Friday, December 20, 2013

Societal Death Watch

Earlier this year I lost a good friend to heart disease.  Lou didn't just keel over out of the blue.  His was a steady, 18-month decline.  He went downhill slowly but steadily.

Lou came to mind when I read Mike Whitney's piece in CounterPunch, Did Someone Say 'Crash'?  The article looks at how investment by Americans in their nation's economy has dried up and with it the prospects of jobs for today's and tomorrow's children.

Guess who’s investing in America’s future?

Nobody, that’s who.

Just check out this excerpt from an article by Rex Nutting at Marketwatch and you’ll see what I mean. The article is titled “No one is investing in tomorrow’s economy”:

“The U.S. economy simply isn’t investing enough to ensure that there will be enough good paying jobs for our children and our children’s children. Net investment — the amount of capital added to our stock — remains at the lowest levels since the Great Depression. …

Net investment…measures the additional stock of buildings, factories, houses, equipment, software, and research and development — above and beyond the replacement of worn-out capital.  In 2012, net fixed investment totaled $485 billion, only about half of the $1.1 trillion invested in 2006…

If businesses, consumers and governments were investing for the future at usual rate, the economy would be at least 3% larger, employing millions more people.  That’s a huge hole in the economy that can’t be filled by heavily indebted consumers, especially at a time when government is handcuffed by forces of austerity.”  (“No one is investing in tomorrow’s economy”, Rex Nutting, Marketwatch) looks like the economy has reset at a lower level of activity that will only get worse as the impact of budget cuts and stagnation are felt. That will further curtail consumer spending which, to this point, had been the primary driver of growth.

Bottom line: Net investment is down because there’s no demand. And there’s no demand because unemployment is high, wages are flat, incomes are falling, and households are still digging out from the Crash of ’08. At the same time, the US Congress and Team Obama continue to slash public spending wherever possible which is further dampening activity and perpetuating the low-growth, weak demand, perma-slump.

So,  tell me: Why would a businessman invest in an economy where people are too broke to buy his products?  He’d be better off issuing dividends to his shareholders or buying back shares in his own company to push stock prices higher.
And, guess what? That’s exactly what CEOs are doing. Check this out in the Washington Post:

“Battered by months of dis­appointing sales, networking giant Cisco needed a way to give its shareholders a pick-me-up. So the San Jose-based firm did what has become routine for many big U.S. companies in a slow-growing economy: It announced last month that it was buying back shares of its stock…..

This is what U.S. multinationals do now with their cash. Rather than tout big new investments, raise worker wages or hire more employees, companies are more likely to set aside funds to reward shareholders — a trend that took a dip during the recession but has roared back during the recovery.

The 30 companies listed on the Dow Jones industrial average have authorized $211 billion in buybacks in 2013, according to data from ­Birinyi Associates, helping to lift the benchmark stock index to heights not seen since the tech boom of the late 1990s. By comparison, the amount is nearly three times what the group spent on research and development last year, according to data from S&P Capital IQ.

Why spend so much on stock repurchasing?

When the number of shares outstanding falls, the value of each one goes up, instantly rewarding shareholders.”  (“Companies turning again to stock buybacks to reward shareholders”, Washington Post)

Corporations don’t care about the future. What they care about is maximizing shareholder value, that’s the name of the game; profits. If that means boosting net fixed investment then, okay, that’s what they’ll do. But if the Fed creates incentives to do something else, like gaming the system with stock buybacks, then they can make the adjustment. And that’s what the Fed’s zero rate policy does. It’s incentivizes businesses to use their capital in a way that’s damaging to the real economy.  Here’s more from the same article:

“Helping to fuel the stock market’s meteoric rise is the Federal Reserve’s stimulus program designed to lower borrowing costs. Companies are taking advantage, often by borrowing money at low rates to repurchase shares, although it’s unclear how much of the debt is being used to pay for buybacks.

Whitney contends that investors themselves will face long-term pain as the price for their short-term gain.

It’s worth noting that the investor class will also pay a heavy price for the current misguided policy. Stocks have had an impressive  4-year run, but there are signs that the day of reckoning is fast approaching. Get a load of this from USA Today:

“A potential warning to stock investors: the fourth-quarter earnings pre-announcement season is shaping up to be the most negative on record.  In what seems like a major disconnect, the number of profit warnings relative to upbeat guidance is the widest it has ever been — at a time when the U.S. stock market is trading near record territory. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index notched a new closing high of 1809 Monday.

For every 10 companies warning of weaker-than-expected earnings for the October-through-December period, only one has said it will top forecasts, says earnings-tracker Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.  The actual 10.4-to-1 negative-to-positive pre-announcement ratio is on track to eclipse the prior record of 6.8 warnings for every positive one back in the first quarter of 2001. The long-term ratio is 2.3 warnings for each positive one.

“This is off the charts, I’ve never seen it this high,” says Gregory Harrison, analyst at Thomson Reuters.” (“As stocks hit record highs, so do profit warnings”, USA Today)

So why is Wall Street taking such dire warnings in their stride, you ask?

It’s because investors no longer pay attention to the fundamentals. Demand doesn’t matter.  Earnings don’t matter. What matters is the Fed and the Fed alone. “Is Bernanke going to keep pumping trillions in liquidity into the financial markets or not?” That’s the policy upon which all investment decisions are made.

So when Bernanke announces his plan to “taper” his asset purchases (scale-back QE), equities will adjust accordingly.

It strikes me that the segmentation of western society into the masses and the plutocrats eerily mirrors what is evolving in the emerging economic superpowers, India and China.   Those societies are evolving into what one Chinese economist described as an island of affluence floating on a sea of poverty.  Explain to me the difference between them and us.  We may be approaching this from different directions but it seems we're heading for the same place.


astone said...

We are screwed period

The Mound of Sound said...

It is telling, astone, that none of the parties, NDP included, is genuinely committed to reversing inequality.

Purple library guy said...

In many ways the key is the media. The information most people receive comes from a few megacorporations owned by people on on the rich side of that divide. They are far from a neutral information source, or a forum for evenhanded presentation of a range of positions.
When they gutted the rules against media concentration it was a big milestone. By now, the basic setup is that most of the media follows a similar rightward slant, and the political parties relate to that in different ways. The Liberals accept and work with it, the Cons attack the media to get them to toe the corporate line more slavishly, and the NDP run scared.

But it is possible to create anticorporate political power despite a concentrated right wing media. Venezuela is a key case. And the internet still has some promise, diluted though it may have become.