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Corporate Profits Soar as Workers’ Incomes Slump

There is yet more evidence that our economy has become a zero-sum affair, where the growth of corporate profits (and by extension the coffers of the elites) come at the expense of average workers.

With the Dow Jones industrial average flirting with a record high, the split between American workers and the companies that employ them is widening and could worsen in the next few months as

That gulf helps explain why stock markets are thriving even as the economy is barely growing and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

With millions still out of work, companies face little pressure to raise salaries, while productivity gains allow them to increase sales without adding workers.

“So far in this recovery, corporations have captured an unusually high share of the income gains,” said Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “The U.S. corporate sector is in a lot better health than the overall economy. And until we get a full recovery in the labor market, this will persist.”

The result has been a golden age for corporate profits, especially among multinational giants that are also benefiting from faster growth in emerging economies like China and India.

These factors, along with the Federal Reserve’s efforts to keep interest rates ultralow and encourage investors to put more money into riskier assets, prompted traders to send the Dow past 14,000 to within 75 points of a record high last week.

While buoyant earnings are rewarded by investors and make American companies more competitive globally, they have not translated into additional jobs at home.

And why not? There is plenty of money to go around. Companies can well afford to hire new workers and pay their current ones better, and still have plenty of profits left over for their CEOs and shareholders.

As a percentage of national income, corporate profits stood at 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, the largest share at any time since 1950, while the portion of income that went to employees was 61.7 percent, near its lowest point since 1966. In recent years, the shift has accelerated during the slow recovery that followed the financial crisis and ensuing recession of 2008 and 2009, said Dean Maki, chief United States economist at Barclays.

Corporate earnings have risen at an annualized rate of 20.1 percent since the end of 2008, he said, but disposable income inched ahead by 1.4 percent annually over the same period, after adjusting for inflation.

“There hasn’t been a period in the last 50 years where these trends have been so pronounced,” Mr. Maki said.

 

The problem is simple: corporations don’t want to to pay their workers better because their standards of sufficient wealthiness are getting ever higher. Business elites are finding their growing appetites for money ever more difficult to satiate. It used to be that making a million or so dollars was more than sufficient —  but nowadays, it seems every executive wants tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, and their shareholders and board members are no better.

When a handful of people want more and more money, the natural consequence is to make cuts (e.g. layoffs, benefits, hours) and withhold investment (e.g. raises and benefits). Otherwise, where else will all this money come from? Consider the following  case in point:

“Right now, C.E.O.’s are saying, ‘I don’t really need to hire because of the productivity gains of the last few years,’ ” said Robert E. Moritz, chairman of the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers.

At 218,300 employees, United Technologies’ work force is virtually unchanged from seven years ago, even though annual revenue soared to $57.7 billion in 2012 from $42.7 billion in 2005.

The relentless focus on maintaining margins continues, even though profit and revenue have never been higher; four days after the company’s shares soared past $90 to a record high last month, United Technologies confirmed it would eliminate an additional 3,000 workers this year, on top of 4,000 let go in 2012 as part a broader restructuring effort.

“There’s no doubt we will continue to drive productivity year after year,” Mr. Chenevert said. “Ultimately, we compete globally.”

And that last sentence denotes a bit part of the problem: even if a company’s executive or board wants to be ethical and pay their workers better, they’ll come under relentless pressure by investors and shareholders to provide a bigger return on investment. Competition is cutthroat and no-holds-barred, and this country’s particular hyper-individualism and dog-eat-dog mentality only makes it worse. There is no sense of social obligation — it’s all about the bottom line and how much one can make for themselves, regardless of the costs to others, the environment, or society as a whole.

Our culture and attitudes need to change. How to do so is a different story altogether.