Whither Generational Theft? A Tale of Two Decouplings: Profits and Pensions, Investment and ProductivityMay 24
By Walter Borden
Does it make sense to tell someone that doesn’t have health insurance to go to the doctor? Does it make sense to expect jobless and underemployed citizens to save more? Many of the most profitable corporations across the US perennially underfund their pensions while simultaneously funding campaigns for privatization of social security paired with cuts to the program.
Yet, these same corporations oppose raising the cap on payroll taxes or asking Wall Street financiers to sacrifice via minimal financial transaction taxes common in the US during many a bull market and still common in the EU and Asia. All of this set against a backdrop of historically high corporate profits, S&P record highs, and stratospheric ratios of CEO pay to that of middle management and wage earners. The term generational theft is popular argot for corporate bureaucrats and their funding recipients in Washington, DC. Many of the CEO’s and hedge fund managers recommend pain of the majority and none for themselves. Yet, US taxpayers currently fund corporations at an historical scale via low interest rate loans and subsidies. This is the real generational theft: draining the the US middle class so financial speculators can ship away jobs, keep cash in tax havens, and speculate on Asian markets.
Gillian Tett writing in the Financial Times makes notes of a statement by a top executive of a consumer goods conglomerate:
We see a pronounced difference between how people are shopping today and before the recession,” the executive explained. “Consumers are living pay cheque by pay cheque, and they tend to spend accordingly. Then you have 50 million people on food stamps and that has cycles too. So for our business it has become critical to understand the cycle –when pay [and benefit] cheques are arriving.
Hence, the mostly austerity driven so-called recovery further reveals another deteriorating economic indicator for the middle class. Compare and contrast this with austerity champion the Walton Family and its Walmart. Without accounting for its massive local and federal tax breaks and subsidies, Walmart receives even more welfare from US taxpayers by paying its workers so little that they cannot afford healthcare and so must utilize social programs funded by their neighbors and fellow Walmart customers. In short, the world’s largest employer, after the US Department of Defense and the Chinese Military, relies on taxpayers rather than participation in the general welfare of the communities in which it operates and generates huge profits for its small group of majority shareholders (5% of of its owners possess 50% of its shares). Is this an example of good corporate citizenship?
Nevertheless, the most economically secure in our society mostly talk of deficits and are enabled by our nation’s highly consolidated media to dominate the public debate thereby granting them disproportionate exposure. Yet, their arguments that austerity and fiscal contraction will resolve the unemployment crisis fail logical and evidentiary tests time and again. Sequestration is projected to shave a point off GDP this year. As GDP shrinks consumers have less money to spend and consequently labor demands falls. Further, low-paying and low-to-no benefit jobs, which are the bulk of jobs now being created in the US, threaten a generation’s retirement security and access healthcare (health services as opposed to health insurance need disintermediation). Furthermore, corporations and the super affluent pay lower taxes than ever. Supporters for this program argue that it frees up capital to be reinvested in the economy. But, this not the pattern of the past 30 years. In the last decade the pace of reinvesting these perquisites into the economy or funding pensions has all but completely lapsed. Rather, these windfalls are shipped to hedge funds and tax havens. Additional study finds deeper problems.
From a recent blog post by James Kwak:
That was my goal in my first law review article, “Improving Retirement Options for Employees”, which recently came out in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law. The general problem is one I’ve touched on several times: many Americans are woefully underprepared for retirement, in part because of a deeply flawed “system” of employment-based retirement plans that shifts risk onto individuals and brings out the worse of everyone’s behavioral irrationalities. The specific problem I address in the article is the fact that most defined-contribution retirement plans (of which the 401(k) is the most prominent example) are stocked with expensive, actively managed mutual funds that, depending on your viewpoint, either (a) logically cannot beat the market on an expected, risk-adjusted basis or (b) overwhelmingly fail to beat the market on a risk-adjusted basis.
Furthermore, how can someone that works full time outside of Wall Street understand the complexity of 21st century markets? For example, this animation shows what happens inside of the one half-second of trading in Johnson and Johnson shares: more than 1,200 orders and 215 actual trades occur again, in a half a second. (The colored boxes in the video represent exchanges, and the dots that go flying represent individual orders.) Such behavior takes place roughly 100,000 times a day according the animation’s creator, Nanex. Many professionals in the industry within the financial industry understand its mushrooming supercomplexity:
Could this meltdown have been avoided? Should rating agencies have spotted it? Well, this is how it would work with the rating agencies when we were building a new CDO. They would tell us their parameters and criteria; if you meet this requirement, you get that rating and so on. And they gave out a free model so we could test our product and tweak our portfolio for the CDO until it fit, I mean get the rating that we wanted. We would do a lot of stress-testing ourselves too, of course we would. We’d pretend the market changed and run the models to see how our products would hold.
But what happened during the financial crisis was like a perfect storm. In our tests we would assume the market moved, say, 10% – while in reality it rarely moved more than 1%. Now the crisis happens and suddenly the market moves 30%. Our models were based on what we saw as normal. Now we saw numbers behave in ways barely conceived possible.
Consequentially, a quartet of corporate sector driven storm clouds hang on the horizon:
- Underfunded pensions from corporations with record amounts of cash and an investment climate skewed towards insiders and Wall Street
- Their ongoing failure to hire new employees and consistent blockage of publicly funded programs to fund infrastructure investment
- A largely fossil fuel derived economy that requires large scale degradation of our present and next generations air and water resources
- Over-priced/under-performing privatized healthcare drives healthcare inflation at unsustainable rates all the while forcing the good neighbors in US society to pick up the tab for the uninsured, many of whom are employed by highly profitable firms
Whats going on?
Why are record profits and CEO pay more and more divergent from the economic well being of the society’s whose labor and resources they use?