Wishful Thinking about Jobs, Wages and Consumer Spending: Ability to Spend More is Not Rising in the U.S.

SOURCE ITEMS

The dour tone of the report was reinforced by declines among discretionary items such as automobiles, furniture and electronics. Demand at grocery stores, service stations and general merchandise retailers also declined.

The labor market continues to provide the wherewithal for Americans to spend. Payrolls bounced back in April with a 223,000 increase following a 85,000 gain the prior month, and the jobless rate fell to 5.4 percent, the lowest since May 2008, according to Labor Department data.

 U.S. Retail Sales Disappoint Again, BloombergBusiness, May 13, 2015. Accessed May 13, 2015.

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Chart-Housold Income Trend

Published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Accessed May 13, 2015.

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The Sentier Research monthly median household income data series is now available for March. The nominal median household income was down $307 month-over-month but up $1,104 year-over-year. That’s a -0.6% MoM decline and a 2.1% YoY increase.

Doug Short, Median Household Income Declined in March, Advisor Perspectives, April 23, 2015. Accessed May 13, 2015.

COMMENTS

Economists and journalists seem to have lost the ability to connect the dots. Repeatedly, they report the numbers but fail to talk about how they are connected in the real world.

Very few of us are isolated consumers. We are members of families and households, so household income is a much more meaningful indicator of ability to increase spending. In families and households we talk about what to buy and often share incomes, even if only through informal borrowing from each other.

Household income is a function of total hours worked by members of the household and wage levels. Thus, even if the take home pay of a member of a household is rising, if other members are working fewer hours or not at all, then household income can actually decline.

Unemployment is not the only source of declining work hours for a household. Withdrawing from the labor force is another way that household income can decline substantially, even while the wages of those who are formally counted in the labor force continue to rise. For a very long time, the labor force participation rate in the U.S. has been falling. With every tick downward, the number of earning hours for households ticks downward.  This takes its toll on household income and ability to spend.

When we think about the people who withdraw from the labor force, the retirement of baby boomers readily comes to mind. What tends not to come to mind is the number of middle and lower income households in which young people are neither working nor looking for work and the number of two-earner households in which one of the earners is working part-time or sporadically or taking a personal sabbatical until the chances of landing a job get better.

Slowly rising wages can do very little to lift consumer spending while labor force participation continues to decline.

Diverging Nations, U.S. Employment Prospects: A Matter of Interpretation

SOURCE ITEMS

The economy grew at a sizzling 5% annual pace in the third quarter of last year. And more than 1.5 million jobs were created from June to November, the best six-month stretch since 1999-2000.

With that momentum, combined with falling gasoline prices, 2015 is likely to be a good year, notwithstanding Monday’s stock market sell-off.

The Editorial Board, More jobs is not enough: Our view, USA Today, January 5, 2015.

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In the coming year, “divergence” will be a major global economic theme, applying to economic trends, policies, and performance. As the year progresses, these divergences will become increasingly difficult to reconcile, leaving policymakers with a choice: overcome the obstacles that have so far impeded effective action, or risk allowing their economies to be destabilized.

Fortunately, there are ways to ensure that 2015’s divergences do not lead to economic and financial disruptions. Indeed, most governments – particularly in Europe, Japan, and the US – have the tools they need to defuse the rising tensions and, in the process, unleash their economies’ productive potential.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, A Year of Divergence, Project Syndicate, December 8, 2014.

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Taken together, the average 10-year bond yield of the U.S., Japan and Germany has dropped below 1 percent for the first time ever, according to Steven Englander, global head of G-10 foreign-exchange strategy at Citigroup Inc.

That’s not good news. The rock-bottom rates, which fall below zero when inflation is taken into account, show “that investors think we are going nowhere for a long time,” Englander wrote in a report yesterday.

Simon Kennedy, Free Money in Bond Markets Shows Global Economy Still Struggling, Bloomberg, January 6, 2015.

COMMENTS

One can explain the divergence among nations in terms of autonomous national economies in which global economic growth is nothing more than the sum of the growth of national economies. The economic growth divergence among nations is a function of differing national policy approaches, some correct, most incorrect (since most economies are either stagnating or growing well below rates economists deem achievable). If only all nations of the world adopted correct policies, all would be growing in harmony and at a rapid clip.

The alternative is to see what is called the U.S. economy as only a component of the world economy as a whole. The world economy is the only actual economic system and there is only one economic growth rate – the growth rate of the world economy as a whole. National policies have some effect on the global rate of economic growth, but much less effect than is commonly thought. Global parameters (such as resource and ecological limits, transportation bottlenecks, commodity price volatility, climate volatility, and institutional limits to global demand growth) have much more impact.

The economic growth divergence among nations is much less a matter of good and bad national policies than a matter of the impact of the interactions among various and changing national policies on the distribution of global economic growth among the world’s geopolitical population groups.

The interpretative difference is enormously important. The first interpretation suggests that the U.S. rate of growth did not increase in 2014 at the expense of economic growth in Europe, China, Brazil and other nations. It further suggests that the higher U.S. rate of economic growth is sustainable almost regardless of the courses of action taken by other nations (just as long as the U.S correctly modifies its policies in response to those other national courses of action).

The second suggests that a convergence can only take place through an alignment of national policies that produces a different distributional outcome for growth in the world economy. In such a scenario, the growth rates of the U.S. (and China) would have to fall so that the growth rates of the stagnating nations could rise. Given the lack of powerful global political institutions and the very low level of geopolitical cooperation (compared to the high level of economic integration in the world economy), a struggle among nations that is heated and dangerous is the likely scenario for a long time to come.

The implications for U.S. employment are obvious. Job growth in recent months should be seen as precarious. Our policy commitments to market freedom and investor dominance in economic matters puts job creation at the mercy of global economic growth volatility and divergence. At the moment U.S. workers are somewhat on the beneficial side of volatility and divergence. That will almost surely change.

The Sharing Economy: Mobilizing Underutilized Assets or Degradation of Quality of Life in Times of Job Scarcity and Income Stagnation?

SOURCE ITEMS

PAUL SOLMAN: A peak efficiency economy, that is, putting idle resources to work, like a car, or your own idle time. Cook a meal for strangers on Feastly or work a freelance gig in your downtime on oDesk or Elance.

And speaking of idle, how about that empty space in your house? The app DogVacay lets you rent it out to bored canines. One of the most popular sharing economy platforms extends that idea to humans, Airbnb, now turning the hospitality industry on its head.

The new ‘sharing economy’ can enrich micro-entrepreneurs but at what cost? PBS NewsHour, October 10, 2014.

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Our indicators of leisure quality show that, despite increases in the quantity of leisure over this period (as reported by Aguiar and Hurst [2007 ] and others, and confirmed in Section 5 below), the quality of leisure has decreased for all groups.

Almudena Sevilla Sanz, José Ignacio Giménez, Nadal Jonathan Gershuny, Leisure Inequality in the US: 1965-2003, Sociology Working Papers, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford.

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But this is not by virtue of people wanting to work less — it’s by virtue of people being able to work less.

That’s an important distinction: being able to make a living and support your family by working 40 hours a week versus 80 hours a week.

Peter Diamandis, Evidence of Abundance #1: More Leisure, Less Work, Forbes, June, 27, 2014.

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Specifically, the allocation of time for less‐educated and highly educated adults started to diverge in 1985 (panel B of Table 6) and was dramatically different by 2003 (panel C of Table 6).
Taken together, the results of Table 6 and Figures 6a and 6b document an increase in the dispersion of leisure favoring less educated adults, particularly in the last 20 years. This corresponds to a period in which wages and consumption expenditures increased faster for highly educated adults.

Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades, Working Papers, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, January 2006.

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In economics, capital goods, real capital, or capital assets are already-produced durable goods or any non-financial asset that is used in production of goods or services. … Homes and personal autos are not usually defined as capital but as durable goods because they are not used in a production of saleable goods and services.

Capital (economics), Wikipedia, Accessed 10/11/2014.

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Around the world, working-age people with full-time jobs (and therefore weekends and distinct non-work time) are now a minority: According to a new survey of 136,000 people in 136 countries by Gallup, 26 per cent of working people “worked full-time for an employer in 2013.” In India, nearly three of four are informally employed, according to the national statistics agency, either doing day-by-day piecework or buying and selling things.

Doug Saunders, Work? Leisure? It’s all a blur these days, The Globe and Mail, Aug. 30 2014.

COMMENTS

The positive spin on the sharing economy is that people have unused assets they can turn into capital and income.  A spare room in the house or a car that is not always in use can be transformed into capital for a business. Non-work time can be turned into work time and thus into income.

But, what does it say about the quality of life when everything you own is seen as capital or potential capital and every waking hour is seen as potential work time? Only a generation ago, being middle class was understood to include owning things just for the pleasure of having and using them and to include having lots of time not a work to spend with family and friends enjoying our spacious homes, our comfortable cars, our hobbies, and our many wonderful toys.

The rise of the sharing economy must be put in the proper context: the globalization of competition for jobs and income, the technological destruction of higher end jobs, the permanent slow down in the growth of global wealth, and the steady increase in the world’s working age population. These forces brought the growth of middle class incomes in affluent countries to a halt over the last several decades, even while costs associated with middle class life continued to rise rapidly – costs for college, good health care, and higher end consumer goods.

The sharing economy seems new to many of us in affluent nations, but it has been a staple of human societies all along. It’s the technologies that Uber, Airbnb, and other sharing economy enterprises use that fool us into thinking the sharing economy is a modern or postmodern model of economic activity. For most of human history, people have engaged in peer to peer economic activities within the small populations their communication and transportation technologies could knit together.  For most of human history people have necessarily used every available asset. They have necessarily done work in the places where they live and seen their own time and the time of their children as potential income.  They have made almost no distinction between work and leisure.  Ironically, what we are now calling a different and promising future is in fact just a continuation of what has historically been typical.

In another form, the sharing economy could offer a promising future. In its present form, it is only another of the many ways in which the world’s middle income people adapt to their ongoing economic decline by undercutting each others’ wages.

The world’s peoples do have to adapt to emerging limits to the growth of affluence, but we should choose to implement new technologies in ways that create real forms of economic sharing not new forms of all against all competition.

This Is No Time for Irrational Exuberance about Jobs at Living Wages – We’re in a New World of Work

SOURCE ITEMS

Eurozone GDP still hasn’t gotten back to its 2007 level, and doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. Indeed, it already wasn’t clear if its last recession was even over before we found out the eurozone had stopped growing again in the second quarter. And not even Germany has been immune: its GDP just fell 0.2 percent from the previous quarter.

Matt O’Brien, Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression, Washington Post, August 20, 2014. Web 9/5/2014.

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Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 142,000 in August … Manufacturing employment was unchanged in August, following an increase of 28,000 in July. Motor vehicles and parts lost 5,000 jobs in August, after adding 13,000 jobs in July. Auto manufacturers laid off fewer workers than usual for factory retooling in July, and fewer workers than usual were recalled in August. Elsewhere in manufacturing, there were job gains in August in computer and peripheral equipment (+3,000) and in nonmetallic mineral products (+3,000), and job losses in electronic instruments (-2,000).

Employment Situation Summary, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 5, 2014. Web 9/5/2014.

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Today’s report also included revisions to first-quarter personal income. Wages and salaries rose by $131.3 billion, revised down from an initially reported $135.1 billion gain. They climbed by $103.6 billion in the second quarter.

Shobhana Chandra, Economy in U.S. Expands 4.2%, More Than Previously Forecast, Bloomberg, August 28, 2014.

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Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour – 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys. … Almost 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals or enterprises and over 2 million by the state or rebel groups. … Forced labour in the private economy generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year.

Facts and Figures, Forced labour, human trafficking and slavery, International Labour Organization, Web 9/5/2014.

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Comparing the first half of 2014 with the first half of 2007 (the last period of reasonable labor market health before the Great Recession), hourly wages for the vast majority of American workers have been flat or falling. And even since 1979, the vast majority of American workers have seen their hourly wages stagnate or decline…

Elise Gould, Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth—And What We Can Do About It, Economic Policy Institute, August 27, 2014. Web 9/5/2014.

COMMENTS

The U.S. is deeply tied to the rest of the world economy and the world economy is plagued by contradictory national economic policies, geopolitical instability, extreme weather conditions, and rising prices. These are chronic conditions that will continue to prevent the world economy from achieving a steady rate of economic growth high enough to grow jobs and incomes.

Slow economic growth combined with high levels of global income and wealth inequalities can only produce a steady stream of domestic and geopolitical disasters. Slow economic growth is probably a permanent feature of the 21st century world economy, so we have to learn to live with it. We can, however, do a lot to reduce economic inequalities.

Are We In An Employment Bubble? Employment Growth in the U.S. Is Fueled By Debt Bubbles and Speculation Bubbles

SOURCE ITEMS

In most U.S. post-war business cycles, recessions were followed by above trend growth in output and employment. After the last three recessions, however, output and employment growth were sluggish. … This paper shows that each of the last three recessions coincided with a collapsing bubble in a category of private fixed investment: commercial real estate (1990-91), internet equipment (2001), and housing (2008-09).

From the Abstract, John Edwin Golob, Investment Bubbles and Jobless Slow-Growth Expansions: A Tale of Three Recoveries, Social Science Research Network, April 5, 2013.

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We have highlighted the two major subprime lending booms we’ve seen in that period — the subprime mortgage lending boom from 2003 to 2006, and the subprime auto loan boom from 2010 to 2014. … It appears that the key to boosting spending in the U.S. economy is subprime lending.

Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, Subprime Lending Drives Spending, House of Debt, June 13, 2014.

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Investors have grown hungrier for higher-yielding assets in far-flung parts of the world, even if they’re more volatile, as yields on junk bonds have fallen to new lows.

Lisa Abramowicz, Wall Street Clashes Over Emerging-Market Bonds as UBS Says Sell, Bloomberg, July 9, 2014.

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“It definitely feels like investors are getting overexuberant, and you can stay in overexuberant conditions for a while,” said Fred H. Senft Jr., director of fixed income and equity research for Key Private Bank in Cleveland. “But when it turns it will turn quickly and it will turn very ugly.”

Bob Ivry, Complacency Breeds $2 Trillion of Junk as Sewage Funded, Bloomberg, July 8, 2014.

COMMENTS

Households can take on more debt as their wealth increases. With more borrowed money, households can purchase more goods and services. Thus, we can get job growth from wealth growth.

But there is a hitch. The wealth growth that fuels job growth can be real or imaginary. When wealth growth is imaginary (speculative wealth bubbles), the new jobs created are unlikely to last. We saw this very dramatically in the housing bubble that preceded the financial crisis of 2008.

U.S. job growth in that era floated on a chimera. It crashed with the evaporation of the chimera.

Millions of people bid up home prices by buying them with the intention of holding them briefly and then reselling them for profit. But this could only work if, somewhere down the road, all of those speculatively purchased homes could be sold to families who wanted to buy them as homes, not investments, and who would pay the higher prices and could pay those higher prices with jobs and real incomes that would endure year after year for decades.

As everyone knew, job and income growth in the U.S. had already been compromised by outsourcing, growing competition from companies in low wage parts of the world, and other changes associated with globalization. There was no reason to believe the future of real job and income growth in the U.S. would be better, so there was no rational basis for housing speculation.

Why did it happen anyway? A good explanation is too many investors with too much money chasing too few real investment opportunities. Two decades of tax cuts for corporations and their wealthy owners (supply side economics) had pumped up the supply of investment capital far beyond the ability of the world economy to absorb it in productive ways. In addition, years of importing goods and services from China had turned China into holder of vast amount of investment dollars.

The problem for people with vast amounts of money is that they can’t spend most of it on consumer goods and services and they can’t just put it in a mattress. They have to invest it. When there is too much money for the existing investment scene, they have to invent new investment opportunities. A whole industry grew up just for the purpose of inventing investment instruments with pretty faces and questionable (sometimes nonexistent) substance. Front and center was the packaging of imaginary housing wealth.

Optimism about the economic scene is rising in the U.S. these days. Are we sure it is not rising on the surface of another speculative bubble? The relevant fundamentals have not changed since the early 2000s: The wealthy have even more wealth; taxes on corporations and the wealthy are still very low; neither U.S. nor global consumer demand are taking off.

Debt in the U.S. is growing again – but on what economic basis? That is the key question. Best bet: the job growth we are seeing now should not be trusted.

STEM Education Falls Short: The Problem is Too Few Jobs, Not Too Little Education

SOURCE ITEMS

According to new statistics from the 2012 American Community Survey, engineering and computer, math and statistics majors had the largest share of graduates going into a STEM field with about half employed in a STEM occupation. Science majors had fewer of their graduates employed in STEM. About 26 percent of physical science majors; 15 percent of biological, environmental and agricultural sciences majors; 10 percent of psychology majors; and 7 percent of social science majors were employed in STEM.

 Census Bureau Reports Majority of STEM College Graduates Do Not Work in STEM Occupations, U.S. Census Bureau, July 2014.

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Since cohort-wage profiles display a similar pattern, these findings appear to fit with a strong increase in demand for cognitive tasks in the 1990s followed by a decline in the 2000s.

 Paul Beaudry, David A. Green, and Benjamin M. Sand. The Declining Fortunes of the Young since 2000, American Economic Review, 2014

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Chart-Labor Force Participation Rate Trend

The labor force is anticipated to grow by 8.5 million, an annual growth rate of 0.5 percent, over the 2012–2022 period. The growth in the labor force during 2012–2022 is projected to be smaller than in the previous 10-year period, 2002–2012, when the labor force grew by 10.1 million, a 0.7-percent annual growth rate.

 Labor force projections to 2022: the labor force participation rate continues to fall, Monthly Labor Review, December 2013.

 COMMENTS

We now live in a world economy in which economic processes and trends are global. Global economic growth is constrained and will continue to be into the foreseeable future. As a consequence, current patterns of investment, domestic and global, will not generate a sufficient number of jobs to produce anything near global full employment at living wages.

Economic activity in the U.S. does not constitute a separate economy, so U.S. economy policies cannot produce full employment and high wages in the U.S. while the rest of the world is stuck with high rates of unemployment and low wages.   Investment follows profits.  Profits are maximized by producing in low income places in the world economy and selling in high income places.  Unfettered transnational flows of capital and commodities combined with preventing low-skill working people from easily crossing national boundaries in search of work gives the world’s investors the legal framework with which to manage the world’s labor supply to their advantage.

The Growing Skills Shortage: A Real Problem or A Politically Expedient Invention

SOURCE ITEMS

Employers have long complained that graduates do not have the skills they need.

A study released in November by Eurofound, the research arm of the European Union, showed that despite the recession, almost 40 percent of companies reported difficulty in finding workers with the right skills, compared with 37 percent in 2008 and 35 percent in 2005.

The issue peaked last summer, when PayPal’s chief executive in Ireland, Louise Phelan, stoked controversy by acknowledging that the company had recruited from 19 other countries for 500 positions in its operations center in Dundalk because of a lack of foreign-language skills among Irish nationals. This summer, Fujitsu, which employs 800 people in Ireland, revealed that it had had to hire most of its Ph.D.-level experts from abroad.

Liz Alderman, Unemployed in Europe Stymied by Lack of Technology Skills, New York Times, January 3, 2014.

COMMENTS

What is the right wage for a business facing stiff global competition: the lowest wage, of course!  Note the last paragraph above.  Apparently, PayPal and Fujitsu did get the workers they needed.

Let’s try another interpretation.  The high tech jobs are created mostly in very large corporations.  Those corporations recruit workers globally, regardless of where their operations are located.  Note this paragraph from the same story:

“Multinational technology and social media companies kept investing, lured by Ireland’s ultralow 12.5 percent corporate tax rate and an English-speaking work force.”

It’s a possibility that corporate CEO’s are extremely unlikely to say to a host country like Ireland, “We like your low taxes here, but we can import cheaper workers from other countries — and we will.”  Isn’t it very likely that the real issue for corporate leaders is that the hourly wages of educated workers in more affluent countries are not the lowest wages they can pay and still be successful?

My bet is that CEOs present the issue as a labor supply problem (skills shortage) as political cover and to shift the cause of high unemployment (even for well educated workers) onto the workers themselves and away from the corporations that are making the actual hiring and firing decisions.   My bet is that the world economy actually has plenty of well educated and skilled workers, but the world’s corporations are producing too few jobs to employ them all.  They just won’t ‘fess up.

What is really in short supply are jobs that pay decent wages by North American and Western European standards.   Too much supply (of skilled workers) in a world of too little demand = falling wages.  (Note the concessions the Boeing workers in Seattle, WA just made to keep their jobs!)