Where Has All The Money Gone, Pt I, Corporate Profits

INTRODUCTION

1) Rethug Speaker of the House John Boehner says that as a nation, “we’re broke“; Rethug presidential candidate Ron Paul claims America “should declare bankruptcy.”  I say these two are liars, and at least one of them is crazy.

2) Tyler Cowan says “we are poorer than we think we are,” due to mis-measurement of value, which might be true.  I believe his prescription for recovery is generally very bad, though.

3) In comments to my previous Angry Bear post, Bob McManus directed us to the writings of Michael Hudson, where we find his post Democracy and Debt.  This is must reading.  The relevant point here is that the increasing capture of wealth, as rents, by a creditor class impoverishes society in general, and this eventually leads to severe repression, major social upheaval, or both.  I whole-heartedly agree.

4) Jon Hammond’s guest post at Angry Bear shows that a more-or-less continuous decrease in real investment has occurred during the post WW II era.

In this series of posts, I intend to show that we are a wealthy nation, but that our wealth  has been increasingly captured by elite creditors, who, in my opinion, are strangling the economy by 1) extracting excessive rents and 2) diverting this wealth to financial tail chasing, rather than real investment.

WHERE THE MONEY HASN’T GONE

Here is a look at average hourly earnings, the typical income of a working stiff, presented on a log scale.

Like almost every time series you can imagine, including GDP, it exhibits a break near 1980.   The break is always to lower growth.  But, compared to most other data series, this break is especially sharp.

Hear is the same series compared to GDP, an approximate measure of the income of the nation, on a linear scale.  For this graph, each is normalized to a value of 100 in Q1, 1965.

While earnings have grown less than 8 times in 47 years, GDP has grown more than 20 times.

Clearly, the money has not gone to compensation of the workers whose labor actually creates the wealth of the nation.  That might explain some of the alleged envy.

CORPORATE PROFITS

As a first step in finding where the money has gone, let’s consider the growth of corporate after-tax profits since about 1950.  You can see it in this FRED graph.   It’s on a log scale, so constant growth would be a straight line.  There are lots of wiggles, but I see an increasing slope over time, and it’s not an optical illusion.

There are a lot of ways to parse this.  One is to connect the dip bottoms with straight lines.  I’ve done that with alternating red and blue to show the slope increasing over time.  The problem is selecting which bottoms to connect.  Some alternate choices are indicated in yellow.  The yellow lines define times of above normal profit growth: 1970 to 1980, 1986 to 1998, and 2001 through 2007.  Each of them leads to a correction, indicated by a purple line across the top of the decline.

After I did all that, it occurred to me to let Excel throw an exponential best fit line on the data set, and you can see that as well.

I see now that I could have included another yellow line from 1961 to 1967.  Notice that with each yellow line, the data set advances above the exponential best fit line before a sideways correction takes it below again.  After the correction is complete, profits increase again until the best fit curve is breached.  Or, they did until now.

Remember that on a log scale constant growth rate is represented by a straight line, and that the growth compounds, so that the underlying increase is exponential.  Sooner or later, that has to end.  Nothing in the real word can go to infinity.  Here we see an exponential curve on a log scale.  This demonstrates an increasing growth rate.  Therefore, the underlying increase is greater than exponential.  If exponential growth is unsustainable, what would you say about greater than exponential growth?

In fact, the whole trend might now be falling apart, as the last blue line has a much lower slope.  Also, for the first time following a correction, profits have stayed below the trend line, and the gap is increasing.

To show the extent of national income capture by corporations, here is a graph of corporate profits as a percentage of GDP.   I’ve divided the set into two segments: 1951 to 1979, and 1980 on, and had Excel place a linear trend line on each.  This division is somewhat arbitrary, but almost every economic time series you can find has a break point within a few years of 1980.  Division between ’79 and ’80 is the least favorable to my point that Profits/GDP had no trend in the post WW II Golden Age, but have trended sharply upward during the Great Stagnation period.

Profit/GDP growth was unusually poor from 1980 through 1986.  Then from late 2001 through early 2006 it exhibited the greatest growth ever.  But remember the denominator effect.  Nominal GDP growth increased rapidly following the ’80-’82 double recession; while GDP growth in this century has been generally slow.  The financial melt-down of 2008 caused a dip that was sharp and brief, but the rebound has not gone to a new high.  But even now, in the midst of anemic recovery, profit/GDP is hovering in the 9 to 10% range, far above historical norms.

CONCLUSION

The corporate profit growth picture looks unsustainable, and that is troubling.  What it means for the future is anybody’s guess.  But, what we get from it is the first partial answer to the question, “Where has all the money gone?”

Gone to profits, everyone.

A slightly different version is posted at Retirement Blues.

Tags: , , , , Comments (25) | |