Guest Post: Corporate Profits Soaring Thanks To Record Unemployment

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Mark Provost of The Economic Populist

Corporate Profits Soaring Thanks to Record Unemployment

In a January 2009 ABC interview with George
Stephanopoulos, then President-elect Barack Obama said fixing the
economy required shared sacrifice, "Everybody’s going to have to give.
Everybody’s going to have to have some skin in the game." (1)
For the past two years, American workers submitted to the President’s
appeal—taking steep pay cuts despite hectic productivity growth. By
contrast, corporate executives have extracted record profits by
sabotaging the recovery on every front—eliminating employees, repressing
wages, withholding investment, and shirking federal taxes.

The global recession increased unemployment in every country, but the
American experience is unparalleled. According to a July OECD report,
the U.S. accounted for half of all job losses among the 31 richest
countries from 2007 to mid-2010. (2) The rise of U.S. unemployment
greatly exceeded the fall in economic output. Aside from Canada, U.S.
GDP actually declined less than any other rich country, from mid-2008 to
mid 2010. (3)

Washington’s embrace of labor market flexibility ensured companies
encountered little resistance when they launched their brutal recovery
plans. Leading into the recession, the US had the weakest worker
protections against individual and collective dismissals in the world,
according to a 2008 OECD study. (4) Blackrock’s Robert Doll explains,
“When the markets faltered in 2008 and revenue growth stalled, U.S.
companies moved decisively to cut costs—unlike their European and
Japanese counterparts.” (5) The U.S. now has the highest unemployment
rate among the ten major developed countries. (6).

The private sector has not only been the chief source of massive
dislocation in the labor market, but it is also a beneficiary. Over the
past two years, productivity has soared while unit labor costs have
plummeted. By imposing layoffs and wage concessions, U.S. companies are
supplying their own demand for a tractable labor market. Private sector
union membership is the lowest on record. (7) Deutsche Bank Chief
Economist Joseph LaVorgna notes that profits-per-employee are the
highest on record, adding, “I think what investors are missing - and
even the Federal Reserve - is the phenomenal health of the corporate
sector.” (8)

Due to falling tax revenues, state and local government layoffs are
accelerating. By contrast, U.S. companies increased their headcount in
November at the fastest pace in three years, marking the tenth
consecutive month of private sector job creation. The headline numbers
conceal a dismal reality; after a lost decade of employment growth, the
private sector cannot keep pace with new entrants into the workforce.

The few new jobs are unlikely to satisfy Americans who lost careers.
In November, temporary labor represented an astonishing 80% of private
sector job growth. Companies are transforming temporary labor into a
permanent feature of the American workforce. UPI reports, “This year,
26.2 percent of new private sector jobs are temporary, compared to 10.9
percent in the recovery after the 1990s recession and 7.1 percent in
previous recoveries.” (9) The remainder of 2010 private sector job
growth has consisted mainly of low-wage, scant-benefit service sector
jobs, especially bars and restaurants, which added 143,000 jobs, growing
at four times the rate of the rest of the economy. (10)

Aside from job fairs, large corporations have been conspicuously
absent from the tepid jobs recovery. But they are leading the profit
recovery. Part of the reason is the expansion of overseas sales, but
the profit recovery is primarily coming off the backs of American
workers. After decades of globalization, U.S. multinationals still
employ two-thirds of their global workforce from the U.S. (21.1 million
out of 31.2 million). (11) Corporate executives are hammering American
workers precisely because they are so dependent on them.

An annual study by USA Today found that private sector paychecks as a
share of Americans’ total income fell to 41.9 percent earlier this
year, a record low. (12) Conservative analysts seized on the report as
proof of President Obama’s agenda to redistribute wealth from, in their
words, those ‘pulling the cart’ to those ‘simply riding in it’. Their
accusation withstands the evidence—only it’s corporate executives and
wealthy investors enjoying the free ride. Corporate executives have
found a simple formula: the less they contribute to the economy, the
more they keep for themselves and shareholders. The Fed’s Flow of Funds
reveals corporate profits represented a near record 11.2% of national
income in the second quarter. (13)
Non-financial companies have amassed nearly two-trillion in cash,
representing 11% of total assets, a sixty year high. Companies have not
deployed the cash on hiring as weak demand and excess capacity plague
most industries. Companies have found better use for the cash, as
Robert Doll explains, “high cash levels are already generating dividend
increases, share buybacks, capital investments and M&A activity—all
extremely shareholder friendly.” (5)

Companies invested roughly $262 billion in equipment and software
investment in the third quarter. (14) That compares with nearly $80
billion in share buybacks. (15) The paradox of substantial liquid
assets accompanying a shortfall in investment validates Keynes’ idea
that slumps are caused by excess savings. Three decades of lopsided
expansions has hampered demand by clotting the circulation of national
income in corporate balance sheets. An article in the July issue of The
Economist observes: “business investment is as low as it has ever been
as a share of GDP.” (16)

The decades-long shift in the tax burden from corporations to working
Americans has accelerated under President Obama. For the past two
years, executives have reported record profits to their shareholders
partially because they are paying a pittance in federal taxes.
Corporate taxes as a percentage of GDP in 2009 and 2010 are the lowest
on record, just above 1%. (17)

Corporate executives complain that the U.S. has the highest corporate
tax rate in the world, but there’s a considerable difference between
the statutory 35% rate and what companies actually pay (the effective
rate). Here again, large corporations lead the charge in tax arbitrage.
U.S. tax law allows multinationals to indefinitely defer their tax
obligations on foreign earned profits until they ‘repatriate’ (send
back) the profits to the U.S. U.S. corporations have increased their
overseas stash by 70% in four years, now over $1 trillion—largely by
dodging U.S taxes through a practice known as “transfer pricing”.
(18)Transfer pricing allows companies to allocate costs in countries
with high tax rates and book profits in low-tax jurisdictions and tax
havens—regardless of the origin of sale. U.S. companies are using
transfer pricing to avoid U.S. tax obligations to the tune of $60
billion dollars annually, according to a study by Kimberly A. Clausing,
an economics professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. (18)

The corporate cash glut has become a point of recurrent contention
between the Obama administration and corporate executives. In mid
December, a group of 20 corporate executives met with the Obama
administration and pleaded for a tax holiday on the $1 trillion stashed
overseas, claiming the money will spur jobs and investment. In 2004,
corporate executives convinced President Bush and Congress to include a
similar amnesty provision in the American Jobs Creation Act; 842
companies participated in the program, repatriating $312 billion back to
the U.S. at 5.25% rather than 35%. (19) In 2009, the Congressional
Research Service concluded that most of the money went to stock buybacks
and dividends—in direct violation of the Act. (20)

The Obama administration and corporate executives saved American capitalism. The U.S. economy may never recover.

1. ‘This Week’ ABC News with George Stephanopoulos, January 2009.
2. OECD report, U.S. lost most jobs among rich countries. EMMA VANDORE AP Business Writer
3. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Policy Brief 89.
November, 2010. Uri Dadush & Vera Eidelman. Five Surprises of the
Great Recession.
4. OECD Indicators of Employment Protection.,3343,en_2649_37457_42695243_1_1_1_3745...
5. The Wall St. Journal. June 8, 2010. Robert Doll. Opinion. The Bullish Case for U.S. Equities.
6. Bureau of Labor Statistics. International Labor Comparisons. Updated Dec. 2, 2010.
7. Bloomberg Businessweek. January 22, 2010. Holly Rosenkrantz.Union membership in the private sector declines to record low:
8. Joseph Lavorgna quote: CNBC. When will profits translate into jobs?
9. UPI. Temp work becomes a fixture. Dec. 20th, 2010.
10. Restaurant industry’s hiring helping to revive economy. DAYTON, Nov
28, 2010 (Dayton Daily News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via
11. Tax Notes, Martin A. Sullivan. U.S. Multinationals Cut U.S. Jobs While Expanding Abroad.
12. USA Today. May 26, 2010. Private pay shrinks to historic lows as gov't payouts rise.
13. New York Times. Economix blog. Catherine Rampell. Nov. 23, 2010. Visualizing Booming Profits.
14. $262 billion in equipment and software investment, calculated from EconStats.
15. ABC News. Dec. 20, 2010. Mark Jewell. S&P 500 Companies More Than Double Buybacks in 3Q.
16. The Economist. Companies’ cash piles: Show us the Money.
17. Corporate Income Tax as a share of GDP, 1946-2009.
18. Bloomberg. May 13, 2010. U.S. Companies Dodge $60 Billion in Taxes with Global Odyssey.
19. Bloomberg. Jesse Drucker. Dec 29, 2010. Dodging Repatriation Tax Lets U.S. Companies Bring Home Cash
20. Center for Budget priorities. Robert Greenstein and Chye-Ching
Huang. Feb. 2009. Proposed Tax Break For Multinationals Would Be Poor
“Dividend Repatriation Tax Holiday” Failed in 2004, Unlikely to Work Now.

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10kby2k's picture

Yep.  Even Bernank acknowledges policy change is necessary. Great time to be a corporate big wig. Fuck the people! 

Id fight Gandhi's picture

Every company that gave big bonuses or bought back shares could have hired Americans instead of overseas.

Every buy back I cringe as shareholder numbers and EPS are more important than the USA worker.

Fuck indeed

Bearster's picture

Yup, the new marxism, the same as the old marxism.  Apparently, it is the duty of corporations to:

 - maximize expenses

 - maximize tax payments

 - do less with more

 - run at breakeven; avoid profits

 - benefit society, workers, government--everyone but shareholders

snowball777's picture

Is the phrase "enlightened self-preservation" completely lost on you?

Aquiloaster's picture

I often wonder how many people who claim to disdain Marxism have actually ever read anything by Marx or know anything about him, his ideas, or the history of his ideas. I am by NO means advocating Marxism, but from personal experience I know that "Capital" by Marx AND ENGELS is a difficult lengthy read. It talks mostly about concepts such as use-value, exchange-value, labor and the means of production. The authors conclude that industrial capitalism is impoverishing because the worker is aliented from the product in that it is not wholly his AND he does not directly benefit from the sale of his product in the market. In any case, I find it doubtful that most people who claim to understand Marxism actually know anything about it. This doesn't only mean you Bearster--its just a general comment about people tending to speak definitively on that with which they are not familiar.

jeff montanye's picture

ditto keynesianism.  or capitalism in practice (as opposed to theory).

Mach1513's picture

If everyone maximizes, everyone loses in th long run, and almost everyone in the short run.

As to profits, in a true market economy profits approach 0. All real profit is economic rent.




Sean7k's picture

ORI, I would suggest this has nothing to do with corporations per se, but with tax policies that encourage overseas production and and the FED's monetary policies.

The US rewards corporate money laundering.

As for the FED, as long as you keep dumping liquidity in the market and protect these businesses from dealing with malinvestment (especially mark to fantasy), but all malinvestment (GM and Harley Davidson and all banks come to mind), it is impossible to give the clear market based signals that encourage the increases in employment we need. 

We have to put the blame where the blame belongs:The FED and their proxies (government).

rwe2late's picture

  And the Fed and government make policy at the behest of the... ?

(clue for the clueless: NOT the lower classes)

Bearster's picture

Don't the "lower classes" (to use the marxist rhetoric) want handouts in excess of tax revenues?  Handout such as:

 - Social Security

 - Medicare

 - Medicaid

 - SNAP / Section 8 / WIC / all other traditional welfare programs

 - pensions

 - union government jobs

 - free schooling for the kids, with free lunches, after school babysitting, etc.

 - many many more

I think if you looked at the vast, vast array of handouts, giveaways, loot distribution and redistribution, and other ways that government spends beyond its tax revenues, you will find something for everyone: from corporate welfare, to farm welfare, to senior citizen welfare, to child welfare, to middle class welfare, to banker welfare...

People want the Fed because they think the Fed makes it possible to have magic (a free lunch).

Bobbyrib's picture

Being from the state with the highest property taxes in the nation, I can tell you public school education is not free.

Other than that you have some nice generalizations when you use the term "lower classes."


10kby2k's picture

judging by the results of the publuc school education, it should be free

snowball777's picture

I'm sure they'd rather be gainfully employed and paid enough to afford the private equivalents, but maybe you're under the impression they enjoy waiting in long lines for the crappy version they get.

And none of those 'handouts' ever trickle into your mouth?

Never provided a service that you've used in your lifetime?

Never kept people from breaking into your house for something to sell for a profit?

Do tell what 'magic' has allowed you to accomplish this feat...

And no person who has ever taken such a handout has ever been alive later to pay taxes, right?

Or been able to work that extra hour and increase corporate productivity?

Or bought food that would otherwise rot in a ditch?

Do tell.

Sean7k's picture

The FED is a private banking corporation run by international bankers. They make the policy, which was my point. I really didn't think I'd have to spell it out, but there you go.

disabledvet's picture

"rational in the extreme."  To this i would say "Empire, Inc." meet "Empire USA."  The lines are drawn, pick your weapons.

carbonmutant's picture

They know the unemployed can't afford to do anything about it...

SilverRhino's picture

Bullets are cheap.  The unemployed still have too much to lose.  

That second situation will start changing soon enough.


AR15AU's picture

This is what corporations do in a recession. The government gave you false expectations.

gwar5's picture

Put another way, government debt would be going down if we could downsize the public unions.



disabledvet's picture

do you mean the value of the debt or the amount of said debt?  for if you mean the former there may be more to what you say than you realize....

topcallingtroll's picture

You ought to read the Little Hoover report. Gwar is probably speaking the truth on this one.

rwe2late's picture


If the government would just stop paying for anything except what's "owed" the banks,

the debt would be reduced.

Ireland or Iceland?

AldoHux_IV's picture

Another clear and evident effect of having imbalances grow within an economy.  Way to go US.

linrom's picture

This is a very good article that shows just how short-sided US Corporations are: the blueprint from 40 years ago will not work in the future.

topcallingtroll's picture

I think these companies are not short sighted.

They see an expensive labor force in a country with some of the highest marginal corporate tax rates, and a huge and complex regulatory environment with an anti business president.

They are taking the long view by incrementally placing more capital equipment overseas. Capital will go where it is respected and treated well.

disabledvet's picture

but it is treated best here.  why else would foreigners build plant and equipment and employ Americans to make their so called "foreign cars"?  there are more foreign parts in a Ford than in a Toyota.  I guess what I'm trying to say is "quality is a quantity too" and so simply "devolving a business into a profit" is perhaps the most short sighted way of doing business indeed.  i would agree with you "it is Wall Street's job."  Of course "if they were doing their job well why did they need bailout's in the first place"?  And perhaps most importantly for the ZH set--why did the government give them in the first place?  You are rewarding no truer form of incompetence.  Wall Street can't run a bank?  That sounds like a personal problem to me...

topcallingtroll's picture

Nobody should have been bailed out.

Dburn's picture

They are taking the long view by incrementally placing more capital equipment overseas. Capital will go where it is respected and treated well.

Yet emasculating the labor force ultimately will shut down the subsidized pricing schemes they use to sell cheap to foreign markets. If people won't buy Microsoft Office at $400, that makes it difficult to sell it to China for $3.00 along with every other software product they make.

In the course of rising human expectations, labor arbitrage will soon be a game that isn't worth playing. The reality is the maximum effect on net income for outsourcing particular skill sets to lower wage countries is around +20% . But when mixed with the other 90% of corporate costs the net effect is 1-2% in additional pre-tax profits for the most organized and well-managed corporations. That doesn't account for the massive technology transfers to China and India when they take over all of the production functions of a corporation and are soon selling out the back door while setting up factories to produce the same thing yet selling it at 25% of its ASP or lower. The rest of the less well-managed corporations are not saving a dime while still losing proprietary technology, but the street insists on outsourcing so C-Suites do it to see their compensation packages rise hoping that they day when local US markets are no longer available to pay sky-high prices for overpriced products to subsidize their global aspirations (bullshit), they will be long gone as the blame for margin compression falls on someone else.

Invested capital overseas is being totally offset by the free technology transfer to the rest of the world. That's one "risk factor" you don't read much about but a quick trip to Asia will show anyone that is half awake the corporate C-Suite execs are dumber than a box of rocks as they sell their shareholders down the river by the massive investment of time and capital to produce new technology only to show people who will steal it with a blink of the eye, where to source the parts, the manufacturing process and where their markets are.

The first ones to fall for this gambit was the US Car Companies in the late 80s, early 90s who duplicated at great cost much of their manufacturing in China on the promise of access to a market of 1.3 billion people . Apparently unknown to them was the average wage back then was $30 per month even for Doctors. They were so confident that it would take care of all their problems they didn't see the second group of icebergs that hit them in the early 90s. That market has now been made to look more promising with a middle class smaller than ours that makes above $600 and below $1500 a month. Thinking the rest of the company will soon catch up, CEOs are saying "we have to be there" as an excuse if their people find out no real jump in sales ever occurred despite the promises of magnificent increases; "1.3 Billion people x $500 a person equals how much? Yipee we're rich, more stock option awards now". When the massive sales increases didn't materialize, The emphasis on handing the keys to the company's overseas manufacturers/competitors quickly shifted from massive sales increases to massive price decreases on production which the C-Suites of America know is illusory at best. Knowing it's always easier to take one step more into quicksand then go through the pain of extracting oneself from it, globalization soon became as popular as re-engineering did in the early 90s and just as deadly when the labor markets reversed right as they had prematurely ejaculated into the jar of Asset-Lite.

Certainly US Capital is beloved in China and India and everywhere else. It allows them to not only steal technology instead of the uncertainty of reverse engineering and the safer bet of copying, it also must be totally gratifying that American companies pay them to take the technology and ultimately their markets too as the C-Suites and the other Very Serious People scream "Globalization".

The Chinese and other sole source states can read SEC filings too and note that most of the CEOs hold little or any of the stock they quickly sell from option awards. That's why we have become a nation of rip-off artists to our own people. It really doesn't matter who it is either. People might argue over the theory of evolution but Capitalistic Darwinism has been redefined by those who can buy govt protection and those who can't.

People who believe capital is "treated better" in other countries, have no clear idea what they are talking about since the effective corporate tax rate here is around 10% or 25% to 35% of the total taxes paid by labor. Not only that but a brown stained congress hands them the keys to the treasury when they make mistakes. The fact is, they don't need no stinking capital over here.

Yet Not having a healthy work force will no longer allow them to hide the ASPs overseas when they have to compete with their own technology and innovation. Nothing has really changed in the corporate world. There are a few leaders and the rest follow, all focused on who gets what; personally. All other considerations are only viable if it will affect their pay packages negatively on their watch.

So to satisfy the potential critics, they just mention union busting and then everything is just a-ok with anybody with money. Hell all they have to do now is get us used to living 8 to a room with one open toilet, working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week with 8 hours at a highly reduced regular rates and 6 for free to keep the job and 7 days a week too. Hell the Gilded age wasn't too bad for those who were gilded. Child labor is next and once that's down they insure their investors the savings will be massive once more since they know longer have to pay for containerized drop shipping to other countries or here at home while having all the wage abuse freedoms they had overseas.

Capital is treated just fine here. The problem is; they have to get through the big lies they told when they started moving everything overseas en-masse. Yeah, those boys and girls have a plan and we're included too. As long as the Govt gets half our reduced pay to cover any mistakes the employers make as the execs fail upward with a huge boost from their ivy league networks.

Ivy League Capitalism. Where parents insist on the very best for their scumbag kids with little or no work but amazingly high tuition rates.

It always amuses me when I hear outraged people come on this board saying people should be happy with $10.00 an hour or the same as $3.33/hour in 1980 and "get rid of those iPhones and get a fucking job". You can tell right away where their interests lie. Someone must have told them it would be happening faster than this. Why so impatient? They must feel virtually helpless that the banks and other corps might get shorted a few bucks on their multi-trillion dollar wealth transfers. That may be their bonuses they are talking about too.

Never fear, hell is here. It won't freeze over and desperate doctors will harvest organs to keep your asses alive longer to enjoy the fruits of the big lie. Good thing you all are atheists.

A Proud Canadian's picture

A brilliant analysis.  Henry Ford is turning in his least he realized that his workers needed enough pay to purchase his cars.  The current crop are greedy foresight

Slartebartfast's picture

Fuck them.  Markets change.  Without the domestic income to buy from US multinationals, the multinationals will have to become entirely foreign corporations.  Then they will die under the foot of tyrants the world over.  Good riddance to every one of them.  Meanwhile, the US will have to rebuild from scratch and from the ground up.  It's not going to be like the 60's ever again.  The Central Banking and Warfare economy is killing itself off and it is too greedy and stupid to realize it.  We will be poorer than our parents - but perhaps have  a better quality of life in the end.  A new paradigm is on the way.  

OldTrooper's picture

While I do not share your optimism that they will 'die under the foot of tyrants the world over' I do agree that we may very well end up with a better quality of life and that TPTB can go fuck themselves.

Bobbyrib's picture


Multinationals may not "die under the foot of tyrants," but it is going to be quite hilarious when China kicks them to the curb and steals all their technology. All the Boomer executives will then retire rich.

If Americans stick together and do not buy products from Multinationals we will see their power greatly diminished.

For all you lovers of economics (and fucking over the middle class), we could do it to set up an environment for "perfect competition" in the marketplace...

Vampyroteuthis infernalis's picture

This kind of BS can only go so far until the real economy collapses upon itself. No consumers because they are all unemployed. What are the rich going to do then?

linrom's picture

If peak oil and dollar losing its reserve status won't kill multinationals, unskilled US workforce will. There are so many engineers(?) needed to produce apps to run on Facebook that their CEO is so proud of. How about operating equipment and machinery that requires different skill levels?

disabledvet's picture

the rich?  these are "banks."  weren't they "the problem in the first place"?

topcallingtroll's picture

Productivity gains is what will save us.

Instead of artesans in workshops, the productivity of mass production has made almost everything cheap enough for the average individual. Sure a few artesans were unemployed in the process but in aggregate increased productivity was a real benefit to the average person if we compare a late 19th century lifestyle with a late 20thcentury lifestyle.

Creative destruction of.companies and jobs hurt in the short term but will benefit society in the long term. Any time it takes fewer people to make and service widgets we have improved productivity and a net wealthier society in the long run.

To argue otherwise makes you a Luddite.

Psquared's picture

Bullshit. Productivity gains means a company can create the same output with fewer employees.

I guess I am a Luddite.

topcallingtroll's picture

Why dont you read up on how the Luddites smashed the automated looms because they thought textile artesans would be put out of business.

linrom's picture

You make a perfect neoclassical economist argument? Look what all this productivity and labor saving measures produced---a pile of debt that they fail to consider. Nice wealthier society that is bankrupt. No!

topcallingtroll's picture

All the malinvestment and debt were not a product of neoclassical economics but a perversion of it.

Psquared's picture

This is one of the reasons I voted for him. His tune changed almost immediately when he moved into the WH. This is just an opinion, and I may be way off, but when he opened up the book of Presidential secrets he saw something that changed his mind. I don't know if that was a personal check made out to him or if it was a photograph of his original birth certificate, but something happened.

The idea of shared sacrfice does mean that bankers and corporatists put some skin in the game instead of worrying exclusively about the stock price. It ain't happenin and from what I can tell it never will.

Rhodin's picture

Maybe they showed him that a trip to "Dealey Plaza" could be arranged for presidents who don't do their masters bidding.

Bobbyrib's picture

He saw a note that read " are from Chicago."


ewmayer's picture

"labor market flexibility" = First, from a standing position, keeping your legs straight, bend down and touch your toes. Repeat until you can do this comfortably. Now gradually extend the range of your stretching by touching more and more of your hand to the floor: First all 4 fingertips, then the first knuckle of the fingers, then touch the floor with the knuckles while making a fist.

Yes, yes, we know it hurts, but keep working at it, trust us, the "shared sacrifice" will be ever so rewarding in the end.

OK, you can finally touch the entire surface of both palms to the floor? Excellent! Now grab your ankles and say "BOHICA"...

JW n FL's picture

Fantastic Read and Sited to Boot!!!


Love it!!


More PLEASE!!!!

hardcleareye's picture

Concur with you tonight JW......++++++++

More Please Tyler!!!!!!

Sophist Economicus's picture

You have got to be kidding me!   Let me get this straight, EXCLUDING FINANCIAL COMPANIES, if you are a company and have seen your top line falling with the recession, you are suposed to KEEP your cost structure the same, not lay-off workers and keep your fingers crossed that you survive?

This is the kind of rhetoric you expect from politicans and political 'think tank' groups.   Geez, why don't you collaborate with ilene and come up with a really thoughtful piece.  

Haliburton, Cheney, Carbon Footprint --  BOO!