posted March 1, 2013
Income Inequality and Double Dip Recession

Predicting ‘Double Dip’ Recession

In this writer’s 2010 book, ‘Epic Recession: Prelude to Global Depression’ (Palgrave-Macmillan and Pluto Press, May 2010), it was argued that the current recession is not a ‘normal’ recession and that there would therefore be no normal recovery. The character of ‘Epic’ recessions is that monetary (central bank) policy may bail out the banks, but would not succeed in stimulating an economic recovery except for stock, bond, derivatives, and other markets for speculators; similarly, fiscal policy (tax cuts and government spending) would prove insufficient for recovery as well. The result would be a ‘bouncing along the bottom’ for the US economy for years at subpar economic growth, some quarters growing somewhat but below historic trends, and other quarters declining to zero growth or barely above it. That is in fact what has happened since June 2009, the officially declared end of the recession in GDP terms.

As stop-go, slow economic growth continued, this writer further noted, it raised increasingly the possibility of a bona fide ‘double dip’ recession occurring at some point in the US economy (and globally) by 2013-14.

Reviewing that prediction, it is now apparent most of the Eurozone economies are already in a second recession. The United Kingdom has not only experienced a ‘double dip’ but is presently approaching a possible ‘triple dip’. Japan is facing the same experience as the UK. And, as analyzed in more detail below, the US economy entered negative growth in the fourth quarter of 2012 as well.

The US economy previously narrowly avoided a double dip in the summer of 2011, with growth collapsing to almost zero at one point. In this writer’s second book, ‘Obama’s Economy’, written at the end of 2011, it was further predicted the possibility of a double dip recession in the US was growing significantly and could happen by 2013-14 given certain conditions. Those conditions included the following: First, the lack of real job, housing, and state-local government spending recoveries in 2012-13. Second, the emergence of a banking crisis and deepening recession in Europe. Third, a significant slowing of the Chinese-Indian-Brazilian economies as a consequence of slowing global manufacturing and world trade. And fourth, intensified deficit cutting by the US Congress after the November 2012 elections that would begin to have a real impact the US economy in 2013-14.

The first two points have materialized since late 2011. While not worsening further, the US jobless level appears stagnant around 22-23 million, housing recovery is tepid at best, and state-local governments continue to layoff thousands every month and cut spending. Concerning the third point, the banking crisis is clearly, though in fits and starts, emerging in Europe and austerity programs there continue to drive the Eurozone economies steadily into deeper recession. Although not in recession, the growth rates in the big three emerging economies—China, India, Brazil—have slowed by almost half thus far. And now deficit cutting in the US has begun in earnest, and promises to have a major economic impact in 2013-14.

GDP Data: July-December 2012

US GDP data released on January 30, 2013, for the fourth quarter 2012, showed a decline in GDP of -0.1% for the last three months of 2012. Government and business inventory spending led the decline. To the extent consumer spending played a positive role at all in the 4th quarter, it was largely driven by auto sales—stimulated by auto dealers offering buyers deep price discounts, virtually free credit with near 0% auto loan interest rates, as well new auto purchases in the northeast as a result of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction of existing auto stock. 2012 Holiday season retail sales data, in contrast, were otherwise not particularly notable. Net export sales continued to sag in the last quarter, as the slowdown in world manufacturing and trade continued globally. And as others have noted, an important source of past consumer spending and GDP growth—i.e. health care services—begun ominously to slow at the end of 2012 as well, promising to continue that trend into 2013.
This weak scenario in the fourth quarter 2012, and the virtual absolute stop to US economic growth, was also predicted on this writer’s and other public blogs in a piece entitled “US 3rd Quarter GDP: Short Term Myopia vs. Long Term Realities?.

It was there noted that the nearly 3% growth rate in the preceding 3rd quarter, July-September 2012, was artificially produced by record one-quarter federal defense spending which accounted for more than one third of total GDP growth in the quarter. That surge was preceded by more than two years of federal government spending reductions, and thus the third quarter defense-government spending surge represented previously held back government spending then released right before the November 2012 elections. It was predicted in the blog piece on GDP 3rd quarter results that government spending therefore would decline sharply in the following fourth quarter—which it did. It was further noted business inventory spending was on a track to decline as well in the fourth quarter, and that US net exports, having turned negative in the third quarter, would continue to decline in the fourth quarter—all of which also occurred. The true US GDP growth trend for July-September was therefore not the nearly 3% reported, but only around 1-1.5% for the third quarter. That’s been the average GDP rate for more than two years.

When adjustments for special cases were made, in other words, the US economy continued to ‘bump along the bottom’ in the third quarter of last year, and that already tepid performance weakened still further in the fourth quarter. It means the US economy is not only not recovering, but is weakening slowly but steadily still further. And it is, contrary to commentary in the weak of the -0.1% results of the fourth quarter, not due to temporary events but is due to more fundamental developments that show no sign of abating in 2013.

In the first quarter 2013, a number of negative developments continue to prevail, suggesting the first quarter 2013 GDP will at best look much like the fourth quarter—and could even prove worse. First, more than $100 billion has been taken out of the economy with the end of the payroll tax cut last January 1. Second, consumer sentiment and spending is showing a definite sharp decline in the early months of 2013. Deficit cutting will intensify with a deal on the ‘sequestered’ $1.2 trillion agreement that will occur in March in Congress. Defense spending cuts projected will be reduced, but non-defense spending will occur and perhaps even rise. Consumer spending on autos, which has been a plus in 2012, cannot continue at the prior pace. Health care spending will likely continue to slow, as health insurance premiums of 10-20% continue to be imposed in the new year by price gouging health insurance companies looking to maximize their returns in 2013 in anticipation of Obamacare taking effect in 2014. Business spending that occurred in the fourth quarter to take advantage of tax laws will almost certainly slow in the first quarter. Industrial production and manufacturing will add little, if anything, to the economy and housing will contribute to growth through apartment construction only. In short, the scenario is one of continued very slow growth.

It is not the deficit that faces a ‘cliff’; it is the US economy. Should Congress proceed with continued deep spending cuts in 2013, should the Euro economies, UK, and Japan continue to weaken, and should China-India-Brazil not succeed in reversing their economic slowdowns significantly—then the odds of a double dip in the US will rise still further in 2013-14, as this writer has predicted.

The strategic question is ‘Why is the US economy so fragile and weak? Why has it been unable to generate a sustained economic recovery from ‘Epic’ recession since 2009? Why now, after five years since the onset of recession in late 2007, has the US economy stagnating and collapsed to virtually zero growth, once again? ‘
The answers to this are not all that difficult to understand. First, despite $13 trillion in free, no interest money given to banks, investors, and speculators by the US federal reserve for five years now, the banks still continue to dribble out lending to small-medium US businesses. No loans mean no investment mean no hiring mean no income growth for consumption, which is 70% of the economy. Similarly, large non-bank corporations continue to sit on more than $2 trillion in cash. Like the banks, they too refuse largely to invest in the US to create jobs, preferring hold the cash, or use it to buyback stock and pay shareholders more dividends, to invest it offshore, or to invest it in speculating with financial instruments like derivatives, foreign exchange, commodities futures, and the like.

At the same time, the bottom 80% of households, more than 110 million, are confronted with 5 years now of continuing real disposable income stagnation or decline. This income stagnation and decline translates into insufficient income to stimulate consumption spending, which makes up 71% of the US economy. What spending exists is fundamentally credit driven, not income driven. Thus car loans, student loans, credit cards, and installment loans rise and with it household ‘debt’. The problem with the US economy therefore is fundamentally twofold: not only insufficient income but growing household debt. Together they result in consumption becoming increasingly ‘fragile’ (an income to debt ratio term), and therefore unable to play its historic role of generating a sustained economic recovery. The outcome: ‘stop go’ recoveries, bumping along the bottom, or what this writer has called an ‘epic’ recession.

How has this condition of deepening reliance on credit-debt and declining real income occurred in the US? It is the consequence of decades, now accelerating in recent years, of a redistribution of income in the US from the bottom 80% households to the wealthiest 10%, 5% and especially 1% households.

What follows is a detailed accounting of the dimensions of the growing income inequality in the US, and some of the more important reasons for that continuing, and now accelerating, income shift. However, the shift and growing income inequality—approaching now obscene levels—is not simply a ‘moral outrage’. It not only represents a gross violation of historically held American values or reasonable equality for all. It is a condition that has served, and continues to serve, as a major cause of the lack of sustained economic recovery in the US now for five years—as well as a major factor in explaining why the US continues to drift toward another ‘double dip’ recession.

The Wealthiest 1% Households Historic Income Gains

The dominant characteristic of the US economy today—and a fundamental cause of the faltering, stop-go economic recovery in the U.S. since 2009—is the long term and continuing growth of income inequality in America.

That inequality is most dramatically represented by the growth in the share of national income by the wealthiest 1% of households, on the one hand, and the decline in the share of national income for the bottom 80% and remaining 110 million plus US households, on the other—i.e. between those earning an average of $593,000 a year (top 1%) and those earning less than $118,000 a year (bottom 80%) with a median annual income of around $50,000.

With average annual incomes of $593,000 a year today, the wealthiest 1% of households in the U.S.—approximately 750,000 out of a total of more than 150 million families in the U.S.—receive about 24% of all income generated in the US every year, according to Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz. That’s up from only 8% of total income in 1979. That’s a tripling of the wealthiest 1%’s annual share of total income over the last three decades since Ronald Reagan took office. Not since 1928, when the wealthiest 1% share of income reached 22%, has income inequality been as extreme as today. And income inequality continues to grow worse at an accelerating rate.

According to studies of IRS data by University of California economist, Emmanuel Saez, and others, during the Clinton years, 1993-2000, the wealthiest 1% households captured 45% of all the increase in US income growth. During the George W. Bush years, 2000-2008, they captured 65%. And in the latest year of available data, 2010, they captured 93%. So the top 1% recovered quickly from the recession. So did their corporations, from which the same 1% households obtain more than 90% of all their income in the form of capital gains, dividends, interest, rents, and other forms of ‘capital incomes’.

Corporate Profits and the 1%

Profits are the major conduit through which the wealthiest 1% incomes grow, redistributed to stockowners, bondholders, and senior executive managers in the form of capital incomes like capital gains, dividends, interest, rents, etc. And Corporate Profits have done extremely well the past three decades, since 2001 in particular, and especially since the Great Recession of 2007-09.

After three years of recession, by 2011 corporate profits in the US were higher than even in 2007 just before the Great Recession began, rising at the fastest rate in 31 years during the recession and immediately after in 2010-11.

Averaging an annual rate of increase of about 10% from 1948-2007, Pre-Tax Corporate profits virtually doubled from their recession 2008 low-point of $971 billion to $1.876 trillion by March 2011 less than a year and a half later—i.e. a level 28% higher than even their 2007 pre-recession record high of $1.460 trillion.

A subset of the $1.876 trillion, i.e. profits of the 500 largest US corporations, rose 243% in 2009-10 according to the Wall St. Journal. That’s 243% after averaging 10% a year during 1998-2007. Moreover, that 243% does not include profits of multinational US corporations hidden and sheltered in their offshore subsidiaries, which in 2012 were estimated at more than $1.4 trillion.

This record gain in pre-tax corporate profits since the onset of the economic crisis in 2007-08 was achieved not from the increased sale of goods and services, but from record profit margins from cost-cutting operations—i.e. by cutting jobs, by reducing wages, benefits, and hours of work, and by productivity gains pocketed by management and not shared with their workers. Profit margins since 2008, i.e. profits as a percent of operating costs, by 2011 thus attained the highest levels in more than 80 years.

Just as cost-cutting at the direct expense of workers has been the main factor in generating record pre-tax corporate profits, so too have Corporate After-Tax profits surged as a consequence of massive corporate tax cutting by governments at all levels, Federal as well as State and Local.

Major corporate tax cut legislation in 2004-05, new rules allowing faster depreciation write-offs (a form of tax cut), and disregard of enforcing the foreign profits tax under George W. Bush all resulted in a further surge in corporate after-tax profits in Bush’s second term, 2004-08. That was followed by hundreds of billions more in business tax cuts at the Federal level under Bush and Obama from 2008 through 2012.

State and local government taxes on business since 2008 have been falling especially fast, as a December 1, 2012 feature article by Louis Story in the New York Times abundantly pointed out. That article estimated the cost of business tax cuts to by State and Local governments at no less than an additional $70 billion a year not represented in the above profits figures.

As a result of the continuing corporate tax cuts since 2008 at all levels of government, Corporate After-Tax profits recovered even faster during the recent recession than did pre-tax corporate profits. From a 2008 low-point of $746 billion, in less than 18 months from the recession low, after tax profits rose to $1.454 trillion—i.e. a level of 47% higher than even their 2007 pre-recession record of $989 billion. In other words, after tax profits recovered twice as fast as pre-tax profits as a direct consequence of government business tax cutting during the recent recession.

Corporate cost cutting at the direct expense of labor resulted in record corporate pre-tax profits during the last decade and especially since 2008. Three decades of corporate tax cutting—intensifying since 2001 and continuing through the recent recession—resulted in even greater after-tax profit gains. But as corporate tax cutting has intensified so too has the cutting of taxes on recipients of capital incomes—i.e. capital gains, dividends, interest, rents, etc.

The Personal Income Tax has concurrently been reduced for the wealthiest 1% households, enabling the ‘pass through’ of ever larger magnitudes of corporate after-tax profits to the wealthiest 1% and permitting that 1% to retain ever greater amounts of those distributed corporate profits as a result of accompanying reductions in the personal income tax.

The reductions in the Personal Income Tax have occurred in various forms: the lowering of the top marginal tax rates, the raising of the income threshold at which the top marginal rates would apply, the reducing of capital gains and dividends tax rates even faster than for other forms of income of the wealthiest 1%, introduction of new forms of interest income taxed at lowest rates (e.g. carried interest), the IRS benign neglect of offshore tax sheltering by the wealthy, the proliferation of countless income tax loopholes benefiting the wealthy too numerous to recount.

The outcome has been the shift in income to the top 1%, from 8% in 1979 to the estimated 24% share of national income in 2012, and the accelerating accrual of all income gains by the top 1% noted previously in the opening paragraphs of this essay.

Tax System Contribution to Income Inequality

In the 1970s, the top federal income tax rate on the wealthiest individuals ranged from 50% to 70%. But the top 1% paid an actual average tax rate— after loopholes, deductions and exemptions—of about only 45%. By 2011, however, this 45% actual rate had declined much further to 22.5%, according to a late 2012 study in the ‘Tax Justice’ journal—i.e. very much lower than the official 35% top personal income tax rate typically mentioned by the press, the government, and in current debates about the ‘fiscal cliff’.

Under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s the nominal top tax rate was reduced from 70% in 1980 to 50% to as low as 28% in 1988. The actual rates in turn were even lower. Along with the acceleration of defense spending, that the 70% to 28% rate cuts were a major cause of the then record budget deficits. With ballooning budget deficits during the 1980s due to tax cuts, defense spending, and the bailout of mortgage banks and corporate junk bond holders under Reagan, the 28% top rate was raised temporarily in 1991 to 31% under George H.W. Bush, and in 1993 to 39.6% under Clinton. However, the income threshold level at which the 39.6% top rate took effect was raised from $82k a year to $250k, which minimized significantly the tax cut hit for the top 1%. Other loopholes were simultaneously introduced, reducing the hit even further.

The Clinton tax cuts were thereafter followed by a new round of massive Personal Income tax cuts for the top 1% and corporations under George W. Bush, beginning in 2001 through 2005. The top tax rate was reduced to 35% and the income threshold was raised even further to $312,000. In addition, capital gains and dividends taxable rates plummeted to 15%, and billionaire hedge fund managers were able to claim their personal income was only a special category called ‘carried interest’ and therefore taxable also at the 15% top rate.

The Bush Personal Income Tax cuts of 2001-04 amounted to more than $3 trillion over the subsequent decade, 80% of which went to the wealthiest households. Hundreds of billions more in corporate tax cuts were added in 2004-05, including reducing the 35% corporate tax rate to 5.25% for multinational corporations’ offshore earnings.

An additional $1.3 trillion in mostly business tax cuts were further added as part of the Bush-Obama fiscal stimulus programs introduced from 2008-12, which included a two year extra extension of the Bush tax cuts by Obama in 2010. Were the Bush tax cuts to extend for another decade through 2022—as Republicans, wealthy households in general, and some Democrats have advocated—it would add a further $4.7 trillion to US deficits and debt, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

As a consequence of the more than $4 trillion in Bush-Obama tax cuts from 2001-2012, Federal government taxes as a percent of Gross Domestic Product, GDP, have fallen from 20.6% of GDP in 2000 to only 14.4%–i.e. the lowest on record since 1950. Perhaps as much as 80% of that lost revenue represents tax revenue that would have otherwise been collected from corporate America and the wealthiest 1%. That difference between the long term average of 20.6% and current 14.4% is roughly 6.2% of GDP. Given that US GDP is estimated at around $16.5 trillion in 2012, it means that more than a trillion dollars ($1.023 trillion to be exact) is being lost in Federal government revenue each year, and every year, as a result of tax cutting since 2000 and lost tax revenue due to the failure of the economy to create jobs and ensure normal wage gains since 2000.

If Federal tax revenues were restored to the pre-2000 level of 20.6% of GDP, it would produce an annual increase in Federal government revenues of $458 billion a year. That’s more than $4.5 trillion in additional revenue over the coming decade—and a number which is just about the same as that proposed by Republican and Democrat politicians today in Fiscal Cliff negotiations at year end 2012 as the target to reduce the US deficits and debt. Congress and Obama could solve the deficit problem for another decade by just doing nothing and let the Bush tax cuts expire on December 31, 2012.

Alternatively, the $4.5 trillion could be achieved by means of just one simple tax measure: raise the effective, actual tax rate on the wealthiest 1% households from the present actual average rate of 22.5% today, to a 45% actual effective top marginal rate. That simply measure alone raises Federal tax revenue by the $458 billion a year, and restores Federal tax revenues from the current 14.4% low to the prior long term average of 20.6% of GDP.

That single measure—raise the top tax rate on the wealthiest households averaging $593,000 a year in income to 45%–would also more than meet the target of a $4 trillion cut in the US deficit over the next decade—thereby eliminating any and all need to cut social security, Medicare, Medicaid, Education, or any other spending, including even Defense, or to raise any tax on the middle class.

In fact, the latter social programs could be even expanded, funded by the introduction of other equity-oriented tax policies. For example, introducing a moderate ‘financial transaction tax’ of $1 per stock trade, $100 per $10k bond trade, and 2% on all derivatives trades could produce tax revenue of another $150 billion a year. Requiring multinational corporations to pay taxes on their profits diverted to offshore subsidiaries could raise additional hundreds of billions a year. And requiring both individual and corporate investors to repatriate their $4 trillion in offshore tax shelters could raise hundreds of billions more a year. And that is just a short list. The impact of such policies on restoring income equality in America is not difficult to imagine.

Income Decline for the Bottom 80%

But income inequality is a consequence not only of income shifting to the wealthiest households and their corporations. Income inequality is a ‘double edged’ sword. It is also the consequence of conditions and policies which have simultaneously reduced the real incomes of the bottom 80% households—i.e. those 110 million earning less than $118,000 annual income and most of whom earn less than $50,000—while simultaneously raising the incomes of the wealthiest and their corporations. Once again the nexus is Corporate America.

Policies and measures that have raised corporate profits in the US to record levels over the past three decades, and especially since 2001, are in many instances the same policies that have reduced income for the middle and working classes in America. A short list of the major causes would include:

1. De-unionization of much of the labor force and a consequent collapse in the union-nonunion wage differential
2. Free trade policies that have lowered wages for new export companies by 20% compared to higher paid jobs lost to imports.
3. Millions of jobs permanently lost to free trade from NAFTA, CAFTA, and others
4. Offshoring of high paying jobs by multinational corporations to Asia and beyond
5. Creation of a 40 million two-tier workforce of part time and temp workers, with 60% wages and virtually no benefits
6. Elimination of health care benefits for tens of millions, and reduction in benefit coverage and higher cost sharing for those remaining with benefits
7. Longer duration between adjustments of minimum wage legislation, and smaller progressive adjustments when they occur
8. Rising base level of unemployed as recessions occur more frequently, are deeper and longer in duration, resulting in job recovery longer and at lower pay
9. Management hoarding of all productivity gains without sharing in part with wages
10. Elimination of defined benefit pensions and replacement with minimal 401k plans
11. Exemption by government rule changes of millions of workers from eligibility for overtime pay
12. Rise in property tax, sales taxes, and other local government fees and charges as local government grants more and more tax cuts to corporations and businesses.
13. Indexation and rise in payroll tax contributions by workers
14. Reduction in paid leave time for vacations, holidays, sick leave, etc.

These and scores of other measures have resulted in a concurrent decline in working and middle class income, as profits of Corporations and income from capital simultaneously have risen. The heaviest impact has been on working class households earning annual income from $39,000 to $118,000 a year—virtually all of which is wage income—sometimes called the middle class.

According to the PEW Institute’s 2012 study, the share of total income for those households in that annual income range declined from 58% in 1983 to 45% in 2011. So what the top 1% households gained (16% share increase, from 8% to 24%), the middle class largely lost (13% share decline from 58% to 45%). In terms of wealth estimates, the middle class has lost 28% of its wealth in just the last two decades, whereas the top1% share of wealth has risen from 27% to 40%. The size of the middle class itself has declined, shrinking from 61% of adults in the US population at its peak to only 51% today.

The decline in income and wealth has been long term, increasing noticeably since 1980, accelerating since 2001, and continuing through the recent recession to the present day. Since 2008, households without a 4 year college education have been especially hard hit, with a significant -9.3% income decline at the median in less than four years. Older workers, age 55-64, and younger workers, age 25-34, have been similarly hard hit in terms of income decline; the former a -9.7% drop and latter a -8.9% drop. Even college degreed workers’ income has fallen by -5.9% since the so-called end of the recent recession in June 2009.

While some of the income decline is due to wage and benefit reductions by those who did not lose their jobs during the recent recession, much more of the relative income decline has been due to massive loss of jobs since 2007, which reached a level of 27 million at one point and still remain at 22 million after four years of so-called recovery. While more than 15 million jobs were lost, no more than 5 million have been ‘recovered’ since the recession began. Moreover, the jobs added during the recession have paid significantly less than the jobs lost, thus lowering income accordingly. According to a National Employment Law Project survey published in August 2012, 60% of the jobs lost during the recession were higher paying construction, manufacturing, and tech jobs, ranging between $13.84-$21.13 per hour. But only 22% of the jobs added since 2008 were in this range. In contrast, 21% of the jobs lost after 2008 were low paying, $7.69-$13.84, but the latter have been 58% of the jobs added during the recession. And the problem is not only short term and recession related. Since 2001, low wage jobs have grown 8.7% while higher wage jobs have decline -7.3%.

In summary, while corporate profits have continued to grow so too has the income of the top 1 wealthiest households. This has been made possible in large part at the expense of the middle and working classes, as rising corporate profits gained at workers’ expense are passed through to forms of capital incomes—the latter process accelerated by the reduction in both corporate taxation and personal income taxation for the wealthiest 1% households. The process began in earnest more than three decades ago under Reagan, continued under Clinton, accelerated under George W. Bush, and has remained under Obama during his first term. The consequence has been the growing—and accelerating—income inequality in America which is a major characteristic of the US economy in the 21st century.

A rebalancing of the increasingly skewed distribution of income in the US must include a major restructuring of the tax system which is a central enabling factor behind the growing inequality, although not the only cause. The causes of inequality include those corporate and government policies that have reduced working and middle class incomes in order to accelerate the growth of corporate profits. But the tax system has played the key role of recycling those profits to the wealthiest households as well, at an increasing rate and in ever larger magnitudes of income transfer to the 1% from the rest, especially the bottom 80%.

The stagnation and decline of middle and working class incomes in America has resulted in the inability of the economy to fully recover. Consumption is 70% of the economy, and the middle and working classes are the overwhelming core of that consumption. Without income growth, they can only resort to consumption based on more credit and debt and on withdrawing savings to finance basic consumption—neither alternative of which is a long run solution to stagnating income and consumption and therefore continued faltering economic recovery.

In a somewhat historic irony, the current deficit cutting negotiations between the two parties in Congress and the Obama administration will inevitably produce an outcome that will only further reduce disposable income for consumption by the middle and working class in America in order to continue tax cuts for the wealthy and reduce still further the tax rates for their corporations. The consequences is that income inequality trends will inevitably worsen further in the US in the coming years, holding back full economic recovery and continuing the US economy on a trajectory toward another recession.

Jack Rasmus
Copyright January 2013

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