Thursday, September 29, 2011

America and Europe: Saving the Rich and Losing the Economy

For years, Paul Craig Roberts has decried the behavior of corporate America (really, the international corporate ruling class) for being like a cancer upon the developed world, trashing their countrymen and women for personal gain.  I am reproducing this from  This ruling class currently has a death-grip on the American political system that will only be broken loose by concerted democratic action.

America and Europe: Saving the Rich and Losing the Economy

by Dr. Paul Craig Roberts

Economic policy in the United States and Europe has failed, and people are suffering.

Economic policy failed for three reasons: (1) policymakers focused on enabling offshoring corporations to move middle class jobs, and the consumer demand, tax base, GDP, and careers associated with the jobs, to foreign countries, such as China and India, where labor is inexpensive; (2) policymakers permitted financial deregulation that unleashed fraud and debt leverage on a scale previously unimaginable; (3) policymakers responded to the resulting financial crisis by imposing austerity on the population and running the printing press in order to bail out banks and prevent any losses to the banks regardless of the cost to national economies and innocent parties.

Jobs offshoring was made possible because the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in China and India opening their vast excess supplies of labor to Western exploitation. Pressed by Wall Street for higher profits, US corporations relocated their factories abroad. Foreign labor working with Western capital, technology, and business know-how is just as productive as US labor. However, the excess supplies of labor (and lower living standards) mean that Indian and Chinese labor can be hired for less than labor’s contribution to the value of output. The difference flows into profits, resulting in capital gains for shareholders and performance bonuses for executives.

As reported by Manufacturing and Technology News (September 20, 2011) the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages reports that in the last 10 years, the US lost 54,621 factories, and manufacturing employment fell by 5 million employees. Over the decade, the number of larger factories (those employing 1,000 or more employees) declined by 40 percent. US factories employing 500-1,000 workers declined by 44 percent; those employing between 250-500 workers declined by 37 percent, and those employing between 100-250 workers shrunk by 30 percent.

These losses are net of new start-ups. Not all the losses are due to offshoring. Some are the result of business failures.

US politicians, such as Buddy Roemer, blame the collapse of US manufacturing on Chinese competition and “unfair trade practices.” However, it is US corporations that move their factories abroad, thus replacing domestic production with imports. Half of US imports from China consist of the offshored production of US corporations.

The wage differential is substantial. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2009, average hourly take-home pay for US workers was $23.03. Social insurance expenditures add $7.90 to hourly compensation and benefits paid by employers add $2.60 per hour for a total labor compensation cost of $33.53.

In China as of 2008, total hourly labor cost was $1.36, and India’s is within a few cents of this amount. Thus, a corporation that moves 1,000 jobs to China saves saves $32,000 every hour in labor cost.These savings translate into higher stock prices and executive compensation, not in lower prices for consumers who are left unemployed by the labor arbitrage.

Republican economists blame “high” US wages for for the current high rate of unemployment. However, US wages are about the lowest in the developed world. They are far below hourly labor cost in Norway ($53.89), Denmark ($49.56), Belgium ($49.40), Austria ($48.04), and Germany ($46.52). The US might have the world’s largest economy, but its hourly workers rank 14th on the list of the best paid. Americans also have a higher unemployment rate. The “headline” rate that the media hypes is 9.1 percent, but this rate does not include any discouraged workers or workers forced into part-time jobs because no full-time jobs are available.

The US government has another unemployment rate (U6) that includes workers who have been too discouraged to seek a job for six months or less. This unemployment rate is over 16 percent. Statistician John Williams ( estimates the unemployment rate when long-term discouraged workers (more than six months) are included. This rate is over 22 percent.

Most emphasis is on the lost manufacturing jobs. However, the high speed Internet has made it possible to offshore many professional service jobs, such as software engineering, Information Technology, research and design. Jobs that comprised ladders of upward mobility for US college graduates have been moved offshore, thus reducing the value to Americans of many university degrees. Unlike former times, today an increasing number of graduates return home to live with their parents as there are insufficient jobs to support their independent existence.

All the while, the US government allows in each year one million legal immigrants, an unknown number of illegal immigrants, and a large number of foreign workers on H-1B and L-1 work visas. In other words, the policies of the US government maximize the unemployment rate of American citizens.

Republican economists and politicians pretend that this is not the case and that unemployed Americans consist of people too lazy to work who game the welfare system. Republicans pretend that cutting unemployment benefits and social assistance will force “lazy people who are living off the taxpayers” to go to work.

To deal with the adverse impact on the economy from the loss of jobs and consumer demand from offshoring, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan lowered interest rates in order to create a real estate boom. Lower interest rates pushed up real estate prices. People refinanced their houses and spent the equity. Construction, furniture and appliance sales boomed. But unlike previous expansions based on rising real income, this one was based on an increase in consumer indebtedness.

There is a limit to how much debt can increase in relation to income, and when this limit was reached, the bubble popped.

When consumer debt could rise no further, the large fraudulent component in mortgage-backed derivatives and the unreserved swaps (AIG, for example) threatened financial institutions with insolvency and froze the banking system. Banks no longer trusted one another. Cash was hoarded. Treasury Secretary Paulson, browbeat Congress into massive taxpayer loans to financial institutions that functioned as casinos. The Paulson Bailout (TARP) was large but insignificant compared to the $16.1 trillion (a sum larger than US GDP or national debt) that the Federal Reserve lent to private financial institutions in the US and Europe.

In making these loans, the Federal Reserve violated its own rules. At this point, capitalism ceased to function. The financial institutions were “too big to fail,” and thus taxpayer subsidies took the place of bankruptcy and reorganization. In a word, the US financial system was socialized as the losses of the American financial institutions were transferred to taxpayers.

European banks were swept up into the financial crisis by their unwitting purchase of the junk financial instruments marketed by Wall Street. The financial junk had been given investment grade rating by the same incompetent agency that recently downgraded US Treasury bonds.

The Europeans had their own bailouts, often with American money (Federal Reserve loans). All the while Europe was brewing an additional crisis of its own. By joining the European Union and (except for the UK) accepting a common European currency, the individual member countries lost the services of their own central banks as creditors. In the US and UK the two countries’ central banks can print money with which to purchase US and UK debt. This is not possible for member countries in the EU.

When financial crisis from excessive debt hit the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) their central banks could not print euros in order to buy up their bonds, as the Federal Reserve did with “quantitative easing.” Only the European Central Bank (ECB) can create euros, and it is prevented by charter and treaty from printing euros in order to bail out sovereign debt.

In Europe, as in the US, the driver of economic policy quickly became saving the private banks from losses on their portfolios. A deal was struck with the socialist government of Greece, which represented the banks and not the Greek people. The ECB would violate its charter and together with the IMF, which would also violate its charter, would lend enough money to the Greek government to avoid default on its sovereign bonds to the private banks that had purchased the bonds. In return for the ECB and IMF loans and in order to raise the money to repay them, the Greek government had to agree to sell to private investors the national lottery, Greece’s ports and municipal water systems, a string of islands that are a national preserve, and in addition to impose a brutal austerity on the Greek people by lowering wages, cutting social benefits and pensions, raising taxes, and laying off or firing government workers.

In other words, the Greek population is to be sacrificed to a small handful of foreign banks in Germany, France and the Netherlands.

The Greek people, unlike “their” socialist government, did not regard this as a good deal. They have been in the streets ever since.

Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the ECB, said that the austerity imposed on Greece was a first step. If Greece did not deliver on the deal, the next step was for the EU to take over Greece’s political sovereignty, make its budget, decide its taxation, decide its expenditures and from this process squeeze out enough from Greeks to repay the ECB and IMF for lending Greece the money to pay the private banks.

In other words, Europe under the EU and Jean-Claude Trichet is a return to the most extreme form of feudalism in which a handful of rich are pampered at the expense of everyone else.

This is what economic policy in the West has become--a tool of the wealthy used to enrich themselves by spreading poverty among the rest of the population.

On September 21 the Federal Reserve announced a modified QE 3. The Federal Reserve announced that the bank would purchase $400 billion of long-term Treasury bonds over the next nine months in an effort to drive long-term US interest rates even further below the rate of inflation, thus maximizing the negative rate of return on the purchase of long-term Treasury bonds. The Federal Reserve officials say that this will lower mortgage rates by a few basis points and renew the housing market.

The officials say that QE 3, unlike its predecessors, will not result in the Federal Reserve printing more dollars in order to monetize US debt. Instead, the central bank will raise money for the bond purchases by selling holdings of short-term debt. Apparently, the Federal Reserve believes it can do this without raising short-term interest rates, because back during the recent debt-ceiling-government-shutdown-crisis, the Federal Reserve promised banks that it would keep the short-term interest rate (essentially zero) constant for two years.

The Fed’s new policy will do far more harm than good. Interest rates are already negative. To make them more so will have no positive effect. People aren’t buying houses because interest rates are too high, but because they are either unemployed or worried about their jobs and do not see a recovering economy.

Already insurance companies can make no money on their investments. Consequently, they are unable to build their reserves against claims. Their only alternative is to raise their premiums. The cost of a homeowner’s policy will go up by more than the cost of a mortgage will decline. The cost of health insurance will go up. The cost of car insurance will rise. The Federal Reserve’s newly announced policy will impose more costs on the economy than it will reduce.

In addition, in America today savings earn nothing. Indeed, they produce an ongoing loss as the interest rate is below the inflation rate. The Federal Reserve has interest rates so low that only professionals who are playing arbitrage with algorithm programmed computer models can make money. The typical saver and investor can get nothing on bank CDs, money market funds, municipal and government bonds. Only high risk debt, such as Greek and Spanish bonds, pay an interest rate that is higher than inflation.

For four years interest rates, when properly measured, have been negative. Americans are getting by, maintaining living standards, by consuming their capital. Even those with a cushion are eating their seed corn. The path that the US economy is on means that the number of Americans without resources to sustain them will be rising. Considering the extraordinary political incompetence of the Democratic Party, the right-wing of the Republican Party, which is committed to eliminating income support programs, could find itself in power. If the right-wing Republicans implement their program, the US will be beset with political and social instability. As Gerald Celente says, “when people have have nothing left to lose, they lose it.”

Dr. Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Income growth under Republican and Democrat presidents

The first thing Bartels did was break down economic performance by income class. The unsurprising result is shown in the chart….

Under Democratic presidents, every income class did well but the poorest did best. The bottom 20% had average pretax income growth of 2.63% per year while the top 5% showed pretax income growth of 2.11% per year.

Republicans were polar opposites. Not only was their overall performance worse than Democrats, but it was wildly tilted toward the well off. The bottom 20% saw pretax income growth of only .6% per year while the top 5% enjoyed pretax income growth of 2.09% per year. (What's more, the trendline is pretty clear: if the chart were extended to show the really rich — the top 1% and the top .1% — the Republican growth numbers for them would be higher than the Democratic numbers.)

In other words, Republican presidents produce poor economic performance because they're obsessed with helping the well off. Their focus is on the wealthiest 5%, and the numbers show it. At least 95% of the country does better under Democrats.  (source)

The Republicans are salivating over the opportunity to send America into the twenty-first century as the first developed nation to return to a state of feudalism.

The 2005 Kevin Drum article cited as source above (based on the Bartels paper and subsequent book) goes on to show that Republican presidents tend to produce their best economic performance in the year of the election, to induce lower income groups to vote for them. 

So it would appear the Pyrrhic victory sought by the Republicans—an economic collapse under President Obama to usher in their king—is part of a longer pattern of election year economic manipulations of long standing.

God help us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning

In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning - New York Times:

[...] It turned out that Mr. Buffett, with immense income from dividends and capital gains, paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks or anyone else in his office. Further, in conversation it came up that Mr. Buffett doesn’t use any tax planning at all. He just pays as the Internal Revenue Code requires. “How can this be fair?” he asked of how little he pays relative to his employees. “How can this be right?”

Even though I agreed with him, I warned that whenever someone tried to raise the issue, he or she was accused of fomenting class warfare.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

As I've said before, we now have an international class of corporate elite who consider themselves gamesmen above the reach of national governments.

Seems like only in countries with high across-the-population kinship coefficients that egalitarian income distributions and tax systems can exist in today's international cut-throat business world (i.e., Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Japan and a few others). Might these countries not enjoy a long-term competitive advantage, as the costs of throwing more and more people into prison and social discord and non-cooperation mount in the big developed banana republics like the United States?

The closest analog to the Scandinavian "socialist" egalitarian mind-set in America is Minnesota, heavily settled by Germans and Scandinavians, which has most recently produced Michelle Bachman... not an encouraging sign for where we're going...

America is arguably in a pre-fascist state.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The theft of the American pension - Economics -

The theft of the American pension - Economics - "The theft of the American pension
In the last decade, the country's biggest companies have raided worker benefits for profit. An expert explains how"

America is in the midst of a retirement crisis. Over the last decade, we've witnessed the wholesale gutting of pension and retiree healthcare in this country. Hundreds of companies have slashed and burned their way through their employees' benefits, leaving former workers either on Social Security or destitute -- and taxpayers with a huge burden that, as the baby boomer generation edges towards retirement, is likely to grow. It's a problem that is already affecting over a million people -- and the most shocking part is, none of this needed to happen.

As Ellen E. Schultz, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, reveals in her new book, "Retirement Heist," it wasn't the dire economy that led these companies to plunder their own employees' earnings, it was greed. Over the last decade, some of the biggest companies -- including Bank of America, IBM, General Motors, GE and even the NFL -- found loopholes, abused ambiguous regulations and used litigation to turn their employees' hard-earned retirement funds into profits, and in some cases, executive compensation. Schultz's book offers a relentlessly infuriating look at the mechanisms they used to get away with it.

Whose cash?

I keep hearing that “corporations have $2 trillion of cash on their balance sheets,” and that if they would just spend it, the economy would recover.

This is further evidence to me of the separation of ownership and control of the American corporation, in effect since Berle and Means' seminal book of the same title (link).  From one of the reviews of the book:  “The plain and simple bottom line is that unless you're an insider, you're nothing more than overhead to be tolerated.”

This money supposedly belongs to the shareholders, many of whom are pension funds (remember Peter Drucker’s dream of pension fund socialism)?  He got off that horse quickly and joined the board of GE to tutor Jack Welch and feed his five kids.

The gang leaders of today’s dominant gangs, the modern multinational corporations, are simply waiting the for the right moment to loot their corporate treasuries, again.

Perhaps we can see CEO salaries climb to a thousand times the (declining) median household income!  They can start to give themselves titles, and perhaps permanent inheritable seats in Congress, so that they don’t have to buy every election! 

Who will be king?  Don’t we need a king to complete the picture?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

‘It’s the debt, stupid,’ redux

Watch for unprecedented manipulation of the unemployment rate, as the administration comes to terms with the fact it is the relationship of the unemployment rate to its adaptation level that is the strongest single determinant of confidence in the United States of America.  The general public, including unsophisticated investors and even types like yours truly with a Ph.D. in economics, distrust the stock market and look at any manufactured gains there as simply more evidence of the expropriation of the public by the kleptocracy.

We learned in macro thirty-five years ago that when effective demand collapses in the depression, increased monetary “stimulus” is like “pushing on a string”—the public and businesses don’t want to borrow in a collapsing economy.  The only lesson Bernanke seems to have taken from his studies of the Depression (and from his current crop of colleagues) is that banks can’t be permitted to lose any money.

Three links by sources I trust sum it up pretty well:

It's A Long Hard (may be in the archives after September 2011)

An Imminent Downturn: Whom Will Our Leaders Defend? – John Hussman.  Hussman has developed a robust logistic model on more than just the yield curve, something I would do if I were paid to to do.

‘Helicopter Ben’ risks destroying credit creation – Bill Gross.  An almost comical whine seemingly on behalf of the banks by Bill Gross, who points out that the proposed contortionist “Operation Twist” will not help the banks to create credit, of course missing the main point that in a multi-generational deflationary collapse of effective demand very few want to borrow except the carry trade operators who are having fun blowing bubbles right and left to sucker the poor forcibly “risk on” public in to parting with more of their money.

By the way, I may have been the first to coin the phrase, “It’s the debt, stupid,” but I welcome any contributions to substantiating that claim.  Here’s the earliest reference I can find on the site:

The Animal Spirits Page: It's the debt, stupid

Friday, September 2, 2011

‘Animal spirits’ update

There is still the potential for an election year secular exhilaration if the unemployment rate declines even marginally, as the government forecasts it to:


This would bring our “animal spirits” measure up above zero:


Thus from our point of view an Obama reelection appears possible in spite of the high unemployment rate.  See Never Wrong Forecasting Model Predicts an Obama Victory In 2012.  Last time we had a Republican Congress and a “liberal” Democratic president we ended up with a surplus, not that this would be likely this time, the problems are too big after Georgy-Porgy Budget Buster and Obomba the guns and butter reactionary Democrat.

Any sustained increases in the unemployment rate will, however, destroy our implicit confidence determinant utterly, and it will fall to match the levels of the Michigan sentiment measure (green in lower graph).

It is pretty much guaranteed that we’ll get infrastructure stimulus with money printed by the Fed, unless the Republicans decide it is more important to torpedo Obomba and the economy and probably the viability of their party for some time to come.

The mood in 2012 promises to be pretty weird.