Cross-posted from Paul Craig Roberts
Last week's government guesstimate that second quarter 2014 real GDP growth will be 4% seems nonsensical on its face. There is no evidence of increases in real median family incomes or real consumer credit that would lift the economy from a first quarter decline to 4% growth in the second quarter. Middle class store closings (Sears, Macy's, J.C. Penney) have spread into the Dollar stores used by those with lower incomes. Family Dollar, a chain in the process of closing hundreds of stores is being bought by Dollar Tree, the only one of the three Dollar store chains that is not in trouble. Wal-Mart's sales have declined for the past five quarters. Declining sales and retail store closings indicate shrinking consumer purchasing power. Retail facts do not support the claim of a 4% GDP growth rate for the second quarter, and they do not support last Friday's payroll job claim of 26,700 new retail jobs in July.
What about the housing market? Don't the headlines accompanying last Friday's payroll jobs report, such as "Hiring Settles Into Steady Gains," mean more people working and a boost to the economy from a housing recovery? No. What the financial press did not report is that the US is in a structural jobs depression. In the 12-month period from July 2013 through July 2014, 2.3 million Americans of working age were added to the population. Of these 2.3 million only 330 thousand entered the labor force. My interpretation of this is that the job market is so poor that only 14% of the increase in the working age population entered the labor force.
The decline in the labor force participation rate is bad news for the housing market. The US labor force participation rate peaked at 67.3% in 2000 and has been in a sustained downturn ever since. The rate of decline increased in October 2008 with the bank bailout and Quantitative Easing. From October 2008 to the present, 13.2 million Americans were added to the working age population, but only 818 thousand, or 6%, entered the labor force. Despite government and financial press claims, the Federal Reserve's multi-year policy of printing money with which to purchase bonds did not restore the housing or job markets.
What about the stock market? It has been down in recent days but is still high historically. Isn't the stock market evidence of a good economy? Not if stocks are up because corporations are buying back their own stock. Corporations are now the largest buyers of stocks. Recently we learned that from 2006 through 2013 corporations authorized $4.14 trillion in buybacks of their publicly traded stocks. Moreover, it appears that corporations have been borrowing the money from banks with which to buy back their stocks. Last year there were $754.8 billion in authorized stock buybacks and $782.5 billion in corporate borrowing. In the first three months of this year, companies purchased $160 billion of their own stocks.
Borrowing to buy back stock leaves a company with debt but without new investment with which to produce revenues to service the debt. The massive stock buybacks demonstrate that American capitalism is now corrupt. In order to maximize personal short-term financial benefits flowing from bonuses, stock options, and capital gains, CEOs, boards of directors, and shareholders are decapitalizing public companies and loading them up with debt.
Well, isn't the economy being helped by the return of manufacturing to America? Apparently not. Data for 1999-2012 indicate that the offshoring of manufacturing increased by 9%.
One economist, Susan Hester, an economist for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, has decided to turn the loss of manufacturing jobs into a virtue. Her argument is that retail employment dwarfs manufacturing employment and that more American jobs can be created by selling more imports than by encouraging manufacturing in order to provide exports.
According to Ms. Hester's research, the US makes more money from the retail side than from the production side. She concludes that the value added to a product by offshore labor is a small percentage of the value added by "managing offshored production, handling Customs clearances, managing warehouses and distribution, marketing apparel products, and by millions of people in the retail sector stocking shelves and working cash registers."
In other words, the US manufacturing jobs moved offshore are just a throwaway. The money is made in selling the imports.
Ms. Hester neglects to recognize that when offshored production is brought to the US to be marketed, it comes in as imports and results in a larger US trade deficit. Foreigners use dollars paid to them for the products that they make for US firms to purchase ownership of US bonds, stocks, and real assets such as land, buildings, and companies. Consequently, interest, profits, capital gains, and rents associated with the foreign purchases of US assets now flow to foreigners and not to Americans. The current account worsens.
It works like this: The excess of US imports over US exports leaves foreigners with claims on US income and wealth that are settled by foreign purchases of US assets. The income produced by these assets now flows abroad with the consequence that income earned by foreigners on their US investments exceeds the income earned by the US on its foreign investments.
According to Ms. Hester's reasoning, Americans would be better off it they produced nothing that they need and in place of manufacturing relied on the incomes of US fashion designers and pattern makers who specify the offshored production for US markets, on the compliance officers and freight agents, on production planning and expediting clerks, and on longshore workers and railroad employees who deliver the foreign-made goods to US consumer markets.
Ms. Hester believes that the value-added by offshored manufacturing is inconsequential. How then did China get rich from it, becoming the second largest economy and employing 100 million people in manufacturing (compared to America's 12 million), and acquire the largest foreign reserves of any country?
After Ms. Hester answers that question she can explain why US corporations go to the trouble to offshore their manufacturing if the contribution to value-added is so low? The value added is obviously substantial enough for the labor cost savings to pay for transportation costs to the US from Asia, for the cost of set-up and management of foreign based facilities, and for the cost of the adverse publicity from abandoning US communities for Asia and still leave value-added after all costs to enlarge profits and drive up stock prices and executive bonuses.