Income in America – The Hurrier We Go The Behinder We Get?

The average worker’s pay in the state of Nevada is $35,206 per year. The average CEO pay is $5,130,077.  That’s a ratio of 146-1 in favor of the CEO, a figure which rockets up to 299-1 if CEO compensation is compared to our minimum wage earners.   [Paywatch]  If we look to the 89101 Zip code specifically, the median annual compensation for a CEO is $736,318 or 21 times the earnings of the average worker.  The range in that area goes from $396,391 to $1.059,652. [SalWiz]  If we look north, the average CEO compensation in the 89501 Zip code is $732,846, with a range of $394,522 to $1,054,657. [SalWiz]  The problem isn’t that some individuals are paid more than others — the core issue is that there are economic pressures which continue to put a drag on our economic recovery, and some of these are the result of wage and tax policies which favor financialism over good old fashioned capitalism.

The first argument launched from the conservative side of the spectrum is that these numbers are necessarily flawed, and therefore of little utility in debate about wages, salaries, and compensation in general.  However many issues the Center on Executive Compensation , allied with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Corporate Directors, may have with the methodology, and with the proposed SEC rules on ratios, [Blmbrg]  the points remain — (1) Multinational and other large corporations really don’t want to disclose their CEO pay packages, and (2) They really don’t want the issue of executive compensation tied into the discussions of tax equity and fairness.

This is an interesting line because corporations generally have no problem reducing almost any issue by quantification, be it allocation of purchasing orders or labor costs and productivity.  One easily reached conclusion is that the quantification called for by the SEC under the terms of the Dodd Frank Act isn’t something the corporations want to do.

The second common assertion is that these are the “job creators,” and therefore should be immune from any additional taxation, and certainly from any increase in the taxation of capital gains.  We are continually told that any attempts to adjust the inequities via minimum wage increases or tax policy will have dire effects on small business.  Testing this contention requires looking more carefully at the old common ‘wisdom’ that small companies are the driving force in job creation.  There’s some evidence this may not necessarily be the case.

While it’s still true that businesses with 49 employees or less create the most jobs, the trend since 1990 indicates that large employers (over 500 employees) added 29% more workers between 1990 and 2011, while those with 50 or less added 10.9% more. [NYT BLS]  In short, what the large corporations do in terms of compensation of CEOs and employees is important, and become more so as additional jobs are the result of hiring decisions made by large firms.

Practical Matters

## As a practical matter, income inequality only becomes a problem when such a large portion of wealth is tied up in the hands of so few that the savings capacity of individual workers is reduced.  Obviously, at the theoretical level, the more workers save the more money becomes available for investment.  Practically, the more workers are able to save the less reliance there is on social safety net programs, and the more savings accounts of all varieties are available for (a) consumer spending — such as in retirement, and (b) investment by the banks and mutual funds which hold them.

One way to observe this in the real world is to look at what people are doing with their 401(k) accounts.  Now that housing isn’t the most apparent source of income, individuals and families are increasingly tapping their retirement accounts to meet necessary expenses.  In 2011, for example, Americans withdrew about $57 billion from their retirement accounts while home equity loans were down by 38%. [Blmbrg]*

At the consumer debt level, the Federal Reserve’s report on Household Debt Service and Financial Obligations ratios shows consumer debt which bottomed at 4.97 in the first quarter of 2012 is now back up to 5.14.  People who are borrowing aren’t saving, and if they aren’t saving then those funds are not available for investment.

Our debt levels are back up and our personal savings rates are headed back down.  The Federal Reserve chart shows an increase in personal savings during recessionary periods, a spike in December 2012, and then back down we went.

Personal Savings RateNothing says “squeezing the middle’ quite like watching (a) dipping into retirement accounts, (b) increasing consumer debt, and (c) declining personal savings.

## Income inequality becomes a problem when the funds which should be invested in the expansion or improvement of capital projects is diverted into ‘manufacturing’ financial products which add wealth to their holders and traders, but do not add assets, fixed or short term, to corporate enterprises.  Look at the following chart showing the trends in how banks earn their income:

US investment banking fee composition

(See Capital Markets Outlook – Deloitte Israel, Global Investment Banking Review – Thomson Reuters, both in pdf)

Trading in “equities” is earning a larger portion of banking revenues in recent days, from 17% to 48%, while loans have contracted since 2005.  And bonds, the old staple of the investment banking sector? Improving, but not as well as the equities column of the ledger.

If the tax on capital gains is only 15% then what incentive does an investor have to invest for the long term in manufacturing capacity?  For that matter, if funds are in the hands of institutional investors what incentive is there for long term investment instead of seeking short term gains?  In 1995 institutional investors held 140.8% of our GDP, in 2011 that number had increased to 211.2%.  In 1995 institutional investors held $11,223 billion in financial assets, by 2011 that figure stood at $24,220 billion. [OECD pdf]  And then there’s this chart — notice the increase in the column representing investment funds compared to that of pension funds:

Investment Institutions by typeIt isn’t a stretch to conclude that recent trends indicate there are more institutional investors and those investors are increasingly in the form of ‘investment funds.’  The small chart below shows the the increase in the number of hedge funds since 2000:

Hedge Funds






And, as we might guess, the smaller, newer funds are doing well, but they’re also more likely to ‘blow up.’ [FTAlphaville]  It’s necessary to remember that what’s good for the hedge funds and asset managers (short term gains) is not necessarily good for the rest of the economy (long term stable prosperity).   The focus of the money managers is, predictably, money. Money becomes the ultimate measure of wealth, not the fixed and other assets of other enterprises.

If we’re looking for the barriers to economic growth in the U.S. some attention needs to be paid to (1) the growing income inequality which puts pressure on individual and family saving capacity; (2) tax policy which rewards investment for the sake of ‘money’ rather than investment for the sake of long term corporate viability; (3) the role of institutional investors and their agendas in the financial markets; and (4) the declining role of retirement funds for their original purpose (retirement) and in the overall institutional investor landscape.

We’ll do better when we can return to the traditions of capitalism — in which wealth is measured not only by bank accounts, but by what those bank accounts can provide for the businesses and industries who build them.

* See also: Angry Bear Blog “Americans Raid 401(k)s” May 8, 2014; EPI, “The State of U.S. Retirement,” March 12, 2014; Naked Capitalism, “Even Harsh Frontline Program on Retirement Investments Understates How Bad They Are,” April 24, 2013.  CAP “What Can We Do About Retirement Fees Straining Middle Class,” April 15, 2014.


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