The Next Big Problem: "Stagflation Is Starting To Show Across The Economy"

In the past few months, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has gone out of its way to show that U.S. worker compensation is finally rising. There is one problem with that: while that may be true on an hourly basis...

... on a weekly basis, the picture is vastly different. What is happening is that weekly wage growth have gone nowhere in years, but because the average hours worked per week has declined and today hit a 2 year low of 34.4, it translates into more money per hour worked.

 

But let's assume that wages, or at least the perception thereof, is indeed rising - is this helping the average American? Well, as we showed earlier this week, the net "after expense" income of average Americans measured in real dollars has declined from $17K in 2004 to $6,000 in 2014 because as wages have declined dramatically, expenses have surged. In fact, according to the recent Pew study, by 2014, median income had fallen by 13 percent from 2004 levels, while expenditures had increased by nearly 14 percent, As such a 2.5%, or 3.5% or even 10% increases in wages will not manage to offset the surging expenditures, mostly on rent.

All of this you will never see discussed in a sellside research report, which instead relies on the basic hourly earnings headline numbers. Instead, you will see charts like this from Wells Capital's Jim Paulsen.

And yet, even the analysts who are only looking at the most rudimentary data are now warning that a new problem is emerging for the US economy, a problem which is always present whenever wages are rising, while overall economic growth is stalling (as it is currently according to the Atlanta Fed with a 0.7% Q1 GDP) and corporate profits are about to plunge by the most since the financial crisis: stagflation. 

In a note earlier today, Deutsche Bank laid out the following ominous warning:

Worry not about the eight per cent drop in forecast earnings in the upcoming quarter reporting season. That aggregate figure is well telegraphed. Instead, pay attention to those companies with wafer-thin margins. Every year since the crisis, S&P500 stocks in the lowest quartile of ebitda margins have outperformed the market. Until, that is, last year when these least profitable companies trailed by 11 per cent. That is because after holding steady for six years, their already low margins nearly halved to 4.5 per cent while the median for S&P500 companies barely budged from 20 per cent. Benign cost pressures in recent years have allowed even the laggards to keep up. But if commodity prices start to rally, for example, or low unemployment finally gives employees some bargaining power, those companies living on minuscule margins may really start to sweat.

What Deutsche Bank is referring to is the following chart which shows the explicit and inverse correlation between corporate profits and employee wages. What it demonstrates clearly is that if indeed labor income, i.e., wages, are rising, then profit margins have no choice but to fall even more; this means that if the stock market wishes to continue rising even higher it will only achieve this with margin expansion, which however can only be achieved by even more Fed intervention and more stimulative inflation, which then pushes wages even higher generating a self-defeating feedback loop.

 

This is something we touched upon early in January when we made an observation on small business operating margins, namely that "If Companies Are Telling The Truth, Profit Margins Are About To Collapse The Most In The 21st Century."

Which brings us to the following Bloomberg TV interview with Wells Fargo's Jim Paulsen in which the otherwise jovial permabull focuses on only one thing: the rising threat of stagflation. This is what he said:

I think stagflation is starting to show - that idea of stronger nominal growth but weaker real growth is starting to show up across the economy. It certainly is showing up with real personal consumption slowing; it's showing with slower job creation growth as the wage rate rises, and it's showing up in weaker profits as the share of labor income rises reducing profit margins for corporations.

 

I think to some extent companies are starting to feel that pinch of higher labor costs and since margins are near post-war highs to begin with, they don't have much ability to raise them much further, but if labor costs now start to go up, they'll probably suffer some margin erosion.

 

What scares me about this is we've had a very weak growing recovery by historic standards, about 2% real growth, but what's made it palatable to some degree, is that inflation has been so low and because of that interest rates have been so low. So even though laborers have only gotten 2% wage increases which doesn't sound very good, until you recognize that because inflation has been virtually non-existent, real purchasing power, real wages have been growing very nicely.

... At this point we would like to interject that while we love the strawman argument that real wages are "growing fast" as much as the next guy, the reality is that this is bullshit as the previously shown chart from Pew has demonstrated: whether Americans are spending for more items, or actual prices are soaring, the consumer's net income as shown below, has plunged.

 

Anyway, back to Paulsen who then says this:

And now for the first time you start to have core costs rising, then even if we get a little faster nominal growth, the final result on the real outcome might not be nearly as positive as hoped. Yellen is trying to raise the inflation rate and I am thinking you better be careful what you wish for.

Can this scenario tip us into a recession Paulsen is asked, his answer: "it's possible. I am concerned that the Fed is so dovish in the face of rising core inflation."

Which means that now that the "very serious economists" are talking about it, get ready to hear much more about the "threat of stagflation" for the US economy, a threat which the Fed is powerless to defeat unless it is willing to launch another market crash.