Posts Tagged ‘stocks’

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Special mention

Clay Bennett editorial cartoon  EPSON scanner image

equity

I have been arguing, since 2016 (e.g., here, here, and here), that one of the likely outcomes of the kind of corporate tax cuts Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have supported—and, as we saw, eventually rammed through—would be an increase in inequality. That’s because corporations would likely use a portion of their higher profits to engage in stock buybacks, leading to an increase in stock prices. And stock ownership in the United States is already grotesquely unequal. Therefore, the rise in equity prices would disproportionately benefit the small group at the top of the wealth pyramid.

And that’s exactly what is happening. As CNN Money reports, U.S. corporations have showered Wall Street with $214 billion of stock buyback announcements so far this year.

buybacks

According to a recent report by U.S. Senate Democrats (pdf), that total includes enormous repurchases from a diverse array of large corporations, including Wells Fargo, Oracle, Amgen, and Alphabet (Google).

Even those who, like Tyler Cowen, defend the use of the tax cuts for stock buybacks are forced to admit that

If a major corporation engages in buybacks, that simply transfers money from one set of hands to another — from the corporate entity to the shareholders.

That’s exactly right—except, of course, Cowen forgets about the initial transfer of value, the surplus, from workers to corporate boards of directors.

Now consider my estimate of the distribution of stock ownership in the United States, illustrated in the chart at the top of the post.

Again, as with the distribution of wealth in the United States, most experts get it wrong (as I showed recently, in a post that was picked up by Market Watch). As of 2014 (the last year for which data are available) the top 1 percent of American taxpayers (the green bar) owned not two or three but almost six times the corporate equities as the bottom 90 percent (the red bar)—62.19 percent compared to only 10.8 percent.

So, who are the real beneficiaries of the corporate tax cuts? Not workers (in terms of pay, benefits, or jobs) but the tiny group at the top who already own the bulk of stocks in the United States.* They’re getting wealthier and leaving everyone else further and further behind.

Let’s see what kind of economic voodoo the tiny group at the top of the wealth pyramid and their friends in politics and the media are going to use to attempt to buyback that obscene result.

 

*While some corporations have announced one-time bonuses, the money devoted to workers pales in comparison with the buyback bonanza. So far, just 6 percent of the corporate windfall from the tax cuts has gone to workers in the form of pay hikes, bonuses, and other benefits, according to an analysis by JUST Capital.

profits-stocks

There’s no real mystery behind the spectacular gains in the stock market over the course of 2017. Much of it can be explained by the rise in U.S. corporate profits.

But, as is clear from the chart above, the relationship between corporate profits (after tax, in red, measured on the right-hand side) and the stock market (the Dow Jones Industrial Index, in blue on the left) actually goes back almost a decade. Corporate profits have increased, from their low in the fourth quarter of 2008, some 176 percent. Meanwhile, the stock market has risen 182 percent from its own low in the first quarter of 2009.

Corporate profits are, of course, a signal to investors that their stocks will likely rise in value. Moreover, increased profits allow corporations themselves to buy back a portion of their stocks. Finally, wealthy individuals, who manage to capture a large share of the growing surplus appropriated by corporations, have had a larger and larger mountain cash to speculate on stocks.

Clearly, the United States has had a profit-led recovery since the crash of 2007-08, which is both a cause and consequence of the stock-market bubble.

However, that recovery has left most other Americans behind. First, corporate profits have increased in large part because workers’ wages have largely stagnated. Second, most American workers don’t own any stocks, either directly or indirectly. Stock ownership itself is highly concentrated, as the top 10 percent of households own well over 80 percent of the U.S. stock market.

And looking forward? I don’t make predictions but it’s obvious that the Republican administration is determined to do all it can to keep corporate profits growing and to make sure wealthy individuals keep a larger share of the surplus they receive. As long as that happens, we’ll continue to see the kind of lopsided recovery—including banner gains in the stock market—that has characterized the U.S. economy for the better part of the past decade.

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Special mention

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DJIA-wages

The new jobs report is out and, once again, little has changed—including wage growth (the blue line in the chart above), which for production and nonsupervisory workers was only 2.3 percent.

That may not be good for workers but their employers and stock-market investors couldn’t be happier. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (the red line in the chart above) continues to soar, on the expectation of higher future profits.

DJIA

Just in the first couple of hours of trading today, the average is up more than 58 points.

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While Wall Street celebrates yet another stock market record—surpassing 20,000 on the Dow Jones industrial average—most Americans have little reason to cheer. That’s because they own very little stock and therefore aren’t sharing in the gains.

The only possible response is, “That’s your damn stock market, not ours,” analogous to the response about Brexit and the expected decline in GDP by a woman in Newcastle.

stocks

It’s true, even after recent declines, about half (48.8 percent) of U.S. households hold stocks in publicly traded companies directly or indirectly (according to the most recent Survey of Current Finances [pdf]).

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But, according to Ed Wolff (pdf), the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households own only 18.6 percent of all corporate stock. The rest (81.4 percent) is in the hands of the top 10 percent.

So, while the stock market has experienced quite a turnaround from mid-February of last year (when a barrage of selling sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its lowest close since April 2014), especially since Donald Trump’s November victory (including more than 100 points just yesterday), most Americans continue to be left out in the cold.

Clearly, a much better alternative for American workers would be to follow Shannon Rieger’s advice and look toward a radically different model: enterprises that are owned and managed by their employees. That would give them a much better chance of sharing in the wealth they create.

They would also then be able to finally say to mainstream economists and politicians, “That’s our GDP and stock market, not yours.”

fredgraph

The capitalist machine is broken—and no one seems to know how to fix it.

The machine I’m referring to is the one whereby the “capitalist” (i.e., the boards of directors of large corporations) converts the “surplus” (i.e., corporate profits) into additional “capital” (i.e., nonresidential fixed investment)—thereby preserving the pact with the devil: the capitalists are the ones who get and decide on the distribution of the surplus, and then they’re supposed to use the surplus for investment, thereby creating economic growth and well-paying jobs.

The presumption of mainstream economists and business journalists (as well as political and economic elites) is that the capitalist machine is the only possible one, and that it will work.

Except it’s not: corporate profits have been growing (the red line in the chart above) but investment has been falling (the blue line in the chart), both in the short run and in the long run. Between 2008 and 2015, corporate profits have soared (as a share of gross domestic income, from 3.9 to 6.3 percent) but investment has decreased (as a share of gross domestic product, from 13.5 to 12.4 percent). Starting from 1980, the differences are even more stark: corporate profits were lower (3.6 percent) and investment was much higher (14.5 percent).

The fact that the machine is not working—and, as a result, growth is slowing down and job-creation is not creating the much-promised rise in workers’ wages—has created a bit of a panic among mainstream economists and business journalists.

Larry Summers, for example, finds himself reaching back to Alvin Hansen and announcing we’re in a period of “secular stagnation”:

Most observers expected the unusually deep recession to be followed by an unusually rapid recovery, with output and employment returning to trend levels relatively quickly. Yet even with the U.S. Federal Reserve’s aggressive monetary policies, the recovery (both in the United States and around the globe) has fallen significantly short of predictions and has been far weaker than its predecessors. Had the American economy performed as the Congressional Budget Office fore­cast in August 2009—after the stimulus had been passed and the recovery had started—U.S. GDP today would be about $1.3 trillion higher than it is.

Clearly, the current recovery has fallen far short of expectations. But then Summers seeks to calm fears—”secular stagnation does not reveal a profound or inherent flaw in capitalism”—and suggests an easy fix: all that has to happen is an increase in government-financed infrastructure spending to raise aggregate demand and induce more private investment spending.

As if rising profitability is not enough of an incentive for capitalists.

Noah Smith, for his part, is also worried the machine isn’t working, especially since, with low interest-rates, credit for investment projects is cheap and abundant—and yet corporate investment remains low by historical standards. Contra Summers, Smith suggests the real problem is “credit rationing,” that is, small companies have been shut out of the necessary funding for their investment projects. So, he would like to see policies that promote access to capital:

That would mean encouraging venture capital, small-business lending and more effort on the part of banks to seek out promising borrowers — basically, an effort to get more businesses inside the gated community of capital abundance.

Except, of course, banks have an abundance of money to lend—and venture capital has certainly not been sitting on the sidelines.

Profitability, in other words, is not the problem. What neither Summers nor Smith is willing to ask is what corporations are actually doing with their growing profits (not to mention cheap credit and equity funding via the stock market) if not investing them.

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We know that corporations are not paying higher taxes to the government. As a share of gross domestic income, they’re lower than they were in 2006, and much lower than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. So, the corporate tax-cuts proposed by the incoming administration are not likely to induce more investment. Corporations will just be able to retain more of the profits they get from their workers.

But corporations are distributing their profits to other uses. Dividends to shareholders have increased dramatically (as a share of gross domestic income, the green line in the chart at the top of the post): from 1.7 percent in 1980 to 4.6 percent in 2015.

buybacks

source (pdf)

Corporations are also using their profits to repurchase their own shares (thereby boosting stock indices to record levels), to finance mergers and acquisitions (which increase concentration, but not investment, and often involve cutting jobs), to raise the income and wealth of CEOs (thus further raising incomes of the top 1 percent and increasing conspicuous consumption), and to hold cash (at home and, especially, in overseas tax havens).

And that’s the current dilemma: the machine is working but only for a tiny group at the top. For everyone else, it’s not—not by a long shot.

We can expect, then, a long line of mainstream economists and business journalists who, like Summers and Smith, will suggest one or another tool to tinker with the broken machine. What they won’t do is state plainly the current machine is beyond repair—and that we need a radically different one to get things going again.