Weakness Begets More Weakness
Guest post by Eric Sprott and David Baker of Sprott Asset Management.
Other than some obligatory arrests for disorderly conduct, the Occupy Wall Street movement celebrated its one year anniversary this past September with little fanfare. While the movement seems to have lost momentum, at least temporarily, it did succeed in showcasing the growing sense of unease felt among a large segment of the US population – a group the Occupy movement shrewdly referred to as “the 99%”. The 99% means different things to different people, but to us, the 99% represents the US consumer. It represents the majority of Americans who are neither wealthy nor impoverished and whose spending power makes up approximately 71% of the US economy. It is the purchasing power of this massive, amorphous group that drives the US economy forward. The problem, however, is that four years into a so-called recovery, this group is still being financially squeezed from every possible angle, making it very difficult for them to maintain their standard of living, let alone increase their levels of consumption.
One of the central themes that arose out of the Occupy movement was the growing sense of unease among the average American citizen with regard to growing imbalances in wealth within the US. The rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. That feeling is entirely legitimate. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2011 the median income of US households, adjusted for inflation, fell to $50,054. This is 4.9% below its 2009 level, and 8.9% below its all-time peak of $54,932 in 1999.1 This is not encouraging data. It implies that the average American household is almost 9% poorer today than it was thirteen years ago.
The Census Bureau data is even more troubling if one acknowledges that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation rate it uses to adjust annual income doesn’t properly account for food, energy or healthcare prices – all key inputs to the average US consumer, and all items that have gone up considerably in price over the last decade, particularly since the advent of quantitative easing. Under current CPI, the items pertaining to food, fuel and healthcare only make up 28% of the total basket.2 The average US family, however, especially among the 99%, is spending far more on these three items as a percentage of their total income. Figure 1 below compares the average price of gasoline and select food items in 1999, when the average household made $54,932 in real terms (inflation adjusted), versus 2012, when the average household made just over $50,000 in the same relative dollars. As can be seen, the increase in food and energy has grossly outpaced the official CPI inflation rate, which conveniently dropped or shifted many of the food and energy components back in the 1990’s. If the Census Bureau used a more appropriate measure of inflation to compare the median household income in 1999 to today, it would result in an even lower annual income number, implying an even worse decline in real wealth over that time period.
Figure 2 below is courtesy of Shadow Government Statistics, and shows US Average Weekly Earnings adjusted for inflation using two versions of inflation measurement. It is a sobering chart. The blue line shows inflation-adjusted earnings using government CPI, and shows a small but steady increase in real earnings since the mid-1990s. The green line, however, shows what inflation adjusted earnings would be today had the US Bureau of Labour Statistics not made changes to the CPI in the early 90s, and reveals that average weekly earnings have actually been in contraction for over 17 years.3 Forget blaming our current woes on the hangover from 2008-2009. The average American worker has been losing income in real terms since the late 1990s. This is clearly a long-term trend which has compounded itself over the last ten years. Weakness begets more weakness.
FIGURE 2: REAL AVERAGE WEEKLY EARNINGS PRODUCTION AND NONSUPERVISORY EMPLOYEES
Deflated by CPI-W versus SGS-Alternate (1990-Base)
To September 2012, Seasonally Ajusted (ShadowStatus.com, BLS)
Source: Shadow Government Statistics, October 16, 2012
Meanwhile, as the Occupy movement also repeatedly highlighted, the increase in wealth inequality within the US has grown steadily over the past thirteen years. Figure 3 below shows the “Gini Ratio” of US household income, which statistically captures income inequality within the country. A Gini Ratio coefficient of 0 corresponds with perfect equality, while a coefficient of 1 describes a situation where one person has all the income, and everyone else has nothing. As can be seen, a clear trend towards inequality has been in place since the late 1960s, and that trend appears to be accelerating today. Just as weakness begets weakness, strength begets strength for those with the most wealth.
FIGURE 3 : INCOME GINI RATIO FOR US HOUSEHOLDS
Source: US Department of Commerce: Census Bureau
These two central tenets of the Occupy movement – that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer, are the same tenets that are hindering a real recovery within the US. We simply cannot expect the US economy to grow if the 99% are not generating more wealth and disposable income over time. Any discussion of a US recovery that doesn’t acknowledge the deteriorating reality of this group is not an honest discussion in our opinion. And it’s only getting worse. On top of consistently losing purchasing power to inflation over the past decade, the 99% is faced with a pronounced deterioration in job quality (in terms of average salary), chronic youth underemployment, an inability of retirees to generate income from savings, and a steady increase in outright poverty. Market pundits can get excited about a 1.1% increase in September retail sales, but they can’t expect that increase to be sustainable unless we see some relief for the core consumptive engine that ultimately drives those sales.
In this vein, it was very interesting to watch the reaction to the most recent US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) unemployment release on October 4, 2012, which optimistically reported US unemployment falling to 7.8% – representing the lowest level of unemployment since January 2009. Rather than elicit jubilation, the report prompted cynicism, most notably from the former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, who famously tweeted, “Unbelievable jobs numbers… these Chicago guys will do anything… can’t debate so change numbers,” immediately after the release.4 Welch’s tweet elicited a torrent of defensive responses, most notably by the BLS who were outraged that anyone would question their methodology. But it’s not the methodology that should cause concern (it is just a survey, after all, although continually lowering the “participation rate” of the US labour force does deserve some eye-rolling), it’s the fact that the jobs numbers are shrouding the painful reality of the post-2008 US labour market: that the jobs lost tend to be higher-paying, while the jobs gained tend to be lower-paying.
It doesn’t take much to see this trend evolving. A cursory review of the most recent layoff announcements makes it fairly clear what type of workers are being laid off in 2012:
“Bank of America slashing 16,000 jobs before December”5
“Pharmaceutical giant Merck to cut nearly 12,000 jobs”6
“Computer giant Hewlett Packard to slash 27,000 jobs by October 2014”7
“AMD Announces 15% Cut in Workforce”8
Meanwhile, the new jobs allegedly responsible for lowering the unemployment rate tend to be coming from companies seeking part-time workers, like Amazon.com, which announced that it will be hiring 50,000 part-time workers for the holiday season.9 This is also reflected in the latest BLS report, which accounted for 582,000 of the reported 873,000 new jobs gained in September as “part-time for economic reasons”.10 The reality is that were it not for those part-time jobs gains, US unemployment would look dismal. Public hiring announcements by US companies have totaled a mere 84,937 workers for the first eight months of 2012, which is significantly lower than the 224,243 workers that were announced for the same period in 2011.11The BLS labour surveys don’t account for the difference between a Bank of America job cut vs. an Amazon.com hire, but that’s the difference that has the biggest impact on the disposable income netted by the job loss/gain.
The trend of high-salary job losses offset by low-salary job gains is increasingly evident among the youngest participants of the 99% – recent college graduates. Figures analyzed by Northeastern University’s Center for Labour Market studies stated that, in 2011, approximately 53.6% of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 were either jobless or working in positions that didn’t require a college education, representing the highest percentage in at least 11 years.12 The data cited in the study implies that at least one out of four recent college graduates was completely out of work last year. This trend is unlikely to change anytime soon. According to government projections, “only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor’s degree or higher to fill the position – teachers, college professors and accountants. Most job openings are in professions such as retail sales, fast food and truck driving, jobs which aren’t easily replaced by computers.”13 With two thirds of the national college class of 2011 burdened with an average student loan debt of $26,600, the US economy will not be able to count on this demographic to generate increased spending in the years to come.14 If anything, most of these recent college grads are essentially an economic write-off until the US labour market improves.
This trend of lower pay is also starting to show in post-graduate professions. According to statistics from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), of law graduates in 2011 whose employment status was known, only 65.4% obtained a job for which bar passage was required.15 NALP writes, “Moreover, with about 8% of these jobs reported as part-time, the percentage employed in a full-time job requiring bar passage is even lower, 60%.”16 Figure 4 shows the decrease in average law salaries since 2009, with the most striking decline evident in the median salary at law firms, which has fallen 35% over the past three years as law firms shift to more lower paying jobs.
FIGURE 4: STARTING SALARIES: CLASSES OF 2009, 2010, AND 2011
Source: Source: National Association for Law Placement, Inc.
Think of the difference in disposable income between a salary of $130,000 in 2009 vs. $85,000 in 2011. That’s the difference that isn’t being expressed in today’s labour statistics, but has a profound impact on consumer spending.
Then there are the retirees, and while they may not yet identify themselves with the Occupy movement, they do undeniably make up a key component of the 99%. This is a group that has not only faced continual inflation erosion, particularly due to massive increases in healthcare costs (see Figure 5), but also now faces the burden of generating retirement income in a perpetual zero percent interest rate environment. If there is any group that has felt the decline in living standards over the past decade it is this one. Consider, for example, that in 2012 a savings of $1 million dollars invested in a generic 10-year Treasury bond currently pays a mere $17,000 in interest before taxes. And that’s $17,000 in 2012 dollars. In comparison, $1 million invested in 10-Year Treasuries in 1999 would have generated $47,200 before tax in 1999 dollars, when a gallon of gas was $1.22 and the cost of almost every household item was lower by half. There is no statistic that measures the impact of this decline on the disposable income for retirees, but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it has completely changed the prospects for an entire generation of savers.
FIGURE 5: HEALTH CARE COSTS EXPLODING
Source: US Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Then there are the millions of Americans who haven’t saved enough: According to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, an estimated 54% of workers in their 60’s do not have enough financial wealth to sustain themselves in their retirement.17 According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 60% of all workers in the US have less than $25,000 of savings and investments.18 That’s less than $25,000 in an investment environment that only pays 1.7% on 10-year Treasury bonds. If they don’t have enough saved for retirement today, how can we expect them to spend more tomorrow? Couple this with the 46 million Americans who are now enrolled in the federal welfare food stamps program, (more than double the amount from a decade earlier), and it paints an extremely bleak picture.19 But this is the reality of the 99%. This is the reality affecting the class of consumers that is expected to drive the US out of recession.
When Ben Bernanke announced QE3 in September, he discussed the importance of increasing the US consumer’s willingness to spend: “The issue here is whether or not improving asset prices generally will make people more willing to spend… If people feel that their financial situation is better because their 401(k) looks better for whatever reason, or their house is worth more, they are more willing to go out and provide the demand.” The 99% will not spend more unless the trend in declining real incomes can be reversed. The current antidote of quantitative easing has indeed helped the equity market and lowered the costs of mortgages. But on the flipside, it has driven the prices of food and energy far beyond the rate of inflation, destroyed retirees’ savings through zero percent interest rates, and ultimately done nothing to boost the confidence and investment required to reverse the persistent labour trend towards lower paying jobs.
The sad fact is that the economic reality for the average family is far worse today than it was ten years ago… even fifteen years ago, and the trend of declining wealth is firmly in place. The youth need higher paying jobs and the retirees need yield, and for all the trillions of dollars that the US government and other western governments have spent and printed, none of it has addressed these key areas of weakness in a way that can reverse the long-term trend. As we approach year-end and the finality of the US election, there will likely be numerous indicators implying a US recovery. Unless they directly benefit the 99%, we would advise readers to take them with a large, bipartisan grain of salt. Weakness begets weakness, until something dramatic reverses the trend’s course. The 99% are firmly stuck in a declining trend, and we do not see it reversing any time soon.