Wednesday, February 02, 2011

If Profits Are Up, Why Is The Unemployment Rate Still Over 9%?

See Profits Are Booming. Why Aren’t Jobs? by Michael Powell. From the NY Times, 1-9-11. Here are some of the reasons he gives as possibilties:

"More so than in the past, many American-based corporations earn a great portion of their profits overseas. And thanks to porous tax laws, these companies return fewer of those profits to American shores than in the past.

“The big American companies are really global,” said Robert Reich, former labor secretary for President Clinton. “They can show big profits from foreign sales. G.M. is making more Buicks overseas than in the United States. There’s no special pop for the United States worker.”

Key corporate sectors, too, have undergone a Darwinian pruning during the last three years. In the financial arena, a few hyperprofitable firms now stand where many more once stood.

“If you’re Goldman and Morgan Chase, and you once had to compete against Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, well, of course it’s easier now to show a profit,” said Daniel Alpert, managing partner of Westwood Capital L.L.C., an investment banking firm. “If you have a modest reduction in expenses, and an industry consolidation at the same time, that translates into a massive increase in earnings.”

Surviving corporate leaders drew sobering lessons from their near-death experience of 2008 and 2009, when brand-name corporations nearly ran short of the cash needed to meet payrolls.

“They found the financial system was nowhere near as safe as they thought — they no longer think they can borrow as quickly,” said Simon H. Johnson, an economics professor at M.I.T. and former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund. “So the amount of cash that they think they should have for precautionary purposes is way up.”

Interest rates are so low that traders can pile up profits by exploiting the spread between a near-zero funds rate and rates on Treasury bonds. This allows some corporations to mark profits without selling much or hiring anyone.

Desmond Lachman, a former managing director at Salomon Smith Barney who now serves as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy center, sees corporate leaders reshaping their worlds.

“Corporations are taking huge advantage of the slack in the labor market — they are in a very strong position and workers are in a very weak position,” he said. “They are using that bargaining power to cut benefits and wages, and to shorten hours.” That strategy, Mr. Lachman said, serves corporate and shareholder imperatives, but “very much jeopardizes our chances of experiencing a real recovery.”

These profits, however, may not be as large as they seem. Justin Fox, editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group, dices the question of productive corporate profits still more finely in a recent column. He figures that pre-tax domestic corporate profits exclusive of the financial sector are the best measure of the “underlying health of business in America.”

He’s not terribly impressed. Profits for these companies “repeatedly topped 12 percent in the 1950s and 1960s,” he writes. But in the third quarter of 2010, this sector’s share of national income stood at 7.03 percent.

Some economists, conservative and liberal, divine forbidding portents in all of this. If profits and employment no longer rise and fall together, they worry, then an already strained social compact will grow yet more frayed.

Market bulls applauded in November when the Conference Board revealed that consumer confidence was on the rise. But David Rosenberg, an economist at the investment firm Gluskin Sheff, noted that this increase owed entirely to the optimism of higher-income Americans, who are feeling better and better."

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