The erratic movements of the stock market since the beginning of 2014 reflect the sense of uncertainty that grips the wealthy investors and institutional buyers who dominate the market. (The 1% own 33% of all stock wealth.)
Over time, stock prices reflect current corporate profits and expectations about future profits. Without the Federal Reserve pumping $85 billion each month (over $1 trillion in 2013) into the financial system, few investors believe corporate profits will continue to rise.
The irony is strong – signs that the American economy will grow more rapidly in 2014 and that unemployment will continue to decline actually reinforce the fears on Wall Street that corporate profits and stock prices are about to take a fall.
The current situation highlights the agonizing contradictions the U.S. economy has developed over the last 40 years. Without innovative policies emanating from Washington D.C., prosperity for the general population will continue to remain elusive. The profit squeeze scenario has three elements:
1) The main way in which corporations have increased their profits is by clamping down on worker salaries – that is, workers’ wages have actually fallen since the 1970s, with an acceleration in the decline since 2008, while worker productivity has increased. A 4% fall in wages along with a 2% rise in productivity means a 6% increase in profits, even with small increases in sales. Now, as the economy slowly picks up, business economists argue that a 6.5% unemployment rate will lead to a shortage of skilled labor and a resulting rise in wages. Their claim is that many of the 4 million long term unemployed and most of the 5 million people who have dropped out of the labor force since 2008 are no longer employable as skilled labor. If they are right, then wages for skilled workers will soon rise – squeezing corporate profits.
This is doubly threatening to stock prices because, after the internet bubble burst in 2000 and even more since 2008, corporations have used their profits to artificially push up the value of their stock by buying it back, thus increasing the value of the remaining securities left on the open market. For example, in 2013, corporations invested more than $600 billion buying back their own stocks. If profits go down, fewer companies will be able to carry out this strategy.
2) Another reason corporate profits have been very healthy since the Great Recession is because American businesses have become adept at “financial engineering.” Financial engineering is a business strategy designed to ensure that corporate profits are high and grow almost every quarter. With the great increase in financial speculation that began in the1980s and 1990s, Wall Street began severely punishing companies that don’t report higher profits every quarter. This is feat is almost impossible in an economy where demand and supply rise and fall in unpredictable ways.
However, corporations have discovered they can create steadily rising profits by borrowing money at low interest rates and investing those funds in short term financial products such as derivatives and commercial paper. Now, as the Fed cuts back on its $85 billion per month subsidy, the possibility of rising interest rates threatens the viability of this profit-making strategy.
3. Finally, Wall Street knows there is a major flaw in the Keynesian argument that greater consumer spending will jump start the economy by triggering increases in sales that will improve corporate profits. The flaw is, without tariffs to balance out price differences, American consumers will use wage increases to buy huge quantities of less expensive or higher quality foreign products. Even in a slow growth economy, we continue to run huge trade imbalances with China, with Japan, with Germany, with South Korea, with Singapore, with Saudi Arabia, with Venezuela – the trade deficit with China alone was $440 billion in 2013. Thus, pumping up our economy is like putting air into a leaky tire – there is lots of huffing and blowing, but the tire stays limp.
In the 1980s, the 1990s, and then the 2000s, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Government joined consumers in debt binges that together, blew hard enough to make our economic tire fill up. However, in the world of 2014, both Federal institutions are cutting back their stimulus efforts. This is why Wall Street investors are afraid; they believe we are headed for a brief period of prosperity, followed by a withering away of corporate profits and then of economic growth.