What if all the low-hanging fruit of outsourcing jobs and financialization have already been plucked by Corporate America?
The connection between soaring corporate profits and stagnant wages is both common sense and inflammatory: common sense because less for you, more for me and inflammatory because this harkens back to the core problem with the bad old capitalism Marx critiqued: that capital dominates labor and thus can extract profits even as the purchasing power of wages declines.
(What Marx missed because he was early in the cycle was capital's dominance over the central state's political machinery--a topic covered here in The Purchase of Our Republic.)
John Hussman said something interesting a while back - he was talking about whether or not the current level of corporate profits was sustainable, and he pointed out that in order to have those profits rise as a % of GDP, they had to be snatched from somewhere else. I was intrigued and asked myself, where might they be snatched from?
Here’s a chart that appears to show at least a chunk of where they came from. Wages & Salaries/GDP dropped from about 47% of GDP in 2001 down to 42.7% of GDP today. At the same time, (non-financial) corporate profits rose from about 2% to 6% of GDP. So wage earners lost 4.3%, while non-financial companies gained 4%.
There was a very steep climb in corporate profitability from 2001-2008, during the height of the housing bubble, and a brisk drop off in the chunk of the economy provided to wage earners. Perhaps - globalization? Jobs lost to China? That’s the period where China started to really become a powerhouse. Yet after a brief drop during the recession, it's now back up to its peak levels.
And here’s one more chart, aligning corporate profits (total) as a % of GDP - includes financial companies too. Notice how the S&P 500 (SPX) tends to follow (more or less) the profits skim off the economy. The linkage isn’t there during the 1995-2000 period, but it sure is for the rest of the period. So - unless and until the corporate skim drops as a % of GDP, I think our S&P 500 (SPX) is going to remain elevated.
Can this Corporate Profits/GDP series grow to the sky? I don’t know. But it is certainly doing pretty well right now. A combination of outsourcing and low rates = a great corporate environment for profits, taken from savers and wage-earners.
Who do we blame? Debt constructed from the housing bubble (which went to increase financial corp profits) as well as outsourcing, which allowed companies to snatch that % of GDP from workers (increasing non financial corp profits).
So to Hussman’s point - is this sustainable? As long as work continues being outsourced, unemployment is relatively high (i.e. wage pressures are low) and as long as the debt remains intact, I think it is.
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