ESSAY- Sham recovery: Why the economy's not getting any better

Are we finally in a recovery? Who's "we," kemosabe? Big global companies, Wall Street, and high-income Americans who hold their savings in financial instruments are clearly doing better. As to the rest of us– small businesses along Main Streets, and middle and lower-income Americans– forget it.

Business cheerleaders naturally want to emphasize the positive. They assume the economy runs on optimism and that if average consumers think the economy is getting better, they'll empty their wallets more readily and– presto!– the economy will get better. The cheerleaders fail to understand that regardless of how people feel, they won't spend if they don't have the money.

The US economy grew at a 5.9 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2009. That sounds good until you realize GDP figures are badly distorted by structural changes in the economy. For example, part of the increase is due to rising health care costs. When WellPoint ratchets up premiums, that enlarges the GDP. But you'd have to be out of your mind to consider this evidence of a recovery.

Part of the perceived growth in GDP is due to rising government expenditures. But this is smoke and mirrors. The stimulus is reaching its peak and will be smaller in months to come. And a bigger federal debt eventually has to be repaid.

So when you hear some economists say the current recovery is following the traditional path, don't believe a word. The path itself is being used to construct the GDP data.

Look more closely and the only ones doing better are the people and private-sector institutions at the top. Many of America's biggest companies are sitting on huge amounts of cash right now, but that says nothing about the health of the U.S. economy. Companies in the Standard&Poor 500 stock index had sales of $2.18 trillion in the fourth quarter, up from $2.02 trillion last year, and their earnings tripled. Why? Mainly because they're global, and selling into fast-growing markets in places like India, China, and Brazil.

America's biggest companies are also showing fat profits and productivity gains because they continue to slash payrolls and cut expenditures. Alcoa, for example, had $1.5 billion in cash at the end of last year, double what it had on hand at the end of 2008. Sounds terrific until you realize how it did it. By cutting 28,000 jobs– 32 percent of workforce– and slashed capital expenditures 43 percent.

Firms in S&P 500 are now holding a whopping $932 billion in cash and short-term investments. And they can borrow money cheaply. Corporate bond sales are brisk. So far in 2010, big U.S. corporations have issued $195.2 billion of debt, excluding government-guaranteed bonds. Does this spell a recovery? It all depends on what the big companies are doing with all this cash. In fact, they're doing two things that don't help at all.

First, they're buying other companies. (Walgreen spent $618 million in Feb. for another New York drugstore chain Duane Reade; Bank of New York Mellon, $2.3 billion for PNC Financial Services; Monster, $225 million for jobs.com; Diamond Foods, $615 million for Kettle Foods.) This buying doesn't create new jobs. One of the first things companies do when they buy other companies is fire lots of people who are considered "redundant." That's where the so-called merger efficiencies and synergies come from, after all.

The second thing big companies are doing with all their cash is buying back their own stock, in order to boost their share prices. There were 62 such share buy-backs in February, valued at $40.1 billion. We're witnessing the biggest share buyback spree since Sept 2008. The major beneficiaries are current shareholders, including top executives, whose pay is linked to share prices. The buy-backs do absolutely nothing for most Americans.

(None of this, by the way, is stopping supply-side fanatics from arguing government needs to cut taxes on big corporations in order to spur the recovery. Their argument is absurd on its face. Big companies don't know what to do with all their cash they have as it is. They aren't investing it in new plant and equipment and new jobs. So why should the government cut their taxes and enlarge their cash hoards even more?)

The picture on Main Street is quite the opposite. Small businesses aren't selling much because they have to rely on American– rather than foreign– consumers, and Americans still aren't buying much.

Small businesses are also finding it difficult to get credit. In the credit survey conducted in February by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, only 34 percent of small businesses reported normal and adequate access to credit. Not incidentally, the NFIB's "Small Business Optimism Index" fell 1.3 points last month, just about where it's been since April.

That's a problem for most Americans. Small businesses are where the jobs are. In fact, small businesses are responsible for almost all job growth in a typical recovery. So if small businesses are hurting, we're not going to see much job growth any time soon.

The Federal Reserve just reported that American consumers are shedding their debts like mad. Total US household debt, including mortgages and credit card balances, fell 1.7 percent last year– the first drop since the government began recording consumer debt in 1945. Much of the debt-shedding has been through default– consumers simply not repaying and walking away from homes and big-ticket purchases.

This is hardly good news. But here's the Wall Street Journal's take on it: "the defaults are leaving many people with more cash to spend and save, jump-starting the financial rehabilitation" of the economy.

Baloney. As of end of 2009, debt averaged $43,874 per American, or about 122 percent of annual disposable income. Most economic analysts think a sustainable debt load is around 100 percent of disposable income– assuming a normal level of employment and normal access to credit. But unemployment is still sky-high and it's becoming harder for most people to get new mortgages and credit cards. And with housing prices still in the doldrums, they can't refinance their homes or take out new loans on them. The days of homes as ATMs are over.

Some cheerleaders say rising stock prices make consumers feel wealthier and therefore readier to spend. But to the extent most Americans have any assets at all, their net worth is mostly in their homes, and those homes are still worth less than they were in 2007. The "wealth effect" is relevant mainly to the richest 10 percent of Americans, most of whose net worth is in stocks and bonds. The top 10 percent accounted for about half of total national income in 2007. But they were only about 40 percent of total spending, and a sustainable recovery can't be based on the top ten percent.

Add to all this the joblessness or fear of it that continues to haunt a large portion of the American population. Add in the trauma of what most of us have been through over the past year and a half. Consider also the extra need to save as tens of millions of boomers see retirement on the horizon. Bottom line: Thrifty consumers are doing the right and sensible thing by holding back from the malls. They saved a little over 4 percent of their disposable income in fourth quarter of 2009. In the months or years ahead they may save more.

Right and sensible for each household but a disaster for the economy as a whole. American consumers accounted for 70 percent of the total demand for goods and services in the American economy before the Great Recession, and a sizable chunk of world demand.

So what happens when the stimulus is over and the Fed begins to tighten again? Where will demand come from to get Main Street back, create jobs, raise middle class wages? Not from big businesses. Certainly not from Wall Street. Not from exports. Not from government.

So, where? That question is the big unknown hanging over the U.S. economy. Until there's an answer, an economic "recovery" for anyone other than big corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy is a mirage.

~

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Supercapitalism. This essay first appeared on his blog and is distributed through Featurewell.

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1 comment

Wow! I certainly would agree with most of mr Reich's assertions. I do not agree that all is lost. Not shopping at the mall is not the end of the american economy, it is just the beginning of a new economy, or better stated, a new mind-set.
By saving more, americans can once again be strong financially. Yes many are out of work and you cant save if you have no income, but you can still think!!
Hard times have come to this country before, it seems only the WW2 crowd remembers them. However there is a demographic that exists today that knows what to do in hard times and that would be the recent immigrants from poor nations. Some take advantage of government handouts, others work hard and save, save, save.
When the berlin wall fell, I was a defense contractor with General Electric, I lost my job within a year of that event. My home lost a third of it's value.
I moved to minneapolis and unloaded trucks for UPS, my wife worked at a craft store, we had one car. I worked several low paying jobs and worked night shift mostly so that I could watch our daughter and not have the added burden of daycare. We used our savings to pay off our debt and put a downpayment on a very small house. Eventually we both got better jobs and saved, saved, saved. No major vacations, clothes lasted longer, not much going out to eat, walking or biking instead of driving if possible, leftovers for dinner, get a manual and fix it yourself, take advantage of education opportunities, the list is endless.
When the housing market got better, our small house doubled in value, we sold it and made $70,000. We didnt throw the money away on toys, we put it into a small modular home. we now live in wisconsin.
Currently I work as a mechanic in an onion ring factory and my wife works at a small defense firm. These jobs are not pretty but they pay the bills.
When the whole economy crashed we had no debt other than the house so we were able to refinance to an even lower payment and afford to get our daughter a new car. Our daughter was accepted to the university of wisconsin but she goes to a small state technical college because it is much less expensive.
Most of our countries problems stem from the citizens of this country looking to others to solve the problems they have.
My father was an accountant by trade, and he taught me some important life skills, never spend more than you earn,and I would add to that, everything you need to know about personal finance you learned in 7th grade math.
Think people, just because it's shiny and your neighbor has one does not mean you need one too!