Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,
What if all the low-hanging fruit of outsourcing jobs and financialization have already been plucked by Corporate America?
The connection between soaring corporate profits and stagnant wages is both common sense and inflammatory: common sense because less for you, more for me and inflammatory because this harkens back to the core problem with the bad old capitalism Marx critiqued: that capital dominates labor and thus can extract profits even as the purchasing power of wages declines.
John Hussman said something interesting a while back - he was talking about whether or not the current level of corporate profits was sustainable, and he pointed out that in order to have those profits rise as a % of GDP, they had to be snatched from somewhere else. I was intrigued and asked myself, where might they be snatched from?
Here’s a chart that appears to show at least a chunk of where they came from. Wages & Salaries/GDP dropped from about 47% of GDP in 2001 down to 42.7% of GDP today. At the same time, (non-financial) corporate profits rose from about 2% to 6% of GDP. So wage earners lost 4.3%, while non-financial companies gained 4%.
There was a very steep climb in corporate profitability from 2001-2008, during the height of the housing bubble, and a brisk drop off in the chunk of the economy provided to wage earners. Perhaps - globalization? Jobs lost to China? That’s the period where China started to really become a powerhouse. Yet after a brief drop during the recession, it's now back up to its peak levels.
And here’s one more chart, aligning corporate profits (total) as a % of GDP - includes financial companies too. Notice how the S&P 500 (SPX) tends to follow (more or less) the profits skim off the economy. The linkage isn’t there during the 1995-2000 period, but it sure is for the rest of the period. So - unless and until the corporate skim drops as a % of GDP, I think our S&P 500 (SPX) is going to remain elevated.
Can this Corporate Profits/GDP series grow to the sky? I don’t know. But it is certainly doing pretty well right now. A combination of outsourcing and low rates = a great corporate environment for profits, taken from savers and wage-earners.
Who do we blame? Debt constructed from the housing bubble (which went to increase financial corp profits) as well as outsourcing, which allowed companies to snatch that % of GDP from workers (increasing non financial corp profits).
So to Hussman’s point - is this sustainable? As long as work continues being outsourced, unemployment is relatively high (i.e. wage pressures are low) and as long as the debt remains intact, I think it is.