The Progressive Ensign

insights and analytics to build an economy that works for all

Category: Low Income Finance

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.

Washington AG Increases Job Mobility for Fast Food Workers

 

Photo: blogs.reuters.com

Washington Attorney General, Bob Ferguson negotiated with seven major fast food franchises including; McDonalds, Arby’s, Carl’s Jr., and Jimmy Johns to delete franchise agreements with parent companies which include a no poach clause.   The no poach clause provided a way for individual franchisee’s to keep managers from other same brand franchisees from hiring their workers.  Two Princeton professors, Krueger and Ashenfelter published a study last year that estimated that no poach clauses affected about 70,000 individual restaurants in the U.S. or about 25 % of all fast food outlets.  The professors noted that the clauses were primarily to keep turnover down, limit competition and job mobility with other same brand franchises.  As a result workers had limited options to negotiate higher wages, work schedules or conditions.

Turnover in the fast food industry ranges from 60 – 70% in up-scale dining restaurants to over 120 % in fast food franchises. Franchisees are faced with constant pressure to raise wages in a low wage industry but face tight profit margins of 3 %:

Source: The Heritage Foundation – 9/4/14

With only 3 % margin to work with it is difficult for a franchise owner to raise wages.  Workers also mention in surveys the need to have more scheduled hours with more notice on the hours they work. With the no poach clauses gone from contracts workers can move to a same brand restaurant and negotiate for better hours and schedules.

We are pleased to see Attorney General Ferguson successfully negotiate with major fast food chains to delete the no poach clause to give workers more negotiating power and flexibility in their job situations.  It seems to us that major chains should have figured out that at least keeping the worker in the same chain was a plus, and the deleting the clause may force owners to treat workers better in order to reduce turnover.  Better managed franchises would rise to the top and have lower turnover rates.  Now on to raising low wages, increasing wages to a livable level is a complex issue that will require all involved; the owners, corporate franchise executives and workers to come up with a plan that will give workers the wages they deserve.

The Elite Makes U.S. A Land of Renters

(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: marketplace.org

Household formations have been trending down over the past 30 years from its peak reached after a continual increase since 1955.  More than a quarter of possible home buyers are unemployed, underemployed, saddled with student debt or living at home with their parents making home buying a challenge. The other possible household formation group is making such low income they are forced into renting as the only budgetary alternative.

Source: Real Investment Advice – 7/13/18

The housing market has shifted drastically toward high end homes for the wealthy, not first time buyers, and multi-unit rental units for investment.  As investors look outside the stock market for high returns rental units have been an excellent income stream with income streams totaling $800 billion per year.

So, while wages for the 80% in income, non – supervisory workers have been stagnant; profits, stock buybacks, executive salaries and other financial gimmicks have provided the top 10 % with 90 % of national income since 2008.  In effect, we have become a nation of renters due to two factors: wages being held down, and inflated assets benefiting the rich.

Source: Real Investment Advice – 7/13/18

Corporate executives do not make their stock price and profit targets by raising wages resulting in reduced profits.  Wages as a cost cut immediately into profits, which a CEO wants to stay clear of having to explain to the Board or shareholders.  Does it really make sense that workers are not getting wage increases in a job market with the lowest unemployment rate in 10 years? Until workers get enough countervailing power in wage negotiations worker wages are likely to stay stagnant. No, executives are allocating profits, offshore and tax cut funds to benefit themselves and shareholders while workers are left out of the economic feast.

Next steps:

We have outlined multiple reasons for lack of wage increases in earlier posts, the bottom line is executives don’t want to give raises beyond inflation.  Proposals like Senator Cory Booker’s Worker’s Dividend Act to share stock buyback dollars with workers is a good start, yet the sustainable solution lies in corporate governance, where activities shareholders required management to give workers their fair share of profits; for example if executives receive a 5 % cut of the profits workers should receive the same 5 % as well.

To give first time home buyers a boost, we need to reduce student loan debt by re financing their rates to the rates that the Federal Reserve offers bank.  After all we are ‘banking in the future’ of our young people.  Where possible student debt could be forgiven for domestic service corps work or working with corporations who hire graduates to reduce their loans as part of the offer package.  Government mortgage  agencies need to support first time buyers with reduced down payment requirements and other incentives.  To incentivize home builders set asides of homes for first time buyers need to be established to create inventory from which a first time buyer can select their home.

Increasing household formations should be a top priority for policy makers and the wealthy alike.  When household formations are moving ahead, furniture, appliances, home improvement hardware, and thousands of product and services are purchased. Plus, when people own a home they have a piece in the future of their neighborhood, schools and community which will increase property values for all.

15 Million Retiring Americans Face A Declining Standard of Living

Photo: pbs.org

The grand plan by financial services companies thirty years ago was to have Baby Boomers invest in 401k matching plans offered by their employer to build a secure retirement nest egg.  The 401k plan funds would be invested in the stock market. Companies would eliminate their defined benefit pension plans thereby reducing their retiree costs and transfer the savings responsibility onto the worker. The reality is that worker saving just never happened.  Since 1970, 90 % of pensions have been replaced by 401k or IRA plans. Unfortunately, many Americans raided these plans to pay for living expenses during the Great Recession

A Wall Street Journal analysis showed that 40 % of all households headed by people aged 59 -70 lack sufficient financial resources to maintain their standard of living during retirement. The situation is due in part to lack of saving in 401k plans and general savings.

Sources: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, The Wall Street Journal – 6/22/18

Adding to the savings challenge, over the past 10 years incomes have stagnated making it extremely difficult for workers to put away more money into their 401k or savings plans.

Sources: Urban Institute analysis of Census Bureau data, The Wall Street Journal – 6/22/18

Consumer debt has soared for auto and student loans, further squeezing their ability to save. The combination of being left on their own to manage their retirement savings, limited matching from corporations not matching pension income streams and debt means that households are not saving enough to maintain their standard of living.

Sources: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, The Wall Street Journal – 6/22/18

The situation defaults to retirees relying on government sources completely for retirement income, working longer than they had planned or gaining assistance from children.  While, funding help from children may work for temporary bridge loans, ongoing assistance will hurt their children’s ability to save as well, causing a snowballing effect on future saving.

Next Steps:

 From our previous analysis on the retirement crisis:

 Our politicians have designed a failure prone retirement system allowing corporations off the hook providing full defined benefit pension programs with professional management. Instead, 401k employee and employer match defined contribution programs were created where the individual is responsible for investing retirement funds safely. The present retirement program is a patchwork of 401ks, IRAs, Roth IRAs and SEP programs for small business. “

We continue to see many retirees at or below the poverty level:

“Today, Social Security only provides a $12,000 a year benefit to the average retiree. Yet, Social Security provides 80 % of the benefits that 40 % all retired people depend on.  A Retirement Savings Account would have as a core principle that the combination of Social Security and worker’s savings provide at least a guaranteed income at the poverty level at age 65.”

Social Security income is particularly difficult for women who made less income working. In 2014 women received on average $4,500 less per year than men in retirement.

Our recommendation is for a single Retirement Savings Account:

“Funds deposited by workers into their Retirement Savings Account would be tax deferred up to $40,000 per year until age 65 similar to a traditional 401k today.  Most workers will see a lower tax rate at retirement as this provision allows for lowering the cost of saving for retirement during high salary tax years. Corporations contributing to a workers’ Retirement Savings Account would be allowed up to a 50 % corporate tax deduction on the matching dollar amount to incent companies to contribute.

There would be no cap on total funds added to the Retirement Account by a worker.  Workers would be allowed to obtain a medical or education loan with their retirement account as collateral but only up to 10 % of the value, which if defaulted and not paid back, would be paid back on a pro-rated basis by a Social Security deduction beginning at age 65.

This Retirement Savings Account proposal meets 12 core principle requirements by the Retirement USA, a Washington D.C retirement advocacy group including: universal coverage, secure retirement, adequate income, shared responsibility, required contributions, pooled assets, payouts at retirement, lifetime payouts, portable benefits, voluntary savings, efficient and transparent administration and effective oversight.”

The crisis for our retirees continues to worsen as Congress does nothing to look at the root causes of the income challenge. We need to develop innovative solutions to make the golden years for our senior citizens secure now.

Wood Project Gives Ex-Offenders New Lives

(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: USA Today

The US Forest Services has kicked off a new program to reclaim urban lumber from abandoned homes by using workers from non-profits who had criminal records.  The innovative program attacks two major problems in urban centers like Baltimore, where 70 % of criminal offenders are returned to prison within 3 years, and there are over 16,000 abandoned structures in the city.  Quite often the abandoned structures are hives of prostitution, drugs and criminal activity.

Morgan Grove, Urban Wood Project leader, says “It’s about air quality and water quality.  It’s also about reducing crime and helping people move forward”.  She continued by declaring, “At its core, it’s really still maintaining the mission of revitalizing that the Forest Service has had since the agency was started in the early 1900s.”

The following table outlines the linked issues of high crime, abandoned buildings, high prison rates and the health of communities:

Sources: Justice Policy Institute, Prison Policy Initiative – Maryland, USA Today – 6/11/18

It is interesting to note the issues Baltimore city officials face in reclaiming their communities to return them to being healthy places to live, environmentally, and to redeem the people in the community to a productive life. We see many of these same issues in the rural regions of our country, that have been left behind by losing jobs to other offshore sites, reduced education opportunities, poor health, drugs and slow Internet infrastructure.

As a country we are missing the opportunity to rebuild lives, the environment and the economy unless we support innovative programs like the Urban Wood Project.

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.

US Washer Manufacturers Raise Prices Due To Tariffs

 

Photo: consumerreports.org

As we predicted one result of import taxes (blog of January 24) the Administration placed on imported washers was that domestic suppliers would raise prices.  Sure enough they have raised prices by 7 – 15 % at a time when consumers are squeezed.  As tariffs were placed on imports we forecasted that domestic manufacturers would take advantage of the higher competition prices and raise their prices as Maytag and Whirlpool have done. Their spokesman say they had to raise prices due to increasing costs of steel and aluminum yet they have raised prices before the steel tariffs went into effect. Once again corporations lobbied government to change the rules in their favor to make more profits while consumers lose.

Other manufacturers for processed goods, food and items with a high shipping cost are raising prices as well.

Sources: Labor Department, The Wall Street Journal – 5/9/18

Of major concern is a combination of higher interest rates, tariffs and competition will cause increases in producer prices that companies will not be able to pass along to consumers. Consumers are too indebted to accept the price increases.  Margins are squeezed, companies lose sales, and a recession begins. Possibly the wealthy can continue to purchase major appliances and processed items but the middle class will not.

Next Steps –

The middle class is caught in the cross fire of competing interests in our economy where the Federal Reserve did keep interest rates artificially low increasing the value of financial assets like stocks, homes and consumers were able take on too much debt. The real assistance would be for the federal government to invest in jobs training, career development, Heartland regional economies, African American and Hispanic community development, welcome immigrants, and end stock buybacks.  Corporations could allocate the $1 trillion in cash they are holding in accounts mostly overseas and invest in their employees – raising their wages, productivity research, decent family leave programs and giving them more voice in corporate decision making.

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.

Gillibrand – Khanna Postal Bank Bill Helps The Underserved

Image: Campaign For Postal Banking

As payday lenders make low cost loans to minorities and the poor at exorbitant interest rates a possible solution is at hand.  Senator Karen Gillibrand – D- NY and Congressman Ro Khanna – D- CA 17 and others have introduced a bill to provide checking accounts, savings accounts and low cost loans to underserved neighborhoods in cities across the US.   Many community banks and large city banks left these neighborhoods in the 1990s when banking deregulation occurred for more profitable locations.  We have seen the present GOP Administration pander to payday lenders by relaxing consumer protection regulations that cap loan rates and require full disclosure for loans with interest rates of 400 % to 1200 %.  Fourteen states of have outlawed payday lenders entirely. There are 37 million the adults that do not have a bank account:

Source: Pew Charitable Trust – 2016

The Postal Banking Bill would offer loans up to $500 at T-bill rates of 1.65 % clearly targeting the payday lender market. The Postal General in a report on the bill viewed that rate as too low and will probably need to be raised to 25 % to handle possible defaults. According to the United Nations Postal Union 87 nations provide checking and savings accounts to over 1 billion customers, though not that many offer low cost loans.

We need to serve those that have been left out of the economic mainstream by offering reasonable low cost financial services with inexpensive loans – not making our low income population a target of loan sharks.

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