The Progressive Ensign

insights and analytics to build an economy that works for all

Category: Debt

Workers Facing High Prices, Stagnant Wages Are Taking On Debt

 

Image: guardiandebtrelief.com

Worker pay continues to stagnant. Yet, companies are raising prices.  The price increases are due to tariff based supplier cost increases and government tax credits juicing the economy.  The Federal Reserve survey for July in the Philadelphia area showed that manufacturers plan on raising prices by 3 % versus 2 % last year.

Source: HIS Markit, Bloomberg – 8/28/18

How did companies get this pricing power?  Corporations have received a $1 trillion tax cut,  reduced regulations by the Trump administration, less oversight by the EPA, and less scrutiny on mergers.  Companies are at the zenith of their power allowing them to raise prices, keep wages low – below inflation, while increasing profits and executive compensation.

Source Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bloomberg – 8/24/18

Worker economic power continues to wane, as real wages actually turned negative this past month. Worker share of income as a percentage of non-farm business income is at a 70-year low even in a strong economy.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 8/27/18

How are consumers handling the budget shortfall?  By borrowing, the debt as a percentage of income of the bottom 80 %  is 4 times the debt of the top 20 %.

Most of this debt is in the form of credit card, auto loans and home equity lines of credit.  Home owners have done a better job keeping their first mortgages in line with incomes this year versus the housing bubble of 2008.

Next Steps:

Caught between high prices and flat real wages, consumers are filling the budget gap by piling on debt. Companies are getting even richer from both sides of making a profit – increasing income by raising prices and reduced costs by keeping worker wages low.

Why is this vise tightening on worker budgets?  Corporations are accumulating power every day at an ever increasing rate; buying other companies, issuing stock backs to hype stock price, increasing lobbying budgets to get the federal government to make rules that tip their way, consolidating supply channels, distributing manufacturing world-wide and automating every job they can conceive be done by a robot.  Prices are rising due to tariffs in many industries, the wide spread use of tariffs on some consumer goods, contagion of one product category to another (tit for tat) and shrinking channels of distribution reducing price competition.

Meantime, workers continue to lose power at even faster rate than corporations gain power.  Wages have been stagnant for 20 years for the bottom 80 % in income.  We have outlined in previous posts why wages have actually declined – rise of corporate power, fewer unions, automation, mergers in the same industry reduce the overall number of jobs, increased availability of candidates over the Internet, outsourcing, and the gig economy.  Workers are getting some relief in the gig economy with lawsuits to recognize Uber drivers as employees, but it is a tough long slog through the courts.  Overall, most court decisions are favoring companies in reducing union power, allowing companies to give millions to campaigns unchecked (Citizens United case) and overtime pay.

Eventually prices will rise too high for declining incomes causing consumer spending to fall. Consumer spending has been falling this year, with the most recent decline announced today, as a revised downward revision to 3.8 % in 2nd quarter.

Sources: BEA, Factset – 6/1/18

Remember, corporate executives are compensated handsomely for what?  Making more profit by increasing income and reducing costs.  Workers, after all the PR from executives are viewed as a cost when managers get into salary and compensation review meetings. Workers are being squeezed between low wages and increasing prices nationally to feed the ever increasing profit making systems of corporations. Until, we as a society start to see that workers need to be an equal partner in corporate management, sharing in profits and benefits things will not change.  Without workers receiving a fair share of the economic pie, the common good will suffer and will lead to civil unrest and a contracting economy when consumer spending evaporates. The economic reality is that the U.S. economy is not working for the bottom 80 % and until it does we are faced with major disruptions in our economic life.

IRS Takes Care of Wealthy in Pass-Through Tax Policy

(Editor Note: Insight Bytes focus on key economic issues and solutions for all of us, on Thursdays we spotlight in more depth Solutions to issues we have identified. Fridays we focus on how to build the Common Good. Please right click on images to see them larger in a separate tab.)

Photo: calwatchdog.com

The IRS was tasked after passage of the Tax Bill last winter with defining which businesses and owners would qualify for a special 20 % deduction on pass through income.  Interpretations of the pass through 20 % deductions where announced yesterday.  As maybe expected the law favors the rich, and even gives the Trump Organization new benefits which the president can take advantage of as he still holds title to his businesses and properties while in office.

Half of all U.S. businesses use pass-through income structures with 70 % of the income flowing through to the top 1 % in wealth.

Sources: Joint Committee on Taxation, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – 5/10/18

The tax bill provision for pass through deductions builds on a tax law that is already biased toward the wealthy who own businesses structured to maximize tax benefits. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPC) notes due to a byzantine design opportunities for gaming are rampant, “ it could wind up being even more expensive and delivering larger tax cuts to high-income filers than current estimates show because it creates a significant gaming opportunity:  high-income individuals may now be able to secure very large tax savings by converting their labor income into pass-through income to take advantage of the new deduction.”

The CBPC estimates that over $50 billion will be lost in tax revenue each year for the nine years the law is in effect for a total of $450 billion of the $1.5 trillion deficit from the bill. When the law was written arbitrary winners and losers were chosen for example excluding architects and engineers.  New York University law professor David Kamin observed in recent congressional testimony, “This pass-through deduction represents the very worst kind of tax policy, picking winners and losers haphazardly in a complex tax provision, and then generating significant incentives for people to rearrange their businesses to try to get on the right side of the line.”

Next Steps

We have consistently noted that the Tax Bill of 2017 favoring the rich with 80 % of the tax benefits will torch taxpayers to the tune of $1.5 trillion deficit to be financed by bonds. This abusive blatant giveaway to the rich is a disaster both in terms of income equality and economics.  Our generation and many generations to come will be paying off bond interest instead of investing funds in education, infrastructure projects, job training, Heartland initiatives, medical care and apprenticeship programs.  The bill needs to be repealed, applying taxes to corporations and the wealthy to invest in programs that benefit the 80 % not the top 1 % in income.

Do We Need A $100 billion Tax Cut for the 1 % ? No.

Image: post.gazette.com

That’s right, the GOP Administration is working on jamming through before the next Congress is seated in January a capital gains tax cut of which almost 90 % of the benefits would go to the top 1 % in income.  Remember it is this same 1 % who received 80 % of the benefits in the Tax Cut bill Congress passed last winter.  We now have a deficit over the next 10 years added by that Tax Cut bill of $1.5 trillion. The federal government faces the largest deficit since the 2008 Great Recession and will be issuing nearly $800 billion in bond financing to make up the difference in the 2nd half of this year.

The following analysis by the Wharton School of Business shows that indexing capital gains to inflation would provide a windfall to the top 1 %:

Sources: Wharton School of Business, The Washington Post – 7/31/18

The Administration knows that it will be difficult to pass another tax cut for the rich through the Senate where 60 votes are needed.  So, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin noted at a Latin American conference last week,  “we are studying that (inflation indexing capital gains) internally, and we are also studying the economic costs and the impact on growth.” Many experts on tax law find going around Congress to be illegal.  The Bush administration in 1992 reviewed the legality of the Treasury department unilaterally making the inflation indexing change and found the department was not authorized to make such a major change in tax law.

Next Steps

We have the lowest level of corporate tax receipts in 75 years, and the tax level on the top 1 % is the lowest in history.  We don’t need to be giving the wealthy another tax cut, we know that trickle-down economics never worked.

Sources: World Inequality Database, The Washington Post – 7/31/18

What has really happened since the Reagan years is that tax policy, deductions, asset inflation, executive stock compensation deductions and other financial gimmicks has amounted to a ‘tsunami up’ phenomenon. Actually, our country has the highest level of concentration of wealth in the top 1 % since 1929. Remember from your history books, what happened after 1929 and the Smoot – Hawley trade wars? The Great Depression.

The real priority for our federal government is to Make America a Democracy Again (our post on the political power of the 1%), focusing on how to create basic economic opportunities for all; access to high quality healthcare, reducing student debt, investing in higher education and apprenticeship programs, welcoming immigrants to build our labor force, and investing in our Heartland to bring rural regions of the country into the economic mainstream.

Make America A Democracy Again

 

Image: civicsacademy.co.za

Memo

To: Oli Garchy, CEO, The Elite

Subject: Meeting – Make America a Democracy Again

Time: Lunch

Place: The Lawn in Front of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC (It helps to have Honest Abe watching over the mixed group)

Date: Soon…before it’s too late.

Oli,

Ok, we recognize you and your team since Ronald Reagan have built an Oligarchy that stands out (not outstanding for the 90 %) as a model for the history books, based on government statistics:

1. President is a billionaire (first one) – and holds title to all his properties while in office, making money while in office (first time)
2. Cabinet of largest number of billionaires in history of U.S.
3. Corporate tax rate lowest in 50 years
4. Corporations have the most cash ever sitting in banks and offshore shelters at over $1 trillion
5. Top 1 % taxes are the lowest in 50 years
6. Top 1 % received 90 % of income gained since the Great Recession
7. The 80 % working class real wages have declined in the last 30 years – while CEO pay is 300 times the average worker’s
8. Home ownership is at lowest level in 40 yrs – renting at the highest level in 15 yrs (you’ll own more residential real estate than ever)
9. Student debt highest ever at $1.5 trillion – because:
10. Spending by state and federal government on public education secondary thru higher education is the lowest ever as per cent of GDP
12. Healthcare services costs more per person in US than anywhere in the world with life expectancy lowest of all developed countries – due to all the built in middle profit layers of insurance, drug price gauging and stock buybacks                              13. Stock buy backs were at the highest level ever last quarter $431 billion, not one dime to employees or workers directly in wage increases
14. Last year had the highest average global temperature, yet the administration wants to end car emissions standards by California, drill for more oil on the coasts – fossil fuel executives are getting what they want and more                                           15. Tax receipts from U.S. corporations hit a 75 year low                                      16. The Top 1 % have 40 % of all U.S. wealth, the highest concentration since 1929

You’ve wrapped Congress around your little finger with the Tax Cut bill where 70 % of the tax cut proceeds went to executive salaries, stock buybacks, and dividends, very little into research and development, increasing productivity or job training.  You promised to raise wages and very few companies did.

The American people care more about the environment and its stewardship then you’re team, 60 % in a recent Pew Research poll say that preserving the environment is more important, even if there is an economic cost.  Oli, think about it, your profits won’t last long if your customers are unhealthy or dying due to pollution of the water, air or land.

Professors Gilens and Page at Princeton and Northwestern reviewed opinion polls versus legislation passed over the past 30 years and found of 1779 laws passed 90 % did not support popular opinion, seems you own Congress.

Your 30 year old oligarchy has come at great cost, look at the debt increased by a magnitude from the Tax Cut you wanted and the public did not:

Sources: The Congressional Budget Office, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 7/23/18

You’ve just mortgaged your children and our children’s future for good jobs, owning a home and good health care just to give you and your friends a huge tax cut.  You and your team have the lowest corporate tax cut on record, but at great cost!

Oli, here is the issue for your team; without a thriving Working Class the value of your assets will go down.  Consumer spending will spiral down unless the Working Class get a fair piece of the economic pie.  When consumer spending goes down, your businesses begin losing money, their value drops and if the spiral keeps going like it did after 1929, you could lose everything.

The way to build a Working Class that you need is via a democracy – remember that from your textbooks.  It looks like this: a government ‘by the people, for the people and of the people’ – Lincoln had it right.

Think about it Oli, meet with us before it is too late.   In the future, there maybe hostility with the wealthy elite, but there is still time.

Next steps:

How about lunch?  How about our people meeting with your people? Our folks; Senators – Warren, Sanders, Booker and Harris, Representative Pramila Jayapal, Nick Hanauer, and Robert Reich.

Let me know who on your team you would like to invite, maybe the Koch Brothers, The Devos – as couple, Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, and five more would be a good size group.

Our luncheon wrap up takes place in the Jefferson Memorial where on the south east portico Jefferson observed we must make progress together:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.”

Please read our posts on the Common Good in a Democracy as a refresher on what it is and how we all need to build it again. Frankly, Oli, the Common Good seems lost right now, yet it provides the beacon to keep the ship of state on course for all the people. We need to work together to build the Common Good. Let’s – Make America A Democracy Again.

Workers Struggling Under Credit Card Debt

Photo: finder.com.au

While consumers did pay down their credit card debt by $40 billion during the first quarter of 2018, they still owe a giant $1.021 trillion in revolving debt.  Credit card debt is at the second highest level since 2008, during the Great Recession.  Consumers piled on another $91.6 billion by the end of 2017, at a run rate of 104 % of the average over the past 10 years.

Sources: Marketwatch, WalletHub – 6/13/18

Adding to consumer woes are interest rates that are rising, adding to the servicing costs of credit card, auto loan, and student loan debts. Below the chart shows debt servicing costs as a percentage of disposable income, while mortgage debt servicing is declining consumer servicing costs are rising.

Sources: Federal Reserve, National Bureau of Economic Research, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 6/13/18

Finally, non-supervisory worker’s wages are stuck at 2.5% and when inflation is taken into account are largely flat. As consumers continue to try and maintain their standard of living, they are taking on more revolving debt which is costing more for them to pay. This financial squeeze is sustainable as long as jobs are abundant as they seem to be now, but if the economy turns down and layoffs happen it will be hard times for workers.  A survey published today in the Wall Street Journal blog – The Daily Shot showed executives plan layoffs as the first approach to deal with tightened financial conditions and slow sales.

 Next Steps:

 Workers need to receive a living wage that is not stagnant as wages have been for the past 10 years since the recession. Over 14 % of all workers have not received a raise in the last year versus 11% prior to the recession. Stock buy backs need to end and those funds invested in raising worker wages, increasing productivity and providing job training and development.  Corporations stash over 40 % of their profits in overseas tax sheltered accounts – all those funds need to come back to the US with companies paying their fair share of taxes. Corporations are the beneficiaries of job training and education, and should pick up more responsibility in terms of taxes for apprenticeship programs on par with those in Germany to provide US workers with the advanced skills needed to obtain a good paying job and create a dual track besides college. Today, there are more job openings than candidates available to fill those jobs, we need to invest developing worker’s job skills to close the gap.

Consumers Squeezed Between Debt and Stagnant Wages

 

Image: americanprogress.org

The Federal Reserve just reported that consumer debt related to auto and student loans are at the highest level they have ever been since 1970 (2nd chart).  As we have noted wages have stagnated since the Great Recession with 90 % of the income gains going to the top 10 % in income.  The middle class has been left out of the mainstream of the economic recovery over the past 10 years.

Sources: The Federal Reserve Bank – St. Louis, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 5/8/18

While revolving debt from credit cards has fallen (top chart) since the recession, non revolving debt for autos and student loans has soared.   Consumers are caught in a squeeze between debt and flat wages.  The Commerce Department reported on 1st Quarter GDP noted that consumer spending had decelerated during the quarter.  Sentiment surveys have also shown a reduction in buying plans due to trade issues and any benefit from the tax cuts being lost due to rising prices from tariffs.  Banks have posted 7 straight months of an increasing percentage of charge offs on bad loans where consumers are not making payments on non-mortgage debt.

As interest rates go up, payments grow larger per month, with the added tightening of increased prices.  The middle class is caught trying to maintain their standard of living by borrowing money to mitigate flat wages.

Next Steps –

There are two sides to the squeeze – increasing wages and reducing loan payment size and principal.

We have endorsed Sen. Cory Booker’s bill called the Worker Dividend Act to share billions of dollars in stock buyback dollars 50/50 with employees.  We see a need for incentives for employers to share management extreme wealth now at 300 times average worker salary with the line staff.  Or if they can’t do it with incentives we like the City of Portland’s plan to require corporations share their funding above the 150 times level with employees. In our blog about why Wages Are Stuck we outline a series of steps including: placing workers on Boards, ending outsourcing overseas, end H1-B low wage visas, allow repatriated funds be brought back to the US only for wages, productivity or training investments, end stock buybacks and raise employee wages with the funds, breakup anti-competitive oligarchies of huge corporations to create more competition and jobs, balance the recruiting and hiring process for candidates, and offer incentives for employee training and development.

On the loan side, we recommend that student loan rates be brought back to reasonably fair rates as a percentage of the Fed Funds rate, and offer a series of forgiveness programs for universal service, community teaching and caregiving.  For auto loans, we request that the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau evaluate major bank auto loans to ensure they are fair and do not have hidden fees or unusual interest rate riders.

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