Blog Archives

“Wealth Effect” = Widening Wealth Inequality

One of the core goals of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies of the past 9 years is to generate the “wealth effect”: by pushing the valuations of stocks and bonds higher, American households will feel wealthier, and hence be more willing to borrow and spend, even if they didn’t actually reap any gains by selling stocks and bonds that gained value.

In other words, the mere perception of rising wealth is supposed to trigger a wave of renewed borrowing and spending.

This perception management only worked on the few households which owned enough of these assets to feel wealthier–the top 5%, the top 6 million out of 120 million households. This chart shows what happened as the Fed ceaselessly goosed financial assets higher over the past 9 years: the gains, real and perceived, only flowed to the top 5% of households earning in excess of $200,000 annually.

Spending by the bottom 95% has at best returned to the levels reached a decade ago in 2007.


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What If the Tax Donkeys Rebel?

Since federal income taxes are in the spotlight, let’s ask a question that rarely (if ever) makes it into the public discussion: what if the tax donkeys who pay most of the tax rebel? There are several likely reasons why this question rarely arises.

1. Most commentators may not realize that the vast majority of income taxes are paid by the top 10%–and that roughly 60% are paid by the top 4% of households. (A nice example of the Pareto Distribution, i.e. the 80/20 rule, which can be extended to the 64/4 rule.)

As David Stockman noted in Trump’s 1,500-word Airball“Among the 148 million income tax filers, the bottom 53 million owed zero taxes in the most recent year (2014), and the bottom half (74 million) paid an aggregate total of just $45 billion. So let me be very clear. There was still $4 trillion left in the collective pockets of these 122 million taxpayers — even after the IRS had its way with them!

By contrast, the top 4% or 6.2 million filers paid $802 billion in Federal income taxes. That amounted to nearly 58% of total Federal income tax payments.”

2. Few commentators draw a distinction between earned income (wages and salaries)and unearned income (dividends, interest, and more broadly, rentier income streams from the ownership of productive assets.


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Why We’re Doomed: Stagnant Wages

Despite all the happy talk about “recovery” and higher growth, wages have gone nowhere since 2000–and for the bottom 20% of workers, they’ve gone nowhere since the 1970s.

Gross domestic product (GDP) has risen smartly since 2000, but the share of GDP going to wages and salaries has plummeted: this is simply an extension of a 47-year downtrend.

Last month I posted one reason Why We’re Doomed: Our Economy’s Toxic Inequality (August 16, 2017). The second half of why we’re doomed is stagnant wages. Why do stagnating wages for the bottom 95% doom our status quo? As I noted yesterday in Why Wages Have Lost Ground in the 21st Centuryour system requires ever-higher household incomes to function–not just in the top 5%, but in the top 80%.


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We’re Fragmenting Because our Experience of the Economy Is Fragmenting

You’ve probably seen some version of this chart of average household income in America before. (You may have seen charts of median household income as well; here’s an article on the difference between the two methods of measurement: American families are learning the difference between median and mean)

Here’s the data in table format, if you prefer: Household Income Quintiles.

The point is that there is an enormous difference between the average household incomes of the bottom 80% and the top 10%, 5% and 1%. It’s important to separate the various income brackets, as including the top households distorts the average. Here we see the average household income of the bottom 80% of households is around $50,000, while the average income of the top 10% (which includes the wealthy 1% and the super-wealthy .1%) is almost four times greater: $185,000.


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Central Banks = Welfare for the Wealthy

The fact that central banks provide welfare for the wealthy is now entering the mainstream. The fact that all central bank policies since 2008 have dramatically increased wealth and income inequality is now grudgingly being accepted as reality by mainstream economists and the financial media.

The central banks’ PR facade of noble omniscience on behalf of the great unwashed masses has cracked wide open. Even The Wall Street Journal is publishing critiques of Federal Reserve policies that suggest the Fed has no idea how the U.S. economy actually works because their policies have failed to help the bottom 95%.

The grudging admission that central bank policies have enriched the rich while failing to benefit the bottom 95% is a breakthrough–the stone wall of denial has finally been pierced.


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Here’s Why Wages Have Stagnated–and Will Continue to Stagnate

Mainstream economists are mystified why wages/salaries are still stagnant after 7+ years of growth / “recovery.” The conventional view is that wages should be rising as the labor market tightens (i.e. the unemployment rate is low) and demand for workers increases in an expanding economy.

But wages are only rising significantly for the top 5%, while workers between the bottom 81% who have seen their household incomes decline and the top 5% are experiencing stagnant earnings.

We can see how the top 5% have pulled away from the bottom 95% by examining household budgets: spending by the top 5% has soared compared to the stagnant spending of the bottom 95%.


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American Serfdom – Companies Are Offering Loans for Living Expenses to Their Destitute Employees

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There is no recovery. The only thing we’ve experienced over the past eight years of Obama is a historic plundering and strip mining of the U.S. economy by a handful of oligarchs and their political and bureaucratic minions.

The evidence has been clear for years. Fully employed Americans have been borrowing from payday lenders at egregious rates in order to pay for normal everyday living expenses, while a small group of executives grab as much as possible for themselves. You can see this in corporate profits margins at historically high levels and in the use of cash to buyback shares as opposed to paying employees a living wage. To see just how grotesquely out of whack the economy has become under the crony policies of Obama and the Federal Reserve, let’s revisit what I like to call the “Serfdom Chart…”

Read the rest here.

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The Root of Rising Inequality: Our “Lawnmower” Economy (hint: we’re the lawn)

After decades of denial, the mainstream has finally conceded that rising income and wealth inequality is a problem–not just economically, but politically, for as we all know wealth buys political influence/favors, and as we’ll see below, the federal government enables and enforces most of the skims and scams that have made the rich richer and everyone else poorer.

Here’s the problem in graphic form: from 1947 to 1979, the family income of the top 1% actually expanded less that the bottom 99%. Since 1980, the income of the 1% rose 224% while the bottom 80% barely gained any income at all.

Globalization, i.e. offshoring of jobs, is often blamed for this disparity, but as I explained in “Free” Trade, Jobs and Income Inequality, the income of the top 10% broke away from the bottom 90% in the early 1980s, long before China’s emergence as an exporting power.

Indeed, by the time China entered the WTO, the top 10% in the U.S. had already left the bottom 90% in the dust.

The only possible explanation of this is the rise of financialization: financiers and financial corporations (broadly speaking, Wall Street, benefited enormously from neoliberal deregulation of the financial industry, and the conquest of once-low-risk sectors of the economy (such as mortgages) by the storm troopers of finance.

Financiers skim the profits and gains in wealth, and Main Street and the middle / working classes stagnate. Gordon Long and I discuss the ways financialization strip-mines the many to benefit the few in our latest conversation (with charts): Our “Lawnmower” Economy.

Many people confuse the wealth earned by people who actually create new products and services with the wealth skimmed by financiers. One is earned by creating new products, services and business models; financialized “lawnmowing” generates no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity–the only engine that generates widespread wealth and prosperity.

Consider these favorite financier “lawnmowers”:

1. Buying a company, loading it with debt to cash out the buyers and then selling the divisions off: no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity.

2. Borrowing billions of dollars in nearly free money via Federal Reserve easy credit and using the cash to buy back corporate shares, boosting the value of stock owned by insiders and management: no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity.

3. Skimming money from the stock market with high-frequency trading (HFT): no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity.

4. Borrowing billions for next to nothing and buying high-yielding bonds and investments in other countries (the carry trade): no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity.

All of these are “lawnmower” operations, rentier skims enabled by the Federal Reserve, its too big to fail banker cronies, a complicit federal government and a toothless corporate media.

This is not classical capitalism; it is predatory exploitation being passed off as capitalism. This predatory exploitation is only possible if the central bank and state have partnered with financial Elites to strip-mine the many to benefit the few.

This has completely distorted the economy, markets, central bank policies, and the incentives presented to participants.

The vast majority of this unproductive skimming occurs in a small slice of the economy–yes, the financial sector. As this article explains, the super-wealthy financial class Doesn’t Just Hide Their Money. Economist Says Most of Billionaire Wealth is Unearned.

“A key empirical question in the inequality debate is to what extent rich people derive their wealth from “rents”, which is windfall income they did not produce, as opposed to activities creating true economic benefit.

Political scientists define “rent-seeking” as influencing government to get special privileges, such as subsidies or exclusive production licenses, to capture income and wealth produced by others.

However, Joseph Stiglitz counters that the very existence of extreme wealth is an indicator of rents. Competition drives profit down, such that it might be impossible to become extremely rich without market failures. Every good business strategy seeks to exploit one market failure or the other in order to generate excess profit.

The bottom-line is that extreme wealth is not broad-based: it is disproportionately generated by a small portion of the economy.”

This small portion of the economy depends on the central bank and state for nearly free money, bail-outs, guarantees that profits are private but losses are shifted to the taxpaying public–all the skims and scams we’ve seen protected for seven long years by Democrats and Republicans alike.

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“Free” Trade, Jobs and Income Inequality: It’s Not As Easy As We Might Think

Globalization (a.k.a. “free” trade) has become an election issue for two reasons: many voters blame “free” trade with China and other nations for job losses in the U.S. and rising income inequality as globalization’s “winners” in the U.S. outpace its far more numerous “losers.”

A recent article in the New York Times looks at the issue from the perspective of recent economic studies: On Trade, Angry Voters Have a Point (via Lew G.)

The case for globalization based on the fact that it helps expand the economic pie by 3 percent becomes much weaker when it also changes the distribution of the slices by 50 percent.

Before we dig into this complicated set of interconnected macro-dynamics, let’s stipulate that there is no such thing as “free” trade. Every trade agreement defines winners and losers by the very design of the agreement.

Also, other issues that are outside the confines of the actual trade agreement can have outsized influence on trade’s winners and losers.

For example, trade between the U.S. and China cannot possibly be “free” because China pegs its currency to the U.S. dollar (USD). This peg enables China to arbitrarily keep its products cheaper than they might be if the market set the value of China’s yuan.

We must also keep in mind that the owner of the reserve currency, the U.S., must export its currency in size, i.e. run a permanent and substantial trade deficit. I’ve explained Triffin’s Paradox many times; please read (or re-read) these essays if you want to understand why trade deficits are integral to the reserve currency and are not a feature of any particular trade agreement:

Understanding the “Exorbitant Privilege” of the U.S. Dollar (November 19, 2012)

The Federal Reserve, Interest Rates and Triffin’s Paradox (November 19, 2015)

Many overlook the fact that central bank interventions play an enormous role in establishing globalization’s winners and losers. By lowering interest rates to zero (or less than zero) and flooding the banking sector with credit/liquidity, central banks encouraged an explosion of global carry trades, in which financiers borrow cheap in one currency to buy high-yielding assets in another currency/nation.

The central-bank fueled explosion in credit also threw gasoline on speculative investments in emerging market nations, distorting currencies, markets and trade. The point here is that globalization, financialization and central bank interventions are tightly bound together. We cannot talk about any of these drivers in isolation; together, they form one system we loosely call “global trade.”

Let’s move on to globalization’s impact on jobs, income and income disparity.The article linked above notes that one study found trade with China erased 2.4 million jobs in the U.S. Other studies have found an offsetting consequence: the purchasing power of middle-class and working class households rose by 26% due to globalization’s relentless reductions in the cost of imported goods.

We must take all such estimates with a grain of salt, as there are many dynamics in play. The U.S. economy has been roiled by deep structural changes since the late 1960s; there has been no let-up in systemic turbulence: the end of the Bretton Woods stability in foreign exchange markets; the rise of Japanese and Asian imports in the 1970s and 80s; oil shocks and stagflation in the 1970s; the cost of dealing with industrial pollution of our air, water and soil; the tech boom–the cost of processors and memory have fallen while advances in software and robotics accelerate; the explosive changes wrought by the Internet; the rise of China and the Asian Tigers as the world’s low-cost workshop, and various speculative debt/fraud bubbles that burst with catastrophic consequences for participants and non-players alike.

At the risk of overloading you with data, let’s look at a few key charts and mark the rise of China’s influence, the rise of financialization and income inequality and the explosive rise in U.S. corporate profits.

Here are the charts we’ll be reviewing:

— Civilian employment-population ratio (the percentage of the population who are employed in some fashion, including self-employed and part-time)

— Productivity (and income disparity)

— Income inequality

— U.S. Financial profits

— U.S. Corporate profits

On the face of it, the U.S. experienced a multi-decade boom in employment from the early 1980s to 2008. Many have noted that the key demographic driver of this rise in employment was the mass entry of women into the work force. Many believe the loss of purchasing power in the stagflationary 1970s pushed women into the work force as the only means of maintaining household buying power. There were other drivers, of course; nothing this structural reduces down to one single cause.

This chart looks like a giant head-and-shoulders pattern that correlates with the rise and fall of financialization, which is the commodification of previously safe assets such as housing and the explosive rise in debt, derivatives and financial gaming (which quickly morphs into fraud if regulatory agencies fall asleep at the wheel).

It’s difficult to separate China’s rise and the bursting of the tech bubble, as both occurred in the same time frame; undoubtedly both negatively impacted employment.

The disconnect between productivity and wages really took off with the rise of financialization and cheap technology tools in the early 1980s. This is not coincidental, and can’t be pinned on globalization or trade with China, which occurred much later.

As we see in this chart of income inequality, the top 10% (the “winners” in financialization and tech) had already pulled away from the bottom 90% when China entered the WTO in 2001. Clearly, the disparity began before China’s trade was large enough to impact the U.S. economy; the dramatic increase in trade with China post-2001 had little impact on the disparity between the top 10% and the bottom 90%.

This chart of financial profits and debt/GDP shows the dramatic expansion of debt from the early 1980s and the explosive rise in financial profits as interest rates were pushed to zero and the debt/housing bubble #2 took off.

Could globalization have been a factor in this monumental expansion of financial profits? As noted above, it’s clear that the globalization of finance–carry trades, the expansion of financial markets in emerging nations–gave U.S. financiers, corporations and banks an enormously expanded field for skimming fees and profits via debt, derivatives and speculation.

Total U.S. corporate profits soared once trade with China and the financial free-for-all of housing/debt/fraud took off. This chart makes it clear that the winners from 2001 on were financiers and corporations exploiting two dynamics: offshoring production to China and maintaining product costs to reap outsized profits, and borrowing cheap money to expand overseas and skim profits from carry trades.

What do we get if we add these charts up?

1. Offshoring of production jobs to China et al. undoubtedly slashed jobs for the bottom 90%, but these losses were offset (or masked) by the rise of housing/debt/fraud bubbles that boosted employment in the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate).

2. Financialization and central bank intervention greatly rewarded those with the skills and sociopathologies needed to participate in the resulting debt/fraud booms.

3. U.S. corporations reaped the gains from offshoring jobs, and these gains flowed to top management and those who own corporate shares, i.e. the top 5%.

4. The trend of rising income disparity started long before China’s trade was significant enough to impact the U.S. economy, and correlates with the rise of financialization and cheaper technology tools.

5. These trends rewarded management, finance and technology expertise, which are concentrated in the top 10% of the work force.

6. Cheap imports, offshoring of production and the global expansion of financial markets have driven U.S. corporate and financial profits to unprecedented heights. Since these profits largely flow to top management, financiers, technocrats and owners of corporate capital–roughly speaking the top 10% or even top 5%–it’s no wonder wealth and income disparity is rising: there is no other output possible in the current system.

Slapping fees on imports (which by the way is illegal in treaties such as the WTO) will not solve the larger problems of reduced employment, stagnant wages and rising income inequality. To make a dent in those issues, we’ll need to tackle central bank and central-state policies that have pushed finance and speculative churn to supremacy over the productive economy.

We need a new system, one we control from the ground up:
A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs
for All
. The Kindle edition is $8.95 and the print edition is $20.82.

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Welcome to the Recovery – 1 Out of 7 Americans (45.5 Million) Remain on Food Stamps

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More than six years into Dear Leader’s glorious economic recovery, 45.5 million Americans, or one in seven, remain on food stamps.

I’d say that’s a problem, but I don’t want to be accused of “peddling economic fiction.”

Read the rest here.

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Technology, Competition and the ‘Crapification’ of Jobs

Two recent articles shed light on the ‘crapification’ of jobs and the rise of income inequality:

Martin Wolf on the Low Labor Participation as the Result of the Crapification of Jobs (Naked Capitalism)

The Measured Worker: The technology that illuminates worker productivity and value also contributes to wage inequality. (Technology Review, via John S.P.)

While both articles offer valuable insights into the secular trend of stagnating employment and wages, I think both miss a couple of key dynamics.


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Time to Trade in Your Jag, Benz, BMW for a Dented Econobox: Days of Rage Are Coming

It’s time to trade in your Jag, Mercedes, BMW (and maybe your Prius, Volvo, Lexus, etc.) before the Days of Rage start. As I’ve explained before ( As the “Prosperity” Tide Recedes, the Ugly Reality of Wealth Inequality Is Exposed), the rage of the masses who have been losing ground while the Financier Oligarchs, the New Nobility and the technocrat class reap immense gains for decades has been suppressed by the dream that they too could join the Upper Caste.

But once the realistic odds of that happening (low) sink in, the Days of Rage will begin. For those still who don’t know the facts of rising inequality, here’s what you need to know.


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