massive unemployment—and eventually, as a result of a whole series of other policies (from regulating the financial sector through jobs programs to unleashing a wave of labor-union organizing), the shares of national income going to the bottom 90 percent (the blue line) and the top 1 percent (the red line) moved in opposite directions. The current recovery has been quite different: a declining wage share (which, admittedly, continues a decades-long slide), the bottom 90 percent losing out and the top 1 percent resuming its rise.

And the reason? As I see it, what was happening outside the brothel, in the streets, explains the different responses to the two crashes. It was the Left—in the form of political parties (Socialist, Communist, and the left-wing of the Democratic Party), but also labor unions, councils of the unemployed, academics, and so on—that pushed the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress to adopt policies that moved beyond restoring economic growth to fundamentally restructure the U.S. economy (which, of course, continued during and after the war years).*** Nothing similar happened in the United States after 2008. As a result, the policies that were discussed and eventually adopted only meant a recovery for large corporations and wealthy households. Everyone else has been left to battle over the scraps—attempting to get by on low-paying jobs retirement incomes based on volatile stock markets, with underwater mortgages and rising student debt, and facing out-of-control healthcare costs.****

It should come as no surprise, then, that the elites who continue to play out their fantasies in the house of mirrors have lost the trust of ordinary people. Unfortunately, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, it’s clear that new masqueraders have been willing to don the costumes and continue the fantasy that the old order can be restored.

Only a fundamental rethink, which rejects all the illusions created within the economic bordello, will chart a path that is radically different from the recoveries that followed both great crises of capitalism of the past hundred years.

 

*I saw my first production of “O Balcão” at Sao Paulo’s Teatro Oficina in 1970, as a young exchange student during one of the most repressive years of the Brazilian dictatorship. Staging Genet’s play at that moment represented both a searing critique of the military regime and an extraordinary act of resistance to government censorship.

**Much the same can be said of a parallel debate, between Joseph Stiglitz and Lawrence Summers.

***Even then, we need to recognize how limited the recovery from the first Great Depression was. Amidst all the changes and new regulations, leaving control of the surplus in private hands left large corporations with the interest and means to circumvent and ultimately eliminate the New Deal regulations, thus creating the conditions for the Second Great Depression.

****As Evan Horowitz has shown, roughly 14 percent of workers have seen no raise over the past year (counting only those who have stayed in the same job). That means, with inflation, their real wages have fallen. Moreover, “when a large share of workers get passed over for raises, wage growth for all workers tends to remain slow in the year ahead.”

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I have long argued (e.g., herehere, and here) that capitalism involves a kind of pact with the devil: control over the surplus is reluctantly given over to the boards of directors of corporations in return for certain promises, such as just deserts, economic stability, and wage increases for workers.

In recent years, as so often in the past, we’ve witnessed those at the top sabotaging the pact (simply because they have the means and interest to do so) and now, once again, they’ve undermined their legitimacy to run things.

First, they broke their promise of just deserts, as the distribution of income has become increasingly (and, to describe it accurately, grotesquely) unequal and the tendency toward high concentrations of wealth has returned, threatening to create a new class of plutocratic coupon-clippers. Then, they ended the Great Moderation with speculative decisions that ushered in the worst economic crisis since the First Great Depression. And, now, the promise of using the surplus to create jobs that would raise workers’ pay appears to be falling prey to directing the surplus to other uses: share buybacks and increasing CEO salaries.

According to a recent report by Goldman Sachs, stock repurchases will reach $1 trillion this year, up 46 percent from 2017 on the back of tax reform and strong corporate profits. Corporations buying back their own stocks leads to higher stock prices, which is an additional benefit to those who own the stocks—on top of the dividends they regularly receive.

As I explained earlier this year, the top 1 percent owned in 2014 almost two thirds of the financial or business wealth, while the bottom 90 percent had only six percent. That represents an enormous change from the already-unequal situation in 1978, when the shares were much closer: 28.6 percent for the top 1 percent and 23.2 percent for the bottom 90 percent). So, rising stock prices are both a condition and consequence of the obscene levels of inequality that obtain in the United States today.

And who loses? Workers, of course. A recent report from the National Employment Law Project calculated that McDonald’s could have paid each of its 1.9 million workers $4 thousand more a year if it had used the $21 billion it spent between 2015 and 2017 on stock buybacks to reward its workers instead. Starbucks could have given each of its workers a $7-thousand raise. With the money currently spent on buybacks, Lowe’s, CVS, and Home Depot could give each of their workers pay increases of at least $18 thousand a year.

But they’re not. Instead, corporations are using their enormous profits to repurchase their own stocks and, in addition, rewarding their executives with enormous pay increases.

According to Bloomberg, the median CEO-to-worker-pay ratio last year was 127 to 1 (at International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.). For U.S. corporations, the ratio ran from 0 (for Twitter, because CEO and cofounder Jack Dorsey received $0 in 2017) to 4,987-to-1 (at Mattel, where CEO compensation was $31,275,289).*

As it turns out, some of the most extreme examples of the gap between executive and median worker pay occurs at companies directly supported by federal contracts and subsidies. The latest Executive Excess report, published annually by the Institute for Policy Studies, found that at many federally funded companies the gap is far in excess of what ordinary American taxpayers find acceptable. For example, more than two-thirds of the top 50 government contractors and top 50 recipients of federal subsidies, receiving a total of $167 billion, currently pay their chief executive officer more than 100 times their median worker pay. At the top of the scale are leading military contractors, with the top bosses at Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman each earning an average of $21 million, or between 166 and 218 times average worker pay.**

So, do Americans have any sympathy for the devil? The typical American believes CEO pay should run no more than six times average worker pay, according to the “2016 Public Perception Survey on CEO Compensation” at Stanford Business School (which mirrors a similar study by Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael Norton). Clearly, given the obscene ratios of CEO to average worker pay, Americans are no longer puzzled by corporations’ game. My guess is we’d see the same results if someone conducted a survey about stock repurchases. U.S. publicly traded companies across all industries spent almost 60 percent of their profits on buybacks between 2015 and 2017, while workers’ wages stagnated.

Sure, the tiny group at the top may present themselves as people of wealth and taste. But they’ve also shown they can lay waste to the economy they alone control, and they are clearly in need of some restraint. So, now, almost a decade into the current lopsided recovery—as they watch with glee their growing profits and an increasing gap between those who receive the surplus and everyone else—they deserve no sympathy whatsoever.

They’ve broken the pact and now their game is up.

 

*But Dorsey still owns a bundle of equity in Twitter, whose stock has increased in value 20 percent since the beginning of 2018. As of April 2 Dorsey owned 18 million shares of Twitter, currently worth $627 million as of Tuesday’s closing price. Dorsey also is the CEO of payments company Square, in which he owns 65.5 million shares, which currently would be worth $6 billion.

**The Geo Group, one of the primary contractors for the notorious immigrant family detention centers, took in $663 million in Justice Department and Homeland Security contracts in 2017. Geo CEO George Zoley pocketed $9.6 million that year, 271 times more than his company’s median worker pay of $35,630.

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Back in June, Neil Irwin wrote that he couldn’t find enough synonyms for “good”  to adequately describe the jobs numbers.

I have the opposite problem. I’ve tried every word I could come up with—including “lopsided,” “highly skewed,” and “grotesquely unequal“—to describe how “bad” this recovery has been, especially for workers.

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Maybe readers can come up with better adjectives to illustrate the sorry plight of Americans workers since the Second Great Depression began—something that captures, for example, the precipitous decline in the labor share during the past decade (from 103.3 in the first quarter of 2008 to 97.1 in the first quarter of 2018, with 2009 equal to 100).*

But perhaps there’s a different approach. Just run the numbers and report the results. That’s what the Directorate for Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs seem to have done in compiling the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2018. Here’s their summary:

For the first time since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, there are more people with a job in the OECD area than before the crisis. Unemployment rates are below, or close to, pre-crisis levels in almost all countries. . .

Yet, wage growth is still missing in action. . .

Even more worrisome, this unprecedented wage stagnation is not evenly distributed across workers. Real labour incomes of the top 1% of income earners have increased much faster than those of median full-time workers in recent years, reinforcing a long-standing trend. This, in turn, is contributing to a growing dissatisfaction by many about the nature, if not the strength, of the recovery: while jobs are finally back, only some fortunate few at the top are also enjoying improvements in earnings and job quality.

Exactly! The number of jobs has gone up and unemployment rates have fallen—and workers are still being left behind. That’s because wage growth “is still missing in action.”

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Workers’ wages have been stagnant for the past decade across the 36 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. But the problem has been particularly acute in the United States, where the “low-income rate” is high (only surpassed by two countries, Greece and Spain) and “income inequality” even worse (following only Israel).

The causes are clear: workers suffer when many of the new jobs they’re forced to have the freedom to take are on the low end of the wage scale, unemployed and at-risk workers are getting very little support from the government, and employed workers are impeded by a weak collective-bargaining system.

That’s exactly what we’ve seen in the United State ever since the crisis broke out—which has continued during the entire recovery.

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But we also have to look at the opposite pole: the growth of corporate profits is both a condition and consequence of the stagnation of workers’ wages. Employers have been able to use those profits not to increase worker pay (except for CEOs and other corporate executives whose pay is actually a distribution of those profits), but to purchase new technologies and take advantage of national and global patterns of production and trade to keep both unemployed and employed workers in a precarious position.

That precarity, even as employment has expanded, serves to keep wages low—and profits growing.

What we’re seeing then, especially in the United States, is a self-reinforcing cycle of high profits, low wages, and even higher profits.

That’s why the labor share of business income has been falling throughout the so-called recovery. And why, in the end, Eric Levitz was forced to find the right words:

American Workers Are Getting Ripped Off

 

*And, of course, even longer: from 114 in 1960 or 112 in 1970 or even 110.2 in 2001.

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Does anyone really need any additional evidence of the lopsided nature of the current recovery?

Employers certainly don’t. They’re managing to hire additional workers, thus lowering the unemployment rate. But they don’t have to pay the workers they hire much more than they were getting before, with wages barely staying ahead of the rate of inflation. As a result, corporate profits continue to grow.

Clearly, what we’re seeing remains a one-sided recovery: employers are getting ahead—and their workers are still being left behind.

According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 164,000 in April, thus reducing the headline unemployment rate to 3.9 percent and the expanded or U6 unemployment rate (which includes, in addition, marginally attached workers and those who are working part-time for economic reasons) to 7.4 percent.* Meanwhile, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by only 5 cents in April—an annual rate of just 2.7 percent (just a bit more than the current inflation rate of 2.5 percent).

Sure, employers complain that they can’t hire the workers they need—persistent gripes that are dutifully reported in the business press. They may even be paying one-time bonuses. But they’re certainly not increasing wages in order to attract the kinds of workers they say they want.

That’s because they don’t have to. Most of the new jobs are being created in sectors—like professional and technical services (an additional 25.8 thousand jobs in April), temporary help services (10.3 thousand), health care (24.4 thousand), machinery (8.4 thousand), and accommodation and food services (18.9 thousand)—where there are plenty of still-underemployed workers to go around. In addition, most of those workers are not represented by unions, and therefore aren’t in a position to negotiate for higher wages.** The decline in government jobs means there’s little competition for the nation’s workers. And employers continue to have the option of automation and offshoring, which also keeps workers’ wages in check.

So, employers in the United States are able to advertise jobs that pay $10, $12, or $20 an hour, which desperate workers are forced to have the freedom to take—because, within the existing set of economic institutions, the alternatives are even worse.

American employers, with their higher profits and new tax cuts, could be paying higher wages. But they’re choosing not to.***

For them, it’s certainly been a beautiful recovery.

 

*After revisions, job gains in the United States have averaged 208,000 over the last 3 months.

**However, one group of workers without union representation—teachers—have decided to initiate strikes and other work stoppages to respond to cuts in their wages and education budgets. As North Caroline kindergarten teacher Kristin Beller explained, “We are done being the frog that is being boiled.”

***Except, of course, the portion of the surplus they have been distributing to their CEOs.