Our Thirty Five Years of Mythological Economics

trickle down economics

The only problem with this cartoon version of  Trickle Down economics is that the bird at the top should be getting larger as the years extend.  Likewise, the birds in the middle range should be getting more stressed as they attempt to stay on their middle income perches.  It’s a nice touch that the background is in blue, suggesting we’re about to be washed up in a tide which only serves those who are perched high enough to avoid drowning.

Meanwhile, the  best response to the sentence “A rising tide lifts all boats,” is “Where Are The Customers’ Yachts?”  For those who have not yet read this 75 year old classic – it’s still available, and still germane to American economics.  It was true then, and true now.  The problem is that the financial sector has hijacked significant portions of our economic thinking, in ways that have left us prone to being bedazzled by BS.   Thus, we’d prefer to rail against the Wall Street Casino rather than believe we’ve been following some very foolish advice offered, in turn, by some very foolish, and very self serving,  people. And, there are people challenging the BS rendition of American capitalism.

Those who missed Mrs. Clinton’s speech at the New School (NYC) on our economic challenges can view the C-SPAN broadcast here. (55 minutes)

The initial response from journalists was “Hillary’s bashing Wall Street.” [Reuters] This makes for a convenient headline – Beltway Shorthand for her support for regulation of Wall Street investment bankers’ transactions – however, it doesn’t come close to adequately summarizing what both candidates Clinton and Sanders have been saying about financialism in American economics. The Beltway Media is missing the point, perhaps because it doesn’t fit neatly into a template predetermined by editorial policy, or a simplistic code for easy lead paragraphs.

The point is that we have had 35 years of what President George H.W. Bush called Voodoo Economics (although bless his heart he promoted it like any good Republican), and it doesn’t work in the real world. Why? Because the mythology violates the simple principles of American capitalism:

”So here’s an idea worth spreading. In a capitalist economy, the true job creators are consumers, the middle class. And taxing the rich to make investments that grow the middle class is the single smartest thing we can do for the middle class, the poor and the rich.” [LAT]

With this basis in mind, let’s tackle some of the mythology and deal with a bit more economic reality.  We might as well start with the “job creators” sound bite.

#Job transference is not necessarily job creation.  Yes, Home Depot has about 340,000 employees. [USAT]  However, in order to achieve those numbers, how many local hardware stores went out of business, or had to shave employment numbers, because they were hard pressed to compete with the Big Box Stores?  Of the 340,000 Home Depot employees only 21,000 were salaried, the rest were working on a temporary basis or for hourly wages.  The average hourly wages for employees in the retail sector are $14.36 per hour. [Monster] Further, we know that about 1/3rd of all retail sector employees are working part time. If we take a closer look we find that the median wages for retail employees (full time) in building materials and garden equipment were about $12.21 per hour. [BLS]

So, we have to ask ourselves, if a Big Box Store moves in an puts a local supermarket or hardware store out of business, does that translate into “job creation” or simply the transference of personnel from one job into another – possibly lower paying – job?

#Low wages make stocks attractive and the overall economy weaker.    The largest fast food chain in the U.S. has approximately 440,000 employees. [USAT]  And, what do food service preparation employees earn?  About $19,300 per year, or approximately $9.28 per hour. [BLS]  The average weekly hours for all employees are currently estimated as 25.8 per week, and for nonsupervisory employees at about 24.6 hours per week. [BLS] Significantly, before we fall into the hype-vat argument about the “kid’s first job,” only about 30% of fast food workers are teenagers, another 30% are between the ages of 20 and 24, and the remaining 40% are 25 years of age and older. [CEPR]

From the shareholder perspective it makes perfect sense to keep wages low, employee turnover high, and continue to appeal to those who have a “quarterly value” vision of America.   From the perspective of other business owners in the area, those low wages translate to minimal disposable income, which means fewer customers for their products and services.  In short, the yacht at the top is sailing along while the little boats bounce around the rocks.

#Wealth created from indebtedness doesn’t trickle anywhere.  Median household earnings are slowly, very slowly, emerging from the last Recession.

real median household income If we find more jobs transferred from, say, smaller local firms to larger national ones, or more jobs are being created in sectors like food and beverage service with notoriously low wages, then we might expect to find household incurring debts to maintain a middle income life style.

Consumer indebtedness, which was down to 4.88% of disposable income in the fourth quarter of 2012, is now back up to 5.30%. [Fed]  There are a couple of ways to see this, first as an indication that people are feeling better about assuming credit card or personal debt because their incomes are more stable, or secondly that while they’re feeling a bit better, the credit card has become a way to keep afloat.  However, those debts are the basis for altogether too much of what constitutes Wall Street wealth accumulation.

Household debt Whatever amounts of these debts are securitized means that they’ve gone into the Wall Street Casino to be used as the basis for hybrid financial products.  So, what’s been happening to the securitization of auto loans?  It’s “coming back strong” but not at “pre-crisis levels.” Translation: It’s not a bubble. [FRB ATL]  It’s lovely to know the Federal Reserve doesn’t consider the securitization of auto loans at the Bubble Level, but it’s also a bit worrisome to note that what is gained from that securitization isn’t trickling down anywhere near the automobile product consumer.

Nor is there much happy news about securitization and the student loan business.  ZeroHedge offers this gloomy prospect:

“So just as we have been warning about for sometime now: an underestimation of the impact of deferral and forbearance and weakness in the job market is likely to trigger defaults on billions in student loans and because these loans comprise the collateral pool backing ABS sold to investors, the ripple effect is magnified and we wonder if the July 2007 moment for the student loan-backed ABS market may come sooner rather than later.”

The ‘wealth’ produced on Wall Street is based on the loan the students took out to pay for educational expenses, securitized, tranched, sliced, diced, and repackaged for the ‘benefit’ of the investors – those who may very well get burned in this round of Securitization Bingo.

Evidently lost on the Sultans of Securitization is the simple fact that an asset based security requires someone to be able to afford the purchase of educational services or automobiles, or the other stuff on the credit card – the original assets.

It’s one thing to announce that “middle class incomes” are back where they were in 1995 – and another thing entirely to notice that the costs of college tuition are up 61% since ‘95; that home prices are up 13%; that the price of gasoline is up 94%; and that Big Mac is up 28%. [moneyCNN] These numbers aren’t the sort to make anyone comfortable who’s taking out the student loan or buying the house. Eventually, even Wall Street may have to take notice of the fact that no matter how much revenue it can generate in terms of ABS and the hybrids related thereto, if American consumers can’t generate sales – and jobs – then investors are caught trying to ride the bubbles.  Bubbles always pop, that’s why they’re bubbles.

The ‘wealth’ from the sales, and hedges, and bets, on asset based securities, again, trickles down nowhere near the average home owner or car buyer.  However, no one is arguing that ABSs don’t have value.  They are a way to spread the risk around, and that’s positive.  They are negative when we see them mask intrinsic cracks in American capitalism, and negative when we see that the revenue generated never quite manages to trickle back down to the local economies perhaps in the form  of better roads, better schools, better parks, better libraries, and better public services like broadband.

Candidates Clinton and Sanders aren’t “bashing Wall Street,” they are simply trying to point out that the lurch from one bubble to the next isn’t a productive way to run an economy, and lunging from one volatile market to the next isn’t the way to insure that the capacity of the average consumer to purchase the assets on which the securities are based remains steady and profitable for everyone.  If Wall Street can’t divest itself of its 35 Year Investment in imaginary economics, and can’t restrain itself from short term financialist thinking, then someone has to be the adult in the room.  The adult is called reasonable regulation, and that’s all they are asking.

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