Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

Why high corporate profits aren’t so bad

Zachary Karabell
May 1, 2013 17:10 UTC

Over the past month, America’s largest companies reported their earnings for the first quarter of the year. These quarterly reports provide as much insight into our economy as any of our leading indicators. And these results, if read correctly, highlight once again the bifurcated world we live in. Our gross domestic product is growing about 2.5 percent a year for now, but that masks a vast divergence, not between the 1 percent and the 99 but between what works and what does not. What this earnings season demonstrates is that capital and companies are thriving, along with tens of millions of people connected to those worlds, while labor and wages are not. But that is not how it is being interpreted.

The consensus among investors and the financial media is that the quarter was something of a bust, as company after company reported only modest – and in many cases, non-existent – revenue growth. “Revenue still missing as companies beat earnings,” blared a USA Today headline, and that encapsulates what most have said.

The uber-bearish economist Gary Schilling, cited by the widely-read uber-gloomy blog Zero Hedge, put it bluntly: “Pricing power has been non-existent [and] sales volume increases have been very limited so the only route to profit has been cutting costs. That has pushed profit margins to all-time highs.” Enjoy it now, says Schilling, because profit without revenue growth is “unsustainable.” The only reason markets are doing well and corporations aren’t panicking, the thinking goes, is because central banks are flooding the world with money.

At the same time, large companies have proven adept at generating substantial earnings. That is true now, and it has been true for years. Since 2009, for instance, the mega-companies of the Standard and Poor’s  500-stock index have doubled their profits. Companies overall haven’t done quite as well because small companies don’t have the same advantages, such as keeping income offshore, assorted tax breaks and pure economies of scale. Even so, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. corporations overall have seen their profits grow more than 50 percent during these years.

But now, while larger companies are still showing earnings growth, revenues have been almost at a standstill. This trend is widely seen as proof that trouble is brewing. Companies, especially publicly traded ones, face relentless pressure to generate earning growth at all costs. With slower revenue growth, the only way they can do that is to cut costs and do whatever they can to become more efficient, from greater use of technology (and therefore fewer workers) to cutting wages and benefits, either by finding cheaper labor abroad or by cutting benefits and wages domestically. In a world of slow revenue growth, that becomes harder. Says Jeffery Kleintop, chief market strategist of the financial firm LPL, companies are going to have a hard time eliminating enough expenses to hit earnings targets. “When there’s no more fat to cut,” he says, “you start to cut muscle, and then you’re cutting bone.”

After Boston, a new, more balanced outrage

Zachary Karabell
Apr 19, 2013 21:52 UTC

Events unfolded rapidly in Boston this week, from the bombing on Monday to release of photos of the suspects on Thursday to the citywide manhunt for one brother and the killing of the other. While we now know that the two young men are ethnic Chechens who spent time in Kyrgyzstan, we know nothing as yet about why they did what they did.

But perhaps less important than whatever their rationale turns out to have been is how the United States is reacting to the events of this week. On that score, the initial reactions here suggest that we may have turned a post-9/11 corner, still shocked, still pained, but no longer so fearful, so ready to blame religious zealots, and so willing to discard the freedoms that give us such strengths and yet can, at times, leave us so vulnerable.

There will always be people who find some reason to wreak havoc and inflict pain. Yes, such attacks can kill and maim, and thankfully, the Boston Marathon bombing, horrible though it was, did only limited physical harm considering the number of runners and the size of the crowds. It’s what comes after that shapes our lives even more. It’s how society reacts that affects not the hundreds directly harmed and the three killed, not the thousands of friends and loved ones, but the millions and hundreds of millions who were touched only through their sympathy.

The ‘laws of economics’ don’t exist

Zachary Karabell
Apr 11, 2013 11:49 UTC

In a world increasingly framed by economic debates, the phrase “the laws of economics” has become ever more prevalent. As the U.S. Senate prepares to unveil a new immigration bill, much of the discussion centers on the economics of illegal immigration and the incentives for employers to hire undocumented workers. Said a recent Barron’s article: “Immigration policy is a game governed by classic economic rules, especially by Say’s Law, which says supply creates its own demand … Whether the new applicants are seeking stoop-labor jobs in California’s Central Valley or high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley, the laws of economics dictate the outcome: more immigration.”

How about the war on drugs? Said one recent analysis: “We’re losing the war on drugs because it’s a war that defies the laws of economics. We might as well be fighting a war on gravity.”

And how about what history can tell us about our current policies? Said one recent review of Amity Shlaes’ biography of Calvin Coolidge, which makes the case for Coolidge as an exemplar of responsible economic policy:  “Our current political leadership ‑ and we who elect them ‑ are spending the country into ruin. The laws of man can be bent and broken; the laws of economics can not.”

David Stockman and the cult of gloom

Zachary Karabell
Apr 3, 2013 14:14 UTC

We think of spring as a time of cherry blossoms and renewed hope, as we slough off the depths of winter and ease into the warmer months. These bright days seem a strange time to encounter the by-now widely circulated warnings of impending doom by Ronald Reagan’s budget director, and current gadfly, David Stockman.

In a long essay in the New York Times drawn from his lengthy and just-published book The Great Deformation, Stockman this week made an impassioned plea for Americans to wake up to the looming crisis just ahead. This crisis, he predicts, will be triggered by a stock market collapse that will remove any lingering illusion that we are OK: “When it bursts, there will be no new round of bailouts like the ones the banks got in 2008. Instead, America will descend into an era of zero-sum austerity and virulent political conflict, extinguishing even today’s feeble remnants of economic growth.”

Stockman has many proposed solutions ‑ abolish Medicare, means-test Social Security ‑ but little hope of any change. The system is broken, the die is cast, sell, sell, sell, sit with cash in your mattress and hope we can make it through the reckoning.

I’ll have a glass of wine and the genetically modified salmon, please

Zachary Karabell
Mar 22, 2013 12:46 UTC

While tiny Cyprus teeters on the brink, dominating much of the news, and elusive peace in the Middle East remains in the headlines, there is another battle going on — the latest in a long war that is shaping our planet far more than the events in Nicosia or the West Bank. Food and water are essential to human existence, yet in the last few decades the ability to increase food supply by technological means has stirred fear and passion. Cyprus’ woes may come and go; the food wars are going nowhere.

Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s just announced they would not sell a soon-to-be-approved genetically modified salmon called AquAdvantage. That follows Whole Foods’ recent announcement that it would require all items sold in its stores to include information on “genetically modified organisms” by 2018. Popularly known as GMOs, these are foods whose genetic code has been scientifically altered. The recent steps are just the latest salvo, and follow a failed ballot initiative in California last fall that would have mandated all GMO foods to be clearly labeled.

These measures were presented as part of ongoing efforts to allow consumers to make more informed choices about their foods, but they also take a clear moral stance against GMOs. In announcing the salmon ban, a Whole Foods spokesperson stated: “We believe all farmed animals — whether raised on land or in water, should be from breeding programs designed to promote their welfare rather than developed solely on production or economic outcomes.” A number of Whole Foods shoppers were already outraged that the chain has been selling products containing GMOs, particularly corn produced from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds. One advocate labeled Whole Foods “Wholesanto,” claiming that it only agreed to labeling after too many customers threatened to boycott the store. There was also reference to the policies in the United Kingdom and much of the European Union, where public attitudes towards GMOs are overwhelmingly negative.

Budgeting for mistrust

Zachary Karabell
Mar 13, 2013 15:01 UTC

Paul Ryan unveiled the House Republican budget this week with an ominous yet familiar warning: “America’s national debt is over $16 trillion.” Having stated the problem, he then offered a solution, one which differed only marginally from what he’s offered the past two years. Namely: restrain government healthcare spending on Medicare and Medicaid, reform the individual tax code, close loopholes, lower corporate taxes, and promote natural gas and energy independence. The goal? A balanced budget by 2023 that will ensure “the well-being of all Americans…and reignite the American dream.”

The strongest part of Ryan’s unveiling is not the specifics, which may not be very strong at all, but the unimpeachable critique of the White House and congressional Democrats for not offering their own blueprint and budget for the future. Some of that is semantics; both the president and congressional Democrats have offered various rough outlines of their long-term budget, and now Senate Democrats offered their counterproposal. But until late they had operated more in the rough-and-tumble of dysfunctional Washington negotiations rather than with explicit, official and formal (and long) outlines of exactly what will be spent and how. Yes, each year the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, does assess and express views about present spending. That is not the same as an explicit pathway for the future, which Ryan has indeed offered.

Such offerings are vital. You may, as I do, disagree with key elements of what Ryan and the Republicans are proposing. You may, as I do, object to the fixation on the size of the current debt without any consideration of why that debt was incurred and how much it currently costs to service it, given historically low interest rates. But Republicans are offering a set of answers, and Ryan for one is asking for those to be addressed so the process of debating and, yes, compromising can begin. No, the president is not required to offer a detailed budget; the power of the purse lies with Congress, not the White House. But a detailed vision, especially one that contrasts with the Republican one, would be welcome and productive.

The U.S. can’t afford a Chinese economic collapse

Zachary Karabell
Mar 7, 2013 13:29 UTC

Is China about to collapse? That question has been front and center in the past weeks as the country completes its leadership transition and after the exposure of its various real estate bubbles during a widely watched 60 Minutes exposé this past weekend.

Concerns about soaring property prices throughout China are hardly new, but they have been given added weight by the government itself. Recognizing that a rapid implosion of the property market would disrupt economic growth, the central government recently announced far-reaching measures designed to dent the rampant speculation. Higher down payments, limiting the purchases of investment properties, and a capital gains tax on real estate transactions designed to make flipping properties less lucrative were included.

These measures, in conjunction with the new government’s announcing more modest growth targets of 7.5 percent a year, sent Chinese equities plunging and led to a slew of commentary in the United States saying China would be the next shoe to drop in the global system.

The black swan sequester

Zachary Karabell
Mar 1, 2013 21:36 UTC

Everyday, we are treated to a new peril: Today we have sequestration, a word not much in anyone’s lexicon until recently. The mandated cuts to the federal budget, $85 billion by last count, will further stunt anemic economic growth, or so economists and the Congressional Budget Office guesstimate. The prognostications surrounding the sequester have been grim, with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough warning of a “devastating list of horribles,” ranging from severe travel snafus to the end of vital education programs.

In the political media, in Washington, and in the defense industry (which will see especially draconian cuts), all of this is Big News. But after months of buildup, the end-of-days drama is ending with a resounding thud. The meh reaction of financial markets of late is particularly telling (the Dow flirted with its all-time high this week). Markets are mood rings, and the mood now is one of boredom and fatigue. Even the New York Times led page 1 not with the sequester but with a studied picture of a nun saying goodbye to the retiring pope.

This is a good thing. Since the housing market imploded six years ago, we’ve been suffering from black swan fever. When Nicholas Taleb penned his passionate polemic about the inability of financial markets to allow for unanticipated and rare events (“black swans”), he did us all a great service in highlighting the narrow-mindedness that can have dire consequences.

I think we’re turning Japanese, I really hope so

Zachary Karabell
Feb 22, 2013 17:22 UTC

Why the U.S. would be lucky to become Japan.

By Zachary Karabell

Over the past few years, it’s become ever more common to hear comparisons between the United States and Japan. They are not favorable. They come in the form of dark warnings that the current policies of the United States will lead to a fate similar to Japan’s over the past 20 years: stagnant growth with no end in site.

Let’s just say for the moment that the United States is becoming Japan – a nation of little to no economic growth, high public debt and a broken financial system. How bad is that? Is becoming Japan really a worst-case scenario?

The past 20 years for Japan have been called the lost decades. Government debt is in excess of 200 percent of GDP. The country has suffered from chronic deflation, a sluggish job market, an aging population, an insular culture and growth stalled at between 1 percent and 2 percent a year. Governments have come and gone. What’s most notable is that until recently, Japan has rarely been at the forefront of economic news the way it was in the 1980s and 1990s, even though it is the world’s third-largest economy and one of its wealthiest. If you factor in deflation, Japan hasn’t just seen tepid growth; it has seen none: Nominal economic output has barely budged since 1992.

Obama sees the limits of government

Zachary Karabell
Feb 15, 2013 18:15 UTC

President Barack Obama made the middle class the focus of his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He was lauded by some as fighting for jobs and opportunity, and even for launching a “war on inequality” equivalent to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1960s War on Poverty. He was assailed by others for showing his true colors as a man of big government and wealth redistribution.

Yet the initiatives Obama proposed are striking not for their sweep but for their limited scope. That reflects both pragmatism and realism: Not only is the age of big government really over, so is the age of government as the transformative force in American society. And that is all for the best.

Wait a minute, you might reasonably object: What about healthcare? What about the proposals for minimum -wage increases, for expanded preschool, for innovation centers, for $50 billion in spending on roads and infrastructure? Surely those are big government and aim, effectively or not, for transformation?

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