Workers Of The World, Unite!... But First Consider This

Tyler Durden's picture

The conflict between labor and capital is a long and illustrious one, and one in which ideology and politics have played a far greater role than simple economics and math.

And while labor enjoyed a brief period of growth in the the past 100 years first due to the anti-trust and anti-monopoly, and pro-union laws and regulations taking place in the early 20th century US, and subsequently due to the era of "Great Moderation"-driven "trickling down" abnormal growth in the developed world, it is precisely the unwind of this latest period of prosperity, loosely known as "The New Normal", and in which economic growth will persist at well sub-optimal (<2%) rates for the foreseeable future, that is pushing the precarious balance between labor and capital costs - in their purest economic sense, and stripped of all ethics and ideology - to a point in which labor will likely find itself at a persistent disadvantage, leading to the same social upheaval that ushered in pure Marxist ideology in the late 19th century.

Only this time there will be a peculiar twist, because while in relative terms labor costs as a percentage of all operating expenses are declining around the world, when accounting for benefits, and entitlement funding, labor costs are rising in absolute terms if at uneven rates (a particularly touchy topic in the Eurozone where lack of labor competitiveness for the periphery is probably the single thorniest issue for the European Disunion) and are now at record highs.

Which sets the stage for what may probably be the biggest push-pull tension of the 21st century for the simple worker: declining relative wages, which however are increasing in absolute terms when factoring in the self-funded components paid into an insolvent welfare system.

But the rub comes when one considers the biggest disequilibrium creator of all: central bank predicated cost of capital "planning", whereby Fed policies may be the most insidious and stealth destroyer of all of labor's hard won gains over the past century. 

First, observe the declining labor costs as a percentage of total corporate operating expenses...

Which however is cold comfort to firms which report earnings on a nominal basis, and for which the absolute increase in blended all in labor compensation is now the highest in history...

... a variable cost "discontinuity" driven by a key fixed cost: social insurance expenditures and labor-related taxes. In other words workers are increasingly forced to prefund their own "entitlements"...

... Which finally means that increasingly the simplest solution will likely be the correct one: places in which the cost of labor is higher than that of capital will increasingly shed labor until there is once again an equilibrium between labor and capital. An approximate breakdown between these two primary drivers is shown in the chart below.

Before we present some of the startling conclusions from the above, here are some thoughts on the basis of labor costs as we enter the New Normal from Goldman Sachs:

The ability to cut these depends very much on the nature of the business (labour-intensive versus capital-intensive), the scale and balance sheet strength of the company, the flexibility to move operations, domicile regulations and political pressures, and the clarity of management foresight. One option CEOs have is to become more efficient through automation, i.e., substituting labour with capital. We expect to see a lot more of this type of restructuring in the developing economies, as real wages rise and the difference in the relative cost of capital versus developed economies shrinks.


The balance between labour and capital reflects a tension between maintaining flexibility and achieving efficiency. Remaining labour-intensive can allow companies to react in a more agile manner to structural shifts or prolonged cyclical softness,  giving them the option to increase or decrease headcount (albeit at a price) or re-train personnel in the case of obsolescence, which is particularly important in fast-moving industries. On the other hand, automation increases production efficiency, speed and quality, often at a lower operational cost, at the expense of having a larger chunk of capital tied to fixed assets.


Over the last decade, cheap labour was perhaps the primary motivation for location-based restructuring. But looking forward, greater EM competition, IP risks, regulation, energy cost disparity, supply chain complexity and the need to be closer to the  end consumer should also force companies to reconsider where they are based. But we shouldn’t forget that prescribing change is not the same as achieving it, especially for companies that employ a large number of people in domestic Europe. These companies are likely to encounter greater political pressure, while the fear of losing skills also make companies reluctant to cut their headcount. Capital intensity could also be an exit barrier; e.g., its difficult for physical retailers to exit real estate quickly. And finally, there is the zero sum game argument, or at best a fleeting competitive advantage, which can be observed in the very short periods of returns leadership in many industries.

And while superficially all of the above is correct, the one increasingly dominant factor is that of pure cost of capital, from a simple ROE basis, when corporate executives make a decision whether to invest in wages and workers or efficiency improvements, i.e., capital. It is here that one needs to appreciate that cost of capital is increasingly synonymous with simple cost of borrowing as shown on the last chart above.

What needs no explanation is that in "the New Normal", the cost of borrowing is declining progressively and in more and more parts of the world is approaching zero: a standard byproduct of ZIRP, or a paradigm in which virtually all credit risk (and soon - equity risk as well as the Japan Model is adopted by all) is borne by the money printers themselves, or in the case of the US: the Federal Reserve.

And with cost of debt and thus capital virtually non-existent, the decision of where to allocated increasingly scarcer cash flows will become a very simple one, and the outcome will be one which will infuriate more and more workers around the world.

What does all of the above mean practically? Two things:

  1. The ever more insolvent "welfare state" world is seeing increasingly more of the fixed cost contribution to pre-funding entitlements fall on the shoulders of the same workers whose wages are increasingly declining on a relative basis (best seen when looking at the year over year change in average hourly earnings, which just posted the smallest nominal rise on record.

    The problem with this is that laborer intuitively realize that the "welfare state" model no longer works, and is broken: there are simply too many unfunded liabilities that current and future generations of workers have to fund concurrently for there to be anything left over in the sinking fund to prepay their own pension, retirement and welfare benefits. As a result more and more workers will demand instant gratification in the form of upfront cash now, and will no longer accept the excuse that their employers are making up the difference in declining earnings by funding future welfare costs, as extracted in turn by ever more insolvent governments.
  2. The Fed, in its attempts to rekindle the credit bubble with its ZIRP policy, which will last at least through the end of 2015 (but likely, in perpetuity, or at least until hyperinflation force Bernanke to prove if his bluff that he can end any inflationary episode in 15 minutes or less), has stumbled upon yet another unintended consequence- it is making the balance between labor and capital progressively more distressing for current workers, as the Fed is effectively funding - thanks to no cost borrowings - corporate improvements in productivity and capital replacement, which in turn make layoffs and wage cuts the default decision by most corporate treasurers and CFOs.

These two bullet points will garner increasingly more attention in the coming months as more and more people are laid off, if for no reason of the underlying economy which may or may not be getting stronger (or certainly weaker), but simply as as the cost of corporate debt, especially for Investment Grade quality corporations, plummets to zero when used to fund capital improvements, and thus increased profitability when coupled with labor "efficiency."

Because what few appreciate is that Marxism in the New Normal will not be a carbon copy of that from 150 years ago: instead the primary driver paradoxically of the next labor movement will be in response to the destructive policies (at least for workers, if not for corporate profitability and shareholders) of the central planners. That, and the fact that the entire Welfare state ponzi, now pervasive to all developed world countries, is on its last breath: a conclusion which even the simple workers of the world can appreciate.

Or not: because as the recent example of the outright Hostess liquidation demonstrated, when negotiating labor equivalency outcomes from a Game Theoretical perspective in the New Normal, labor no longer has the upper hand, especially when the opportunity cost of wiping out future (fully or partially) prepaid entitlement benefits are to be considered - a lesson which the Twinkie baking union learned the very hard way.

It also means that as more instances of labor unions vs corporations come to the fore in bankruptcy court, and as labor losses mount, it will once again be the evil corporations that are scapegoated by virtually everyone involved.

Yet the truth is far more complicated, and as the above shows, while workers of the world may, indeed, soon be uniting once more, don't forget to reserve some of that righteous indignation not only for executive corner office dwellers, but for those in charge of government and of various central banks, whose actions over the past century (now that we are just 31 days away from the 100 year anniversary of the Fed) have led to a world in which there are hundreds of trillions in unfunded, insolvent entitlements, as well as a central planner policy response aimed squarely at obliterating any residual negotiating position labor may have had.

To summarize: as fury at corporate CEOs rises, don't forget to save some where it also most certainly belongs: the Federal Government and the Chairman.

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Bear's picture

In California the employer pays into a fund and the weekly 'payment' to the employee comes out of that fund (with participation) with the employer for 13 + 13 weeks and then the whole thing is picked up by the Federal Government ... it is not 'earned' income to be used on a rainy day, it is welfare plain and simple.

True about under table income ... my point is that as long as the Goberment keeps paying $450 / week there is little incentive to get legit employment ... and we (US taxpayers) end up paying for the unemployed or at least adding to the debt to picked up by our children and grandchildren.

Cathartes Aura's picture

so the gov requires the employer to make payments into a fund, and also requires the employee to make payments into a fund.

and the gov hangs onto that money (yeah, pixels, bookkeeping) until a claim is made on it - by an ex-employee.

is this how it works?  (genuine question, as I remember it being this way, but who knows any more. . .)

I can understand how an employer might resent having to pay into a fund that only the GOVT or the employee has access to - but surely it's better to have the employee get the allocation earned, and contributed to, than the GOVT who just has hands in both your pockets?

and if "later" the FedGov creates more pixels to keep the problems under wraps until the end of a "fiscal" period, can we just acknowledge it's no One's "hard earned money" just imaginary balance sheet entries from corporate gov to corporate food supply to land-lords, to wherever. . .

resentment where resentment's due.

LawsofPhysics's picture

"there is enough to go around"


Really?  Is the energy available to that increasing world population also increasing?  You need energy to actually do anything.  Last time I looked, the global energy that had to be invested in order to deliver new energy was going up, leaving less net energy available.  Better check your math again.  No way the energy readily available to sheep is keeping up with the sheep's population. So sorry round eye.

holdbuysell's picture

I'm having a hard time reconciling the foreseen trend described here that companies will use the cheap cost of capital to make capital improvements with other articles here that demonstrated how that capital (for public companies) is actually being used to prop up stock prices via stock buybacks and not investing in CapEx, resulting in an increasingly aged asset base.

formadesika3's picture

Good point. My guess is that the latter is a shorter-term trend than the former.

edit: but how long can low cost of capital in develped countries last vs developing countries?


Tyler Durden's picture

That is a great point and indeed, one that so far shows companies are more focused on short-term shareholder gratification. However at some point the ROA will be so low that extracting (or rather recycling debt into equity) any more value from corporations to shareholders will become self-destructive. At that point companies will have no choice but to replenish their asset base (with a far lower consolidated baseline revenue). It is then that the issues discussed in this post will become a major talking point.

holdbuysell's picture

Makes sense. Thanks for clarifying.

Yen Cross's picture

 New World Order, one size fits all, United Nations, IMF, ( indentured slaves)...  Unite for the last hurahhh...

Bob's picture

Here's your NWO . . . they'll keep the nominal sovereigns around for plausible deniability and management of the slaves (who must, of course, pay the costs of their own "management"):

Yen Cross's picture

Thanks for the link Bob.

knukles's picture

Talking about slaves, I wonder how everybody's feeling about how those Arab Springie Thingies are workin' out these days?

The new Egyptian constitution allows Women No Rights and Permits Slavery

Yen Cross's picture

That was a good link knuckles/ Did you catch this one?  BBC News - Uproar over Saudi women's 'SMS tracking'

Yen Cross's picture

Thanks... lots to absorb/ working on it... Are those black helmuts bear skin ? Like the Royal Palace(guards) in London?

Aurora Ex Machina's picture

Those are indeed bears at Buckingham palace, playing the entry of Lord Vader, know as the Imperial March.

The Establishment will do business, but I expect the day oil runs dry, diplomatic immunity in London will quickly be revoked (not to mention those deeds on all those buildings).

Yen Cross's picture

 Thanks for the info. Much appreciated/ I have been told lighter colored pelts are for "higher ranks in "Her Majesty's service".

  Not Secret/ just ceremonial. I told you I would watch, and learn> Thanks again- good history...

Cathartes Aura's picture

the real value in Margaret Atwood's excellent Tales is her pointing to how women will collude with their mind capture, and police themselves within the culture.

given her novel was released nearly 40 years ago, it's good to know the discourse continues, and culturally assigned gender roles continue to be scrutinised.

in knowing that, the worm turns.

Without me
Who would let you play God
And make-believe that all the blasphemy
Is coming only from me?

Aurora Ex Machina's picture

If had more than +1, I'd give it.


Old, and hackneyed, but hey (and it's the meta comment on her rather than the lyrics - watch the eyes)

Cathartes Aura's picture

the appreciation is in the shared awareness, always.  a few here do. . .

she may not be quite my flavour, but I'm always glad she's out there, inspiring grrrls to fk w/cultural limitations.

head to toe, a brilliant example of challenging stereotypes, stand alone.


edit:  I mistakenly gave Atwood an extra decade of publishing history, it's only been about a Saturn cycle, aka 29yrs +/-

Urban Redneck's picture

I don't think that's the message they took away from the “ASEAN: One Community, One Destiny” meeting...

or the more subtle and diplomatic version

I think there might be a more ZH reader friendly article floating around Asia Times that makes the same point that the Kenyan Keynesian isn't even a competent organ grinder for the NWO.

(but I repeat myself)


tip e. canoe's picture

well there's this one by Spengler:

Washington might want to pivot towards Asia. At Phnom Penh, though, Asian leaders in effect invited Obama to pivot the full 360 degrees and go home.

then there's this from Pepe:

So in the end what was Obama exactly doing in his whirlwind Southeast Asia tour? To the horror of American exceptionalists of all strands, he was, essentially, offshoring US jobs.  Obama went on a charm offensive to expand to as many Asian nations as possible a North American Free Trade Agreement-style deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP is yet another fabulous tool for US corporations - as well as yet another nail in the coffin of US manufacturing. Obama administration officials were busy spinning TPP as a tool to facilitate Obama's pivoting, in terms of "containing" China. On the contrary; Hillary Clinton herself announced that she would love China to be part of TPP.  Pivoting? Don't believe the hype. It's just business.

all in a week's work from our friendly fascist in "charge".

Urban Redneck's picture

Found it- Spengler's follow-up piece:

It is symptomatic of the national condition of the United States that the worst humiliation ever suffered by it as a nation, and by a US president personally, passed almost without comment last week. I refer to the November 20 announcement at a summit meeting in Phnom Penh that 15 Asian nations, comprising half the world's population, would form a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership excluding the United States.

President Barack Obama attended the summit to sell a US-based Trans-Pacific Partnership excluding China. He didn't. The American led-partnership became a party to which no-one came.

Instead, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, will form a club and leave out the United States.

tooriskytoinvest's picture

Things Have Spiraled Out of Control: American Households Hit 43-Year Low In Net Worth, A Staggering Collapse In Small Business Optimism Since The Election, $268 Billion In New ObamaCare Taxes Beginning January 1, 2013, And A New Law To Tax Americans Heavily For Leaving The United States!!

PGR88's picture

The Romans created the institution of serfdom, as it moved from a Republic to an increasingly centralized, corrupt, inflationary Empire.

We had our first lesson 2000 years ago of what statist central-planning does to workers.

CH1's picture

The Romans created the institution of serfdom, as it moved from a Republic to an increasingly centralized, corrupt, inflationary Empire.

Not quite. Serfdom grew out of the Roman tax laws of the 4th century. (The changeover to the Principate [early Empire] was centuries prior.) Workers would be moved from place to place to avoid the tax man, so new laws were passed, tying them to fixed pieces of land. That evolved into serfddom over time.

I wonder what the ruling monsters will do this time around.

imapopulistnow's picture

The cause of labors woes is clear.  Just look at the charts.  it is called CHINA.  A nation with 4 times the population of the USA, twice the population of the USA and Europe combined, with labor costs that are a mere fraction of those in the developed world.

Labor strife will not be cured until there is a greater equilibirum between the cost of labor in China and the developed world.  Currency manipulation by China cannot be tolerated.  We are the fools.  The Chinese clearly understand this, but we throw up smokescreens of ideological theories rather than recognizing the obvious.

earleflorida's picture

china seems to be the only one playing by true capitalist rules? 

the $ isn't worth more than $.20 as the chinese have given u.s.? the benefit of the doubt...

Vendetta's picture

"china seems to be the only one playing by true capitalist rules?"  China has capitalized on US government and financial market corruption, that's about it.  It is still communist with a plethora of state owned 'enterprises' with wanton corruption.  Their cheap labor and even cheaper price of corruption is quite the advantage.

earleflorida's picture

and what is s. korea, japan, and the eu monopolies... subsidizing airbus, et. el.

the us is the biggest currency manipulator in the ?free?! world.

us multinational's & corp's. pay zero in taxes and get free money via gov't. enterprise credits!

wake up

Ps. try speaking up in public, or in private [phone,internet, etc.] about ??? and see how fast the clubs come out!!!

Benign's picture

Do not confuse physical capital with investment capital.  The problem is concentrated ownership of investment capital.  Peter Drucker wrote a book called "Pension Fund Socialism" about 40 years ago celebrating how the ownership of much of corporate American by the workers' pension funds could lead to an equitable distribution of profits.... do you see any workers' reps on corporate boards in America?

Redistribution via the tax system in a mixed capitalist system works in Scandinavia, why shouldn't it work in America?  

Urban Redneck's picture

Perhaps because it isn't working now in the US. (something about insanity comes to mind...)


woggie's picture

the beast is on the gobble
and all that matters is we're all headed for it's belly

BraveSirRobin's picture

The graph indicates the higher the borrowing costs, the lower the average hourly wages. The straight line running from the lower left corner is misleading.

formadesika3's picture

Yes, very misleading. Fitting a line fron upper left to lower right through the data points would make it clear

edit: but I sound ungenerous. It's a great article over all. Thanks, TylerX.

TwoHoot's picture

It looks like a regression line would go from about Sweden to Thialand with higher interest rates associated with lower labor costs.

The line shown is very misleading because the data just doesn't support it.


aymankkhlifat's picture

You have to focus on the two things you can Control.Yourself and your risk $$

Bear's picture

And then the largest single component of GDP (24%) is government where all of the above does not apply since their hourly salary is a one way street ... up, up, and away. GS will spend oodles of time and money studying the 'private sector' and its labor costs, yet not a peep about government. Labor (or at least its leaders) are lockstep with government, as seen in the last election, so the manufactured outrage at 'The Corporation' is misplaced and until government is reduced (personnel, pay and benefits) wages will continue to decline.

Whoa Dammit's picture

GS should study its own labor costs. I hear they are rather substantial.

Bear's picture

At GS 'labor cost' is a euphemism, no labor and we pay the cost

Yen Cross's picture

 Things are going to get really perplexing when the Middle East can't be bought off with worthless (U.S.) fiat... That is the status quo right now.

   Dollars are becoming even more worthless by the month.  Water along with food staples is becoming more valuable... (commodities priced in usd)

 Dollars are becoming antiquated in a land of people that are importing their very sustenance/

surf0766's picture

What is the tipping point for the dollar? There are small signs with the different country agreements but what would you look for?

Yen Cross's picture

Long term bond flows. No one want's to excite the system before the "global greenback "reserve currency" gambit is broken<

  Central banks are all ready moving away from Treasuries. They will just graduate their risk down to shorter term notes.

  Big Ben will buy everything until he can't!

kurt's picture

Kiss the Balls that Bind You!

FreedomGuy's picture

Excellent article, Tyler. The bottom line as best I can understand it is frankly that labor has to become a free-flowing adjustable commodity. Real wages cannot rise unless the real demand for labor increases. What the "genius" central planners and the liars of collectivism do is load up labor with preordained costs to the point where labor simply cannot pay for itself along with the welfare state.

I look at a free economy (which exists nowhere in the world in pure form) as a rainforest. Everything finds it's place in the gaps between other competitors. It is adjusting itself every second of every day to whatever the conditions are at the moment, e.g., drier, wetter, darker, lighter, new competitors, etc. By definition it is perfect and durable because no one is managing it. Short of an asteroid strike it can weather and adjust to anything.

Central planners are like people who alternately drop fertilizers and weed killers from 5000 feet supposing they are doing good where needed and opposing bad where needed. They simply obliterate what was a perfectly balanced forest of immense complexity which they did not understand. There is a worse part, too. What is worse is that if they stop the alternate fertilizing and poisoning there will be more pain as the forest readjusts and rebalances itself back to equilibrium. This is where we are today, I think.

Good luck to all of us.

michael_engineer's picture

There's some interesting considerations on how the interplay between capital and labor may be affected by resource issues here:

dolph9's picture

So, is everyone here tired of the new normal?  Of the endless zombie state which we seem to be in?

Here's the two step process on how to kill it off, how to contribute to its demise so we might actually see the collapse within our lifetimes and certainly within our children's.  It's remarkably simple but perhaps easier for some.

1)  Stop working hard.  Just stop!  You must make it an existential choice to your very core that you won't work "hard" to support the current system.  You must reject 200 years of American, Protestant propaganda that "working hard" is a good thing.  You must get to the point where you actually ridicule, mock, and pity the poor fools who are working hard.  Then, and only then, will you be able to focus on working right, on working smart.

2)  Stop consuming stupid shit.  Don't buy stuff, and learn to say "no" to people when they ask you to participate in their own stupid shit.  The word "no" must become a part of your vocabulary.  You must be able to say it openly and forcefully to everybody...your family, your friends, yourself, and those strangers who are constantly asking you to contribute your time and your money to their agenda that you have absolutely nothing to do with.

Practice and preach these things.  If we get enough of a critical mass of people to follow this two step process, this system comes down and comes down in a hurry.