Australia: Housing, Incomes & Growth

A quick snapshot of the Australian economy from the latest RBA chart pack.

Disposable income growth has declined to almost zero and consumption is likely to follow. Else Savings will be depleted.

Disposable Income & Consumption

Residential building approvals are slowing, most noticeably in apartments, reflecting an oversupply.

Residential Building Approvals

Housing loan approvals for owner-occupiers are rising, fueled no doubt by State first home-buyer incentives. States do not want the party, especially the flow from stamp duties, to end. But loan approvals for investors are topping after an APRA crackdown on investor mortgages, especially interest-only loans.

Housing loan approvals

The ratio of household debt to disposable income is precarious, and growing worse with each passing year.

Household debt to disposable income

House price growth continues at close to 10% a year, fueled by rising debt. When we refer to the “housing bubble” it is really a debt bubble driving housing prices. If debt growth slows so will housing prices.

House price growth

Declining business investment, as a percentage of GDP, warns of slowing economic growth in the years ahead. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve productivity growth without continuous new investment and technology improvement.

Business investment

Yet declining corporate bond spreads show no sign of increased lending risk.

Corporate bond spreads

Declining disposable income and consumption growth mean that voters are unlikely to be happy come next election. With each party trying to ride the populist wave, responsible economic management has taken a back seat. Throw in a housing bubble and declining business investment and the glass looks more than half-empty.

Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

~ Eric Hoffer

US Retail & Light Vehicle Sales slow

Retail sales growth (excluding motor vehicles and parts) slowed to 2.4% over the 12 months to June 2017.

Retail Sales ex Motor Vehicles & Parts

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

Seasonally adjusted light vehicle sales are also slowing.

Light Vehicle Sales

Source: St Louis Fed & BEA

Seasonally adjusted private housing starts and new building permits are starting to lose momentum.

Housing Starts & Permits

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

The good news is that Manufacturer’s Durable Goods Orders (seasonally adjusted and ex Defense & Aircraft) are recovering.

Manufacturing Durable Goods Orders ex Defense & Aircraft

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

Cement and concrete production continues to trend upwards.

Cement & Concrete Production

Source: US Fed

And estimated weekly hours worked (total nonfarm payroll * average weekly hours) is growing steadily.

Estimated Weekly Hours Worked

Source: St Louis Fed & BLS

All of which suggest that business confidence is growing and consumer confidence is likely to follow. Bellwether transport stock Fedex advanced to 220, signaling rising economic activity in the broader economy.

Fedex

Target: 180 + ( 180 – 120 ) = 240

The S&P 500 broke resistance at 2450, making a new high. Narrow consolidations and shallow corrections all signal investor confidence typical of the latter stages of a bull market. The immediate target is 2500* but further gains are likely.

S&P 500

Target: 2400 + ( 2400 – 2300 ) = 2500

The stock market remains an exceptionally efficient mechanism for the transfer of wealth from the impatient to the patient.

~ Warren Buffett

Investment the key to growth

Elliot Clarke at Westpac recently highlighted the importance of investment in sustaining economic growth:

The importance of sustained investment in an economy cannot be understated. Done well, investment in real capacity begets greater production volume and employment as well as a productivity dividend. Its absence in recent years is a key factor behind sustained soft wage inflation and the US economy’s inability to consistently grow at an above-trend pace despite the economy being at full-employment and household balance sheets having more than fully recovered post GFC.

The graph below highlights declining US investment in new equipment post GFC.

S&P 500

source: Westpac

There are three factors that may influence this:

  1. Accelerated tax depreciation allowances after the GFC encouraged companies to bring forward capital spending in order to stimulate the recovery. But the 2010 to 2012 surge is followed by a later trough when the intended capital expenditure was originally planned to have taken place.
  2. Low growth in personal consumption, especially of non-durable goods and of services, would discourage further capital investment.

US Net Debt & Equity Issuance

  1. The level of stock buybacks increased as companies sought alternative measures to sustain earnings (per share) growth. The graph below shows debt issuance has soared while net equity issuance remains consistently negative.

US Net Debt & Equity Issuance

source: Westpac

Net capital formation (the increase in physical assets owned by nonfinancial corporations) declined between 2015 and 2017. While this is partly attributable to the falling oil price curtailing investment in the Energy sector, continuation of the decline would spell long-term trouble for the economy.

US Net Capital Formation

The cycle becomes self-reinforcing. Low growth in personal consumption leads to low levels of capital investment ….which in turn leads to low employment growth…..leading to further low growth in personal consumption.

Major infrastructure investment is needed to break the cycle. In effect you need to “prime the pump” in order to create a new virtuous cycle, with higher investment leading to higher growth.

It is obviously important that infrastructure investment target productive assets, that generate income, else taxpayers are left with increased debt and no income to service it. Or assets that can be sold to repay the debt. But the importance of infrastructure investment should be evident to both sides of politics and any attempt to obstruct or delay this would be putting political ahead of national interests.

Australia

Australia is in a worse position, with a dramatic fall in investment following the mining boom.

Australia: Business Investment

source: RBA

If we examine the components of business investment, it is not just Engineering that has fallen. Investment in Machinery & Equipment has been declining for the last decade. And now Building Investment is also starting to slow.

Australia: Components of Business Investment

source: RBA

You’ve got to prime the pump…. You’ve got to put something in before you can get anything out.

~ Zig Ziglar

Federal budget 2017: The next boom is under way – before another bust

From Michael Pascoe:

A Caterpillar and Komatsu cavalry is arriving just in time to save the next two federal budgets from the effects of slowing residential building approvals, solving one of Treasurer Scott Morrison’s fiscal dilemmas. National spending on transport infrastructure is in the process of soaring 73 per cent from last financial year to 2018-19, according to industry research company Macromonitor.

Spending on road and rail hit a cyclical low of about $19 billion in 2015-16. In constant dollars, the cycle is expected to peak at $33 billion in 2018-19. That spending would more than cover a 10 per cent decline from last year’s $63 billion worth of new residential building….

Increased infrastructure spending is welcome but former RBA governor’s comments on setting up a proper process of infrastructure planning and selection [see link below] highlight the negative boom-bust mentality of government focused on the election cycle.

Source: Federal budget 2017: The next boom is under way – before another bust

Michael Gove on Brexit, productivity and innovation

Interesting viewpoint on Brexit.  How the EU became anti-innovation, erecting barriers to entry which favor incumbents.

Australia: Say goodbye to growth

Business investment in Australia continues its sharp descent since the end of the mining boom, falling below 14% of GDP for the first time since the Dotcom crash.

Australia Business Investment
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Apart from the expected “cliff” in Engineering, investment in Machinery and Equipment has fallen to record lows.

Australia Business Investment - Components
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Without investment, growth is likely to contract. The impact on Australian wages is an ominous warning.

Australia Wage Growth
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Priming the Pump

US stocks are buoyant on hopes that a Donald Trump presidency will benefit business, with major indexes flagging a bull market. But promises come first, the costs come later. While I support a broad infrastructure program and the creation of a level playing field in global markets, the actual execution of these ideas is critical and should not be allowed to be hijacked by the establishment for their own ends.

Erection of trade barriers is a useful negotiating position but is unlikely to be achieved without enormous damage to the global economy. As long as your trading partners think you are crazy enough to do it, they may be more amenable to establishing fair ground rules for international trade. If they don’t believe the threat, they will be happy to continue on their present path. So Trump walks a fine line between reassuring his allies and the domestic market, while keeping others guessing about his intentions.

Before we get carried away with hopes and expectations, however, we need to evaluate the current state of the economy in order to assess the current potential for growth.

The Cons

Let’s start with the negatives.

Construction spending is slow, at about three-quarters of pre-GFC (and sub-prime) levels. It will take more than an infrastructure program to restore this (though it is a step in the right direction). What is needed is higher growth expectations for the economy.

Construction Spending to GDP

Industrial production is close to its pre-GFC peak but has been declining since 2014.

Industrial Production Index

Job growth is slowing. Decline below 1.0 percent would be cause for concern.

Employment Growth

Rail and freight activity also reflects a slow-down since 2015.

Rail & Freight Index

The Philadelphia Fed’s broad-based Leading Index has also softened since 2014. Decline below 1.0 percent would be cause for concern.

Leading Index

One of my favorite indicators, this graph compares profit margins (per unit of gross value added) to employee costs. There is a clear cycle: employee costs (per unit) fall after a recession while profits rise. As the economy recovers and approaches full capacity, employee costs start to rise and profits fall — which leads to the next recession. At present we can clearly see employee costs are rising and profit margins are falling.

Profits and Employee Costs per unit of Value Added

It will be difficult for corporations to continue to grow earnings in this environment. Business investment is falling.

Gross Private Nonresidential Fixed Investment

Plowing money into stock buybacks rather than into new investment may shore up corporate performance for a while but hurts construction and industrial production. Turning this around is a major challenge facing the new administration.

The Pros

Retail sales are rising as increased employee compensation costs lift consumer confidence. Solid November sales with strong Black Friday numbers would help lift confidence even further.

Retail Sales

Light vehicle sales are also recovering, a key indicator of consumers’ long-term outlook.

Light Vehicle Sales

Rising sales and infrastructure investment are only part of the solution. What Donald Trump needs to do is prime the pump: introduce a fairer tax system, minimize red tape and reduce political interference in the economy, while enforcing strong regulation of the financial sector. Not an easy task, but achieving these goals would help restore business confidence, revive investment, and set the economy on a sound growth path.

In the short run, the market is a voting machine
but in the long run it is a weighing machine.

~ Benjamin Graham: Security Analysis (1934)

Australia: Infrastructure spending nosedives

From Andrew Hanlan at Westpac:

Infrastructure Activity

Total real infrastructure activity contracted by almost 10% in the June quarter 2016, to be 26% below the level of a year ago. That was the fourth year of contraction…..

Infrastructure construction work is declining rapidly. First, we had the end of the mining boom as existing projects reached completion while demand, mainly from China, contracted. This was followed by falling demand in the oil & gas sector, ending the development boom in that sector. If you think the apartment boom — driven by investor demand from China — is going to fill the hole, think again.

US private investment dwindles

Private investment is declining as a percentage of GDP. Not a good sign when you consider that a similar decline preceded previous recessions.

Private Investment and Private Credit to GDP

Click graph to view full-size image.

Also a concern, when private credit is rising as a percentage of GDP while investment is falling. Crossover of the two lines would indicate that the private sector is borrowing more than it is investing. That is not likely to end well.

Does Government Spending Create Jobs?

By William Dupor, Assistant Vice President and Economist

The most recent U.S. expansion, however lackluster, entered its eighth year in June.1 In anticipation of the possibility (or perhaps inevitability) of another recession, observers have remarked on how and whether countercyclical fiscal policy should be used to combat an economic downturn….

Gauging Effects through Military Spending
Research Analyst Rodrigo Guerrero and I took up the issue of the efficacy of government spending at increasing employment. We looked specifically at over 120 years of U.S. military spending, which provides a kind of “natural experiment” for our analysis.

Looking at government spending more generally suffers from the problem that the spending may be correlated with economic activity: The government may spend more during a recession (as with ARRA) or more during an expansion (when tax revenues are high). This might bias the results, which economists call “an endogeneity bias.”

Military spending, on the other hand, is likely to be determined primarily by international geopolitical factors rather than the nation’s business cycle.

….We used a similar methodology and found that military spending shocks had a small effect on civilian employment. Following a policy change that began when the unemployment rate was high, if government spending increased by 1 percent of GDP, then total employment increased by between 0 percent and 0.15 percent. Following a policy change that began when the unemployment rate was low, the effect on employment was even smaller.

In the event of another recession, policymakers have a number of stabilization tools at their disposal, including quantitative easing, negative interest rates and tax relief. The research discussed above suggests that one other device, namely countercyclical government spending, may not be very effective, even when the economy is slack.

I think the authors of this research come to the wrong conclusion. Instead they should have concluded that military spending is not very effective in creating jobs.

Military spending provides no lasting benefit to the economy in terms of tax revenue or saleable assets, leaving future taxpayers with public debt and no means of repayment. Other than an austerity budget which would risk another recession.

Whereas infrastructure projects can be selected on their ability to generate market-related returns on investment, providing revenue to service the public debt incurred…..and saleable assets that can be used to repay debt.

But there are two caveats.

First, project selection must not be a political decision. Else projects likely to win votes will be selected ahead of those that generate decent financial returns.

Second, the private sector must have skin in the game to ensure that #1 is adhered to. Also to reduce cost blowouts. Private companies are not immune to blowouts but government projects are in a league of their own.

The added benefit of infrastructure spending is the free lunch government gets from reduced unemployment benefits. Money they would have spent anyway is now put to a more productive use.

Source: Does Government Spending Create Jobs?

The real problem: Private Investment

Want to know the real cause of low GDP growth? Look no further than Private Investment.

Private Investment over Nominal GDP

Private Investment ran with peaks around 10 percent of GDP and troughs around 4 percent throughout the 1960s, 70s and most of the 80s. Since then Private Investment has declined to the point that the latest peak is close to 4 percent.

It is highly unlikely that the US will be able to sustain GDP growth if the rate of investment continues to decline. GDP growth is a factor of population growth and productivity growth. Productivity growth is not primarily caused by people working harder but by working more efficiently, with better tools and equipment. Using an earthmover rather than a wheelbarrow and shovel for example. Falling investment means fewer new tools and efficiencies.

Private Investment & Debt over Nominal GDP

The second graph plots the annual increase in private debt against GDP. You would think that this figure would fall — in line with falling rates of investment. Quite the opposite. Private debt growth is rising. While annual debt growth is nowhere near the red flag of 5 percent of GDP, if it crosses above the rate of private investment — as in 2006 to 2009 — I would consider that a harbinger of another crash.

Michael Pettis: Brexit could speed breakup of the Euro

On secular stagnation: “I don’t see growth picking up until you either redistribute income downwards — which is politically quite difficult and slow — or developed countries which are credible borrowers engage in massive infrastructure spending — which would be a great idea but politically difficult — so I’m afraid secular stagnation is going to last several more years.”

On BREXIT: “I’m not to optimistic that the Euro will be around in 10 years…BREXIT could speed up the process if England does well.”

On future crises: “It’s always the same thing: a huge switch from New York to Washington (in American terms) where policy begins to dominate the whole process…because the solutions to the problems are political solutions, not really economic or financial solutions…”

Stan Druckenmiller: This Is The Endgame | Zero Hedge

Hedge fund legend Stan Druckenmiller, founder of Duquesne, addressing the Sohn Conference:

….The Fed has no end game. The Fed’s objective seems to be getting by another 6 months without a 20% decline in the S&P and avoiding a recession over the near term. In doing so, they are enabling the opposite of needed reform and increasing, not lowering, the odds of the economic tail risk they are trying to avoid. At the government level, the impeding of market signals has allowed politicians to continue to ignore badly needed entitlement and tax reform.

Look at the slide behind me. The doves keep asking where is the evidence of mal-investment? As you can see, the growth in operating cash flow peaked 5 years ago and turned negative year over year recently even as net debt continues to grow at an incredibly high pace. Never in the post-World War II period has this happened. Until the cycle preceding the great recession, the peaks had been pretty much coincident. Even during that cycle, they only diverged for 2 years, and by the time EBITDA turned negative year over year, as it has today, growth in net debt had been declining for over 2 years. Again, the current 5-year divergence is unprecedented in financial history!

And if this wasn’t disturbing enough, take a look at the use of that debt in this cycle. While the debt in the 1990’s financed the construction of the internet, most of the debt today has been used for financial engineering, not productive investments….

Source: For Stan Druckenmiller This Is “The Endgame” – His Full ‘Apocalyptic’ Presentation | Zero Hedge

Hat tip to Houses & Holes at Macrobusiness.

Can ‘New’ Keynesianism Save the Chinese Economy? | The Diplomat

Excellent summary of China’s growth dilemna by Dr Yanfei Li, Energy Economist at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) [emphasis added]:

To conclude, national capitalism, which aims to help the Chinese economy move up the global value chain through technological catching up, can be considered part of the essence of the “new” Keynesianism – in other words, the Chinese approach to intervention in the current economic downturn. It will certainly continue to make significant progress in certain well-targeted areas, given enough time. However, there are two key dimensions to measuring how successful the strategy will be. One is the timeline: how long it takes for such efforts to be translated into significant productivity gains for the whole economy. Second, whether or not these selected areas, especially AI and robotics, can bring about a major productivity boost as seen with the IT boom in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In addition, national capitalism, a centralized strategy, is an intrinsically high-risk approach to technological development. Even with well-informed decisions, such as the case of Japan in developing HDTV, there are always surprises. The Chinese government can only hope that it has chosen the right technologies to pursue.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the other part of China’s “New” Keynsianism, namely the One Belt One Road initiative, which is about exporting the products and services of over-capacity, infrastructure-related industries overseas, also seems riskier than usual. Put another way, if these proposed infrastructure projects in targeted developing countries were attractive and low risk, they would have been financed and done. The fact that they are not itself implies higher risks are involved.

At this point, policymakers must look inward: They must identify and implement all necessary reforms to improve the micro-level efficiency of the Chinese economy. And this always implies the importance of truly open, competitive, transparent and fair markets for all industries. That is a vastly superior approach to the Ponzi game of emphasizing ways to manipulate the property market to keep prices climbing ever higher.

Source: Can ‘New’ Keynesianism Save the Chinese Economy? | The Diplomat

Risk of a global down-turn remains high

Stock markets in Asia and Europe have clearly tipped into a primary down-trend but the US remains tentative. The weight of the market is on the sell side and the risk of a global down-turn remains high.

Dow Jones Global Index found support at 270 and is rallying to test resistance at the former primary support levels of 290/300. 13-Week Twiggs Momentum peaks below zero flag a strong primary down-trend. Respect of 300 is likely and reversal below 290 warn of another decline. Breach of 270 would confirm.

Dow Jones Global Index

* Target calculation: 290 – ( 320 – 290 ) = 260

Willem Buiter of Citigroup warns that further monetary easing faces “strongly diminishing returns”, while “hurdles for a major fiscal stimulus remain high”. To me, major infrastructure spending is the only way to avoid prolonged stagnation but resistance to further increases in public debt is high. The only answer is to focus on productive infrastructure assets that generate returns above the cost of servicing debt, improving the overall debt position rather than aggravating it.

North America

Dow Jones Industrial Average recovered above primary support at 16000 and is headed for a test of 17000. Rising 13-week Twiggs Money Flow indicates medium-term buying pressure. Respect of 17000 is likely and would warn of continuation of the primary down-trend. Reversal below 16000 would confirm the signal, offering a target of 14000*.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

* Target calculation: 16000 – ( 18000 – 16000 ) = 14000

The most bearish sign on the Dow chart is the lower peak, at 18000, in late 2015. Only recovery above this level would indicate that long-term selling pressure has eased.

The S&P 500 is similarly testing resistance at 1950. Breakout is quite possible but only a higher peak (above 2100) would indicate that selling pressure has eased. Declining 13-week Twiggs Momentum, below zero, continues to warn of a primary down-trend. Reversal below 1870 would confirm the primary down-trend, offering a target of 1700*.

S&P 500 Index

* Target calculation: 1900 – ( 2100 – 1900 ) = 1700

CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) is testing ‘support’ at 20. Respect is likely and would confirm that market risk remains elevated.

S&P 500 VIX

Canada’s TSX 60 respected the descending trendline after breaking resistance at 750. Reversal below 750 would warn of another test of 680/700. Rising 13-week Twiggs Momentum is so far indicative of a bear rally rather than reversal of the primary down-trend.

TSX 60 Index

* Target calculation: 700 – ( 750 – 700 ) = 650

Europe

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 50 is rallying to test resistance at the former primary support level of 3000. The large 13-week Twiggs Momentum peak below zero confirms a strong primary down-trend. Respect of resistance is not that important, but another lower peak, followed by reversal below 3000, would signal a decline to 2400*.

DJ Euro Stoxx 50

* Target calculation: 2700 – ( 3000 – 2700 ) = 2400

Germany’s DAX recovered above resistance at 9300/9500. Expect a test of 10000 but buying pressure on 13-week Twiggs Money Flow appears secondary and reversal below 9300 would signal another decline, with a (long-term) target of 7500*.

DAX

* Target calculation: 9500 – ( 11500 – 9500 ) = 7500

The Footsie recovered above 6000, and the declining trendline, but the primary trend is down. Buying pressure on 13-week Twiggs Money Flow appears secondary and reversal below 6000 would signal another decline, with a target of 5500*. The long-term target remains 5000*.

FTSE 100

* Target calculation: 6000 – ( 6500 – 6000 ) = 5500

Asia

The Shanghai Composite Index rallied off support at 2700 but respected resistance at 3000. Reversal below support would offer a target of 2400*. The primary trend is clearly down and likely to remain so for some time.

Shanghai Composite Index

* Target calculation: 3000 – ( 3600 – 3000 ) = 2400

Japan’s Nikkei 225 Index is in a clear primary down-trend. Expect a test of 17000/18000 but respect of 18000 would warn of another test of 15000. Decline of 13-week Twiggs Money Flow below zero would flag more selling pressure.

Nikkei 225 Index

* Target calculation: 17000 – ( 20000 – 17000 ) = 14000

India’s Sensex primary down-trend is accelerating, with failed swings to the upper trend channel. Breach of 23000 would offer a short-term target of 22000*. Reversal of 13-week Twiggs Money Flow below zero would warn of more selling pressure.

SENSEX

* Target calculation: 23000 – ( 24000 – 23000 ) = 22000

Australia

The ASX 200 rally from 4700 respected resistance at 5000. Reversal below 4900 warns of another decline. Breach of support at 4700 would confirm. Divergence on 13-week Twiggs Money Flow indicates medium-term (secondary) buying pressure and reversal below zero would flag another decline. The primary trend is down and breach of 4700 would offer a target of 4400*. The long-term target remains 4000*.

ASX 200

* Target calculation: 4700 – ( 5000 – 4700 ) = 4400; 5000 – ( 6000 – 5000 ) = 4000

Banks are taking a hammering, with the Banks index (XBAK) in a clear down-trend. Retracement to test resistance at 78 is weak and another strong decline likely. Declining 13-week Twiggs Money Flow, below zero, reflects long-term selling pressure.

ASX 200 Financials

Citi: Brace for global recession | MacroBusiness

David Llewellyn-Smith quotes Willem Buiter at Citi:

….The main ‘game changers’ in our view are the emerging belief that even the US economy is no longer bullet-proof and that policymakers (in the US and elsewhere) may not be there to come to the rescue of their own economies, let alone the world economy, by propping up asset prices and aggregate demand. It is likely, in our view, that global growth will this year once again underperform (against long-term trends and previous year forecasts). Citi’s latest forecasts are for global growth of 2.5% in 2016 (based on market exchange rates and official statistics) and around 2.2% (adjusted for probable Chinese mismeasurement). But in our view, the risk of a global growth recession (growth below 2%) is high and rising.

…..even though monetary policy is at the point of strongly diminishing returns, it is likely to remain the principal instrument through which authorities in a range of countries will try to boost growth and inflation.

…..In most countries, the hurdles for a major fiscal stimulus remain high.

There are no free lunches: “propping up asset prices and aggregate demand” reduces the severity of recessions but inhibits the recovery, leading to prolonged periods of low growth. The further asset prices are allowed to fall, the stronger the recovery as investors (eventually) snap up ‘cheap’ assets. Maintaining high prices is sometimes necessary, as in 2009, to prevent a 1930s-style collapse of the banking system but we may pay the price for another decade.

Source: Citi: Brace for global recession – MacroBusiness

Why Fixed Investment is Critical to the US Recovery

The financial sector normally acts as a conduit, channeling savings from private investors to the corporate sector. When the conduit works effectively, the injection of demand from corporate Investment is sufficient to offset the ‘leakage’ from demand caused by Savings. Savings patterns alter during a financial crisis, however, with concerned households cutting back on expenditure and using any surplus to pay down debt, rather than depositing with the bank or buying stocks. Household Savings rise but corporate Investment contracts. The resulting ‘leakage’ from demand causes GDP to spiral downward.

When Investment contracts, unemployment rises. The relationship is evident on the graph below, but it could also be said that Investment rises when employment grows — businesses invest in anticipation of rising demand. Either way, it is safe to conclude that rising investment and job growth go hand-in-hand.

Employment Growth and Private Nonresidential Fixed Investment

Fixed Investment and Corporate Profits

Rising corporate profits also lead to increased investment. The lag on the graph below — investment growth follows profit growth — clearly illustrates the causative relationship.

Employment Growth and Private Nonresidential Fixed Investment

This is an encouraging sign, as the current surge in corporate profits is likely to be followed by rising investment — and further job growth.

Weekly Earnings and GDP

Rising weekly earnings already point to improving aggregate demand and consequent investment growth.

Weekly Earnings Growth

All that is missing is for the federal government to increase investment in productive* infrastructure to further boost job growth.

*Infrastructure investment needs to generate a sufficient return to repay debt incurred to fund the spending. Something many politicians seem to forget when preoccupied with buying votes for the next election.

Here’s How to Achieve Full Employment

Economic Policy Institute President Lawrence Mishel provides the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce with a shopping list of measures he believes are necessary to achieve full employment. Some are right on the mark while others seem to have missed the basic rules of Supply and Demand taught in Econ 101. My comments are in bold.

The goals that economic policy must focus on are, thus, creating jobs and reaching robust full employment, generating broad-based wage growth, and improving the quality of jobs.

Jobs

Policies that help to achieve full employment are the following:

1. The Federal Reserve Board needs to target a full employment with wage growth matching productivity.

The most important economic policy decisions being made about job growth in the next few years are those of the Federal Reserve Board as it determines the scale and pace at which it raises interest rates. Let’s be clear that the decision to raise interest rates is a decision to slow the economy and weaken job and wage growth. There are many false concerns about accelerating wage growth and exploding inflation based on the mistaken sense that we are at or near full employment. Policymakers should not seek to slow the economy until wage growth is comfortably running at the 3.5 to 4.0 percent rate, the wage growth consistent with a 2 percent inflation target (since trend productivity is 1.5 to 2.0 percent, wage growth 2 percent faster than this yields rising unit labor costs, and therefore inflation, of 2 percent). The key danger is slowing the economy too soon rather than too late.

Fed monetary policy should not target one sector of the economy (i.e. wages) but the whole economy (i.e. nominal GDP).

2. Targeted employment programs

Even at 4 percent unemployment, there will be many communities that will still be suffering substantial unemployment, especially low-wage workers and many black and Hispanic workers. To obtain full employment for all, we will need to undertake policies that can direct jobs to areas of high unemployment……

Government programs don’t create jobs, they merely redistribute income from the taxed to the subsidised.

3. Public investment and infrastructure

There is widespread agreement that we face a substantial shortfall of public investment in transportation, broadband, R&D, and education. Undertaking a sustained (for at least a decade) program of public investment can create jobs and raise our productivity and growth…..

Agree. But we must invest in productive assets that generate income that can be used to repay the debt. Else we are left with a pile of debt and no means to repay it.

Policies that do not help us reach full employment include:

1. Corporate tax reform

There are many false claims that corporate tax reform is needed to make us competitive and bring us growth. First off, the evidence is that the corporate tax rates U.S. firms actually pay (their “effective rates”) are not higher than those of other advanced countries. Second, the tax reform that is being discussed is “revenue neutral,” necessarily meaning that tax rates on average are actually not being reduced; for every firm or sector that will see a lower tax rate, another will see a higher tax rate. It is hard to see how such tax reform sparks growth.

Zero-sum thinking. If we want to increase employment, we need to increase investment. Tax rates and allowances should encourage domestic investment rather than offshore expansion.

2. Cutting taxes

There will surely be many efforts in this Congress to cut corporate taxes and reduce taxes on capital income (e.g., capital gains, dividends) and individual marginal tax rates, especially on those with the highest incomes. It’s easy to see how those strategies will not work….

Same as above. We need to encourage investment by private corporations.

3. Raising interest rates

There are those worried about inflation who are calling on the Federal Reserve Board to raise interest rates soon and steadily thereafter. Their fears are, in my analysis, unfounded. But we should be clear that those seeking higher interest rates are asking our monetary policymakers to slow economic growth and job creation and reflect a far-too-pessimistic assumption of how far we can lower unemployment, seemingly aiming for unemployment at current levels or between 5.0 and 5.5 percent….

Agreed. Raising interest rates too soon is as dangerous as raising too late.

Wage growth

It is a welcome development that policymakers and presidential candidates in both parties have now acknowledged that stagnant wages are a critical economic challenge…… Over the 40 years since 1973, there has been productivity growth of 74 percent, yet the compensation (wages and benefits) of a typical worker grew far less, just 9 percent (again, mostly in the latter 1990s)……

Wage stagnation is conventionally described as being about globalization and technological change, explanations offered in the spirit of saying it is caused by trends we neither can nor want to restrain. In fact, technological change has had very little to do with wage stagnation. Such an explanation is grounded in the notion that workers have insufficient skills so employers are paying them less, while those with higher wages and skills (say, college graduates) are highly demanded so that employers are bidding up their wages…….

Misses the point. Technology has enabled employers in manufacturing, finance and service industries to cut the number of employees to a fraction of their former size.

Globalization has, in fact, served to suppress wage growth for non-college-educated workers (roughly two-thirds of the workforce). However, such trends as import competition from low-wage countries did not naturally develop; they were pushed by trade agreements and the tolerance of misaligned and manipulated exchange rates that undercut U.S. producers.

This small paragraph hits on the key reason for wage stagnation in the US. Workers are not only competing in a global labor market, but against countries who have manipulated their exchange rate to gain a competitive advantage.

There are two sets of policies that have greatly contributed to wage stagnation that receive far too little attention. One set is aggregate factors, which include factors that lead to excessive unemployment and others that have driven the financialization of the economy and excessive executive pay growth (which fueled the doubling of the top 1 percent’s wage and income growth). The other set of factors are the business practices, eroded labor standards, and weakened labor market institutions that have suppressed wage growth. I will examine these in turn.

Aggregate factors

1. Excessive unemployment

Unemployment has remained substantially above full employment for much of the last 40 years, especially relative to the post-war period before then. Since high unemployment depresses wages more for low-wage than middle-wage workers and more for middle-wage than high-wage workers, these slack conditions generate wage inequality. ……

The excessive unemployment in recent decades reflects a monetary policy overly concerned about inflation relative to unemployment and hostile to any signs of wage growth……

2. Unleashing the top 1 percent: finance and executive pay

The major forces behind the extraordinary income growth and the doubling of the top 1 percent’s income share since 1979 were the expansion of the finance sector (and escalating pay in that sector) and the remarkable growth of executive pay …… restraining the growth of such income will not adversely affect the size of our economy. Moreover, the failure to restrain these incomes leaves less income available to the vast majority……

Zero-sum thinking.

Labor standards, labor market institutions, and business practices

There are a variety of policies within the direct purview of this committee that can greatly help to lift wage growth:
1. Raising the minimum wage

The main reason wages at the lowest levels lag those at the middle has been the erosion of the value of the minimum wage, a policy undertaken in the 1980s that has never fully been reversed. The inflation-adjusted minimum wage is now about 25 percent below its 1968 level……

Will reduce demand for domestic labor and increase demand for offshoring jobs.

2. Updating overtime rules

The share of salaried workers eligible for overtime has fallen from 65 percent in 1975 to just 11 percent today……

This will continue for as long as the manufacturing sector is white-anted by offshoring jobs.

3. Strengthening rights to collective bargaining

The single largest factor suppressing wage growth for middle-wage workers over the last few decades has been the erosion of collective bargaining (which can explain one-third of the rise of wage inequality among men, and one-fifth among women)……

How will this improve Supply and Demand?

4. Regularizing undocumented workers

Regularizing undocumented workers will not only lift their wages but will also lift wages of those working in the same fields of work…..

How will this improve Supply and Demand?

5. Ending forced arbitration

One way for employees to challenge discriminatory or unfair personnel practices and wages is to go to court or a government agency that oversees such discrimination. However, a majority of large firms force their workers to give up their access to court and government agency remedies and agree to settle such disputes over wages and discrimination only in arbitration systems set up and overseen by the employers themselves…..

How will this improve Supply and Demand?

6. Modernizing labor standards: sick leave, paid family leave

We have not only seen the erosion of protections in the labor standards set up in the New Deal, we have also seen the United States fail to adopt new labor standards that respond to emerging needs……

No issue with this. But how will it improve Supply and Demand?

7. Closing race and gender inequities

Generating broader-based wage growth must also include efforts to close race and gender inequities that have been ever present in our labor markets…….

No issue with this. But how will it improve Supply and Demand?

8. Fair contracting
These new contracting rules can help reduce wage theft, obtain greater racial and gender equity and generally support wage growth……

No issue with this. But how will it improve Supply and Demand?

9. Tackling misclassification, wage theft, prevailing wages

There are a variety of other policies that can support wage growth. Too many workers are deemed independent contractors by their employers when they are really employees……

No issue with this. But how will it improve Supply and Demand?

Policies that will not facilitate broad-based wage growth

1. Tax cuts: individual or corporate

The failure of wages to grow cannot be cured through tax cuts. Such policies are sometimes offered as propelling long-run job gains and economic growth (though they are not aimed at securing a stronger recovery from a recession, as the conservatives who offer tax cuts do not believe in counter-cyclical fiscal policy). These policies are not effective tools to promote growth, but even if they did create growth, it is clear that growth by itself will not lift wages of the typical worker…….

Zero-sum thinking. Compare economic growth in high-tax countries to growth in low tax countries and you will find this a highly effective policy tool.

2. Increasing college or community college completion

……advancing education completion is not an effective overall policy to generate higher wages……. What is needed are policies that lift wages of high school graduates, community college graduates, and college graduates, not simply a policy that changes the number of workers in each category.

Better available skills-base leads to increased competitiveness in global labor market and more investment opportunities in the domestic market.

3. Deregulation

There is no solid basis for believing that deregulation will lead to greater productivity growth or that doing so will lead to wage growth. Deregulation of finance certainly was a major factor in the financial crisis and relaxing Dodd–Frank rules will only make our economy more susceptible to crisis.

What we need is (simple) well-regulated markets rather than (complex) over-regulation.

4. Policies to promote long-term growth

Policies that can substantially help reduce unemployment in the next two years are welcomed and can serve to raise wage growth. Policies aimed at raising longer-term growth prospects may be beneficial but will not help wages soon or necessarily lead to wage growth in future years. This can be seen in the decoupling of wage growth from productivity over the last 40 years. Simply increasing investments and productivity will not necessarily improve the wages of a typical worker. What is missing are mechanisms that relink productivity and wage growth. Without such policies, an agenda of “growth” is playing “pretend” when it comes to wages.

Long-term investment is the only way forward. To dismiss this in favor of short-term band-aid solutions is nuts!

My proposal is a lot simpler, consisting of only five steps:

  1. Invest in productive infrastructure.
  2. A simplified tax regime with low rates and few deductions apart from incentives to increase domestic investment.
  3. Restrict capital inflows through trade agreements and maintain a fair exchange rate.
  4. Fed monetary policy supportive in the short-term but with long-term target of neutral debt growth — in line with GDP (nominal).
  5. Move education up the priority list for government spending. Improve the education standards and training of teachers — they are the lifeblood of the system — rather than increasing numbers.