Nice to see Thomas Piketty's book getting so much attention given income inequality carries a large weighting in my view as well. I have it but haven't had enough time to read the book but sounds as though his suggested solutions are a bit controversial. From my view, any discussion is a positive thing because it means we are finally becoming aware of the problem and starting to debate solutions.
anyhow - here are my (revised) thoughts - I hope you find them interesting.
The US economy was broken long before the Financial Crisis and “Great Recession” of 2008/09. The crisis and corresponding recession were therefore symptoms of a much larger and far less understood structural problem. Failure by economists, analysts and Central Banks to properly understand these underlying issues is resulting in misguided policy responses which are not only yielding insufficient results, but a growing list of dangerous unintended consequences as well.
The introduction of workers from China, India and the former Soviet Republic in the early 90s doubled the global labor pool almost overnight. This massive influx of new workers from emerging markets were willing to work for lower wages compared to their North American and European counterparts which created a ‘labor arbitrage’ opportunity for market savvy corporations. By moving their manufacturing bases to these emerging markets, companies paid significantly less on their labor inputs (wages) and therefore enjoyed a dramatic increase in profitability. The benefits of “outsourcing” were so significant that a large majority of companies had to follow suite to ensure that they remained competitive within the global economy.
The positive impacts from outsourcing were enjoyed almost immediately as prices on consumer products declined, and the stock markets soared spurred on by record high corporate profits. The negative consequences of outsourcing (while present) were far less obvious. Hidden behind the record markets and surge in consumption were job losses, declining relative wages, a hollowing out of the manufacturing base of the economy, a decline middle class through income inequality, and an increasing reliance on debt to maintain a falling standard of living.
The economic and housing market bubbles that burst in 2008 were simply symptoms of a bigger and more complicated problem that had finally hit a tipping point. Consumers had been spending beyond their means and had accumulated an unhealthy amount of debt in the process. Contrary to the headlines and economic reports we read today, the “The Great Recession” has not ended for most citizens. The policy response of choice by Central Banks has been to focus on increasing the value of the stock and housing market, in the hope that a trickle down ‘wealth effect’ will stimulate a more sustainable economic recovery. Unfortunately there is a volume of research showing that wealth effects on the overall economy are marginal at best. As a result, the focus solely on the level of the stock market has led income inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to surge to levels not seen since just before the Great Depression of the 1920s.
Failure to properly identify and resolve the true cause of our economic problems has created a massive disconnect between the stock market and the economy, which in turn has greatly increased the implied risk levels faced by investors. While optimistic headlines promise that better times lie just ahead, the reality is that the US consumer (and therefore economy) continues to suffer from an unresolved sickness which makes a full ‘recovery’ impossible.
Having long threatened to write something explaining my longer term view on the investment world, an article by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz on February 6th of this year finally pushed me over the edge. In “Stagnationby Design” Stiglitz suggested that the US economy was sick even before the financial crisis of 2008.
"The basic point that I raise a half-decade ago was that, in a fundamental sense, the US economy was sick even before the crisis; it was only an asset-price bubble, created through lax regulation and low interest rates that had made the economy seem robust. Beneath the surface, numerous problems were festering; growing inequality; an unmet need for structural reform (moving from a manufacturing-based economy to services and adapting to changing global comparative advantages); persistent global imbalances; and a financial system more attuned to speculating than making investments that would create jobs, increase productivity, and redeploy surpluses to maximize social returns"
I have been making this same argument for many years and have been frustrated by the lack of available research and commentary that puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together. To date I have seen very little published anywhere that sets out to explain why the US economy was sick before the Financial Crisis hit. It is my hope that this document will add some light to these trends and more importantly, inspire others to expand on this work in greater detail.
The basis of my investment thesis draws largely from the work of Sir James Goldsmith’s 1993 book, “The Trap”. A short summary of Goldsmith’s concerns were discussed in an interview he had with Charlie Rose in 1994
Goldsmith’s concerns were quite simple: GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade model, was based on flawed logic. In the interview Goldsmith worried that if GATT was fully implemented it would,
“Impoverish and destabilize the industrialized world while at the same time cruelly ravaging the third world”
“It must surely be a mistake to adopt an economic policy which makes you rich if you eliminate your national workforce and transfer production abroad, and which bankrupts you if you continue to employ your own people”.
Goldsmith’s concerns related to the economic distortions created by the introduction of China, India and the former Soviet Union Bloc (CIFSB) being fully integrated to the global labor & trade market.
“If 2 billion people enter the same world market for labor and offer their work at a fraction of the price paid to people in the developed world, it is obvious that such a massive increase in supply will reduce the value of labor”.
Unfortunately Sir James Goldsmith passed away in 1997, so we no longer have his wisdom to draw from.
But, 21 years have passed since “The Trap” was printed so we do have a lot of data with which to measure the validity of this theory and accuracy of his predictions. The remainder of this paper sets out to do exactly that.
1. The Global Labor Force:
In 2004, Harvard Economics Professor Richard Freemen wrote an article entitled, “Doubling the GlobalWorkforce: The Challenges of Integrating China, India and the Former SovietBloc into the World Economy”. In his publication, Freeman estimated that in 1980 the Global workforce population was approximately 960 million people. By the year 2000, a further 510 million people were added suggesting the total global labor pool was 1.46 billion workers.
The year 2000 also marked a huge change in the political systems of China, India and the former Soviet Bloc (CIFSB). This change enabled CIFSB laborers to enter the global labor pool en masse for the first time in history. This transition was unprecedented and, as James Goldsmith forecasted 7 years prior, added an additional 1.47 billion people to the Global labor pool.
The laws of supply and demand suggested that this massive influx of new workers to the global labor pool would have a deflationary influence on the level of global wages. Further amplifying this downward pressure on wages was the fact that the CIFSB workers hailed from relatively more impoverished “emerging markets” and were therefore willing to work for far less than the going global wage. As such, a labor arbitrage opportunity now existed whereby corporations with nimble capital could move their centers of production and manufacturing to these lower labor cost emerging markets in an effort to maximize their profitability. This labor arbitrage opportunity became the driving force behind the trend known later on as “outsourcing”.
2. Outsourcing Trends
“French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day. Good luck” - ThomasFriedman
While outsourcing was already in use prior to the 1990s, the sheer number of new CIFSB entrants into the Global labor pool was unprecedented and therefore became highly disruptive to the global economy. It didn’t take long before many European and North American companies began to outsource many of their operations to take advantage of the lower wages paid in the emerging markets. The impact from outsourcing was felt almost immediately: Corporate profits started to expand at a faster rate while manufacturing (and other) jobs in the United States, Canada and Europe started to be exported.
By 2007, it was estimated that the United States alone had exported 3 million full time jobs to the emerging market economies. Further, Princeton economist Alan Blinder, who served as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve during the Clinton administration wrote a paper in 2007 suggesting fully 30-40% of all jobs in the United States could be “offshorable” in the next 10 to 20 years. This would equate to one out of every three service sector jobs in America. (Note: Blinder was referring to services that were “impersonally delivered” as it would be impossible to outsource personally delivered service jobs such as taxi drivers or bartenders).
Wall Street Journal reporter David Wessel wrote a wonderful article about the jobs lost to outsourcing in 2011 (link to the full story here) that included this very telling graphic:
In the article Wessel stated:
“in 2009, a recession year in which multinationals' sales and capital spending fell, the companies cut 1.2 million, or 5.3%, of their workers in the U.S. and 100,000, or 1.5%, of those abroad.”
From a cost-benefit standpoint it makes sense for a profit maximizing business to cut back on its relatively higher paid workers (from North America and Europe) first during slow economic times in an effort to help improve their bottom lines.
As one would expect, the trend towards outsourced labor contributed greatly to the rapid decline of the US manufacturing base starting in the early 1990s - best shown in this chart on the number of Manufacturing jobs in the US from the St. Louis Federal Reserve website
While the job losses tended to accelerate during recessionary periods (as US companies looked to
‘cut the fat’) domestic cutbacks continued during relatively calm economic times as well.
Contrary to the narrative from corporations that outsourcing job losses were only affecting “low skilled” manufacturing sectors, countries such as India & China (where English is taught in schools) maintained an outstanding education system, and started producing technically skilled laborers as well. As a result, these countries were turning out highly qualified job candidates in the fields of engineering, medicine and information technology.
Given the population differential and the high cultural focus placed on education, both China and India are now turning out more Honors students than the United States has total students enrolled in college. It follows then that the trend of highly educated and skilled workers from China and India competing for jobs in the US, Canada and Europe continues to this day.
From a corporate profitability standpoint, the lower labor costs achieved via outsourcing were contributing directly to corporate America’s vastly improving bottom line:
The increase in corporate profits helped drive the US markets to all time record highs:
But for all of the positives achieved via the move to outsource labor: consumer access to cheaper goods, increased corporate profits and record high stock markets, there was a growing problem: middle and lower income Americans were losing jobs at a staggering pace and struggling to keep up with everyone else.
Not only were American’s losing jobs at a staggering rate, but most of the employment opportunities that were available paid significantly less than the jobs that had been lost due to outsourcing. So most displaced workers who were lucky enough to find another job were not making a wage comparable to the job that moved to China.
3. Job Loss, Standard of Living Trends and the Utilization of Debt
“The losers will, of course, be those who become unemployed as a result of production being moved to low-cost areas. There will also be those who lose their jobs because their employers do not move offshore and are not able to compete with cheap imported products. Finally, there will be those whose earning capacity is reduced following the shift in the sharing of value-added away from labor”.
Sir James Goldsmith, “The Trap”
As discussed above, the corporate shift towards outsourcing had a significant impact on the jobs market in the United States. Millions of jobs were exported to the emerging markets of China, India and the former Soviet Bloc (as well as other non-Japanese countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia) as companies sought to maximize profits via wage arbitrage.
Due to the doubling of the Global Labor pool and the corresponding excess supply of willing workers, there was also pressure on wages to fall in advanced economies as well. As such, a growing number of Americans who lost their jobs to outsourcing were unable to find new jobs at the same pay scale.
Outsourcing had a significant impact on standard of living trends both in the United States and the emerging markets as well. While the direct benefactors of outsourcing (China for example) saw their standard of living improve (as measured by real GDP growth), the relative standard of living in the United States stayed mostly flat.
This suggests two key trends: 1) The workers in China (and other countries that were benefitting directly from the outsourcing trend) were enjoying a newfound sense of wealth which was enabling consumers to make purchases that they had never had access to before. People were moving out of the villages and into the cities as demand for manufacturing jobs boomed and relative wages & net wealth increased versus their Global counterparts.2) The people of the United States (also applies to Canada and Europe) were seeing their standard of living falling off in comparison. This suggests that people were having a difficult time doing and buying the same things that they had in previous years. Unfortunately rather than reduce their expenditures to reflect these trends, Americans, Canadians and Europeans supplemented their declining relative earnings by accumulating personal debt (via the use of credit cards, lines of credit and home equity loans). As you can see in the graph below, personal savings rates had been falling for many years, but the assumption of debt (and erosion of savings) accelerated significantly during the late 90s.
Part of the rise in debt levels came from the well meaning but misguided economic policies adopted by US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Both Presidents wanted to support policies that would serve to maximize the number of Americans who owned their own homes. President Bush spoke about transitioning America towards an “Ownership Society”.
The housing boom turned toxic thanks to a confluence of unsustainable factors. These included the relaxing of mortgage standards, consumer friendly mortgage products (such as Sub Prime, “Ninja Loans” and AltA Mortgages) and an excessively promoted “pro-house ownership” narrative pushed by the US government and main stream media.
All of these factors helped motivate scores of people to pursue buying a home even though they couldn’t afford to buy one via traditional standards (that is putting 20% down and assuming a mortgage with a 25 year amortizations, etc). Unfortunately, the housing bubble burst in 2007 as housing valuations (based on flimsy and false income declarations) were not sustainable and prices fell substantially, leaving millions of Americans owing more on their mortgage than their house was actually worth.
The bursting of the Housing Bubble had a devastating impact on the Global markets. Unfortunately, mortgage debt wasn’t the only problem. Many Americans (and Canadians) were also using various forms of debt to finance day to day living expenses as well.
In addition to mortgages, many consumers were accumulating ‘non-productive’ debt (debt that by its nature does not offer an underlying capacity for wealth creation). This ‘non-productive debt’ became a burden that had to be serviced (through interest payments) but did not contribute to a consumer’s financial well-being.
So, as more and more Americans used debt to finance their day to day living, the precarious burden of debt servicing grew as well. The wealthiest Americans however, did not have the same problem. The accumulation of debt leads us to issue #4.
4. Income Inequality Gaps:
From 1983 to 2004, middle income households saw their gross incomes increase by an average of one percent per year. Meanwhile, the top 1% of income earners enjoyed a significantly higher rate of growth on their income. The gap between the two incomes can be seen diverging widely in the early 90’s, just as outsourcing started to become more widely used by US multinational companies. There has been a tremendous amount of valuable work on the subject of income inequality by Levy/Temin, Emmanuel Saez, & Saez/Piketty
Obviously the wealthy not only have higher incomes (earned via their positions as owners or executives of companies), but they also tend to hold a larger proportion of financial assets (stocks & bonds) relative to their middle and lower income earning counterparts as well.
5. CEO and Executive Pay, Bonuses and Equity Based Incentives:
As discussed above, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP soared due to the profit margin improvements enjoyed by companies who took advantage of the wage differentials in CIFSB (and Asia ex Japan) via outsourcing. This enhanced profitability enabled CEOs, executives and board members to enjoy significant increases in their pay, as compensation is closely linked to corporate profitability.
While base salaries remained relatively flat, total CEO & executive compensation reflected a growing trend towards rewarding stock options and bonuses linked to corporate profitability.
“From 1978 to 2011, CEO compensation increased more than 725 percent, a rise substantially greater than stock market growth and the painfully slow 5.7 percent growth in worker compensation over the same period.”
6. The Struggling Middle Class:
As discussed in note 3 above, it is my theory that in an effort to offset their declining standard of living, middle class Americans started to utilize credit facilities to supplement their lifestyles. Consumers started saving less and borrowing more, optimistically thinking that things would get better once ``the economy picked up again”.
Middle and lower income earners in the US saw their savings collapse
And their utilization of consumer debt explode
Since the increase in home values was having a very large (positive) impact on US net worth. Many middle income earners “felt” wealthier and in turn were using the equity in their homes as a quick source of cash. Consumers were tapping into these reserves via “Home equity based Lines of Credit” (HELOCs) to further finance their consumption, even though the rates of consumption were significantly higher than their incomes would support. Some in the financial industry referred to the trend as “using your house as an ATM Machine”.
As discussed previously, in an effort to offset the invisible impact of a declining standard of living created by the doubling of the Global labor pool, Americans whose savings were already depleted, were desperate to gain access to credit products to drive their consumption desires. The voracious demand for access to credit by consumers created an opportunity that led to my 7th category:
7. Wall Street Incentives to create debt instruments and profit over clients:
Wall Street has always been quick to fulfill demand for a product: be it an internet company, an initial public offering, or some kind of securitized synthetic debt product. Over the years, the issuance of various forms of consumer credit products has grown to become became a very profitable business for the banks. But, as the market of qualified people became saturated with ‘product’, it became necessary for the banks to loosen lending standards, thereby expanding its offerings to a larger cohort within the market: ‘the financially constrained’ individual.
Fulfilling the credit needs of the ‘financially constrained’ was the inspiration behind a long list of now infamous products such as Sub Prime Mortgages, AltA mortgages, No Money Down mortgages, “Ninja” Loans, credit cards (with teaser rates) and Home equity based lines of credit (HELOCs). These are all prime examples of credit products created by the financial industry specifically designed for consumers who had less than stellar credit scores. By expanding these credit facilities and making these products available to the general public, Wall Street enabled consumers to borrow money beyond their means so they could keep spending and consuming. This access to additional credit drove consumption higher, which in turn propelled the economy forward.
In addition to creating exotic consumer credit products, Wall Street had also developed a very large securitization business. Here, Wall Street purchased pools of loans from the banks (mortgages, auto loans, etc) in order to create pooled funds. These funds would be rated via a debt rating agency such as Standard and Poors or Moodys and then resold to investors as a kind of ‘bond/debt fund’. The appetite for this ‘riskless’ investment (as some of these pools were rated AAA) by institutional investors was voracious, and in turn created a positive feedback loop whereby more exotic (and risky) loans were needed in order to create more pools to sell.
Wall Street was more than happy to oblige, even though privately they were already starting to see problems arising. The Financial Crisis of 2008 started when the flaws in these highly rated investment pools finally started to appear and the true nature of their high risk profiles became more apparent.
Unfortunately, at the peak of the market in 2007, the pursuit of profits by financial firms became so frenzied that some financial companies started to take the unusual step of investing ‘against’ their clients.
At this point in the housing & market bubble Wall Street abandoned its fiduciary duty to the client in favor of profits and bonuses. Conflicts of interest became the norm, and the system finally collapsed on itself and became a crisis. The result: the Financial Crisis of 2008, served as a catalyst for my final investment component for this discussion paper: “Peak Debt”.
8. Peak Debt and the start of the Great Deleveraging:
“Debt is future consumption denied”
Eugen Bohm von Bawerk
“Peak Debt” was a term coined in 2006 by Jaswant Jain, PhD in 2006. Jain concluded that debt taken on by a consumer will rise until it hits an exhaustion point. Once this point is reached, current income flows can no longer support debt servicing costs. As such, consumption must be reduced so that the consumer can begin paying down his or her debts. This process of reducing debt loads is called “deleveraging”. While this action makes sense for an individual to follow, if too many people stop consuming at the same time the economy would be negatively impacted and a recession would follow (or a recession would expand into a larger, more significant “depression”). Economists refer to this unique situation as
“The paradox states that if everyone tries to save more money during times of economic recession, then aggregate demand will fall and will in turn lower total savings in the population because of the decrease in consumption and economic growth. The paradox is, narrowly speaking, that total savings may fall even when individual savings attempt to rise, and, broadly speaking, that increase in savings may be harmful to an economy. Both the narrow and broad claims are paradoxical within the assumption underlying the fallacy of composition, namely that what is true of the parts must be true of the whole. The narrow claim transparently contradicts this assumption, and the broad one does so by implication, because while individual thrift is generally averred to be good for the economy, the paradox of thrift holds that collective thrift may be bad for the economy.”
So, when the housing bubble finally burst in 2007, in addition to all of the damage done to the Bank’s balance sheets (due excessive leverage and impaired investments) consumers were no longer able
to utilize their home equity to finance additional consumption. Instead, consumers now had to reverse course and withhold new purchases in favor of paying down their debts. In some cases, people had to take the ultimate step and declare bankruptcy, thereby writing off the debt completely. The combination of the collapse on Wall Street along with the decline in consumer expenditures resulted in a very large recession in the United States.
In response to these deflationary economic pressures, the Federal Reserve (FED) implemented a program called “Quantitative Easing” that specifically attempted to reflate asset prices. While the program has been reasonably successful in reflating the stock market back to all time highs, it has not been as successful in sparking a recovery in the underlying US economy. As such, US GDP and job growth continue sputter sporadically at levels that are well below the historical average at this point in a ‘recovery’. I put quotations around the term “recovery” as I have discussed above, for many people the recession of 2009 never really ended. References to this can be found here, here and here.
Unlike governments, consumers can not consistently spend beyond their means forever. When a consumer purchases a good by assuming a debt, they effectively pull demand forward at the expense of demand they will have in the future (as the debt assumed today needs to be repaid tomorrow). It follows then that when consumption and economic growth rates are higher than wage growth over a prolonged period, the situation is unsustainable and will have to readjust at some future point.
The graph below shows the progress of household incomes, economic growth and consumption in the US from 1990-2013. Clearly consumption and economic growth have outpaced income growth by a wide margin, and therefore it is only natural for us to expect some form of readjustment to a lower and more sustainable level. Alternatively, income levels could increase to better match consumption, but as this paper has shown, this is unlikely to happen.
Optimistic narratives relating to “better times ahead” are focused solely on the metric of a rising stock market and completely ignore the unaddressed economic problems that continue exist under the surface. Consider this statistic: As of March 31st 2014, the median size of a 401(k) (the US equivalent to an RSP account) is $24,400, and for people older than 55, it is $65,300. Plainly put, consumers have spent beyond their means for too long, and are now deleveraging their balance sheets. Wide spread deleveraging of this nature is NOT conducive to economic growth.
By failing to recognize these facts, the Central Banks have arrived at faulty conclusions which have led them to employ ineffective remedies. These remedies are clearly not working and instead could be creating the catalyst for another more damaging crisis in the future.
What to expect going forward:
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”
The Federal Reserve has made it clear that they are going to continue to keep monetary policy extremely accommodative until such a time as the economy is firmly back on solid footing. Part of their strategy involves supporting the stock market in the hopes that a trickle down `wealth effect` occurs. Unfortunately, a closer look at how a ‘wealth effect’ impacts the economy suggests that the contribution is marginal at best. For those interested, Dr. Lacy Hunt from Hoisington Management wrote a very strong piece discussing the ineffectiveness of wealth effects on the greater economy here:
Given wealth effects don’t work, investors should expect to see a widening gap between stock market valuations and the underlying economy. This is concerning given stock valuations are lofty by almost any metric one cares to use. Robert Shiller, who recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on identifying asset bubbles has data showing US stocks have only been as expensive as they are today three times in the last century. The previous dates will be very noteworthy to investors: the late 1920s, early 2000 and the prelude to the 2007 financial crisis.
Despite calls to the contrary, I believe interest rates will stay low for an extended period of time. Higher interest rates reflect inflationary pressures created via robust economic growth and as I’ve shown in the information above, the US economy mired in severe structural problems that are creating deflationary forces. As such, interest rates will rise only when these structural problems are finally resolved.
It is my sense that the stock market will continue to try and gravitate towards higher levels even as earnings expectations and economic growth forecasts fall short of expectations. With valuations at elevated levels and risk being suppressed by ‘artificial means’ through Fed policy, investors need to be very cautious about their overall investment strategies and asset allocations. It would be wise for all investors to take a very close look at their risk exposures given the issues mentioned above.