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Corporate Profits Are Up, But Jobs & Overall Worker Incomes Are Not Rising

The Houston Picture

Video: KRIV 26 News

Nelson D. Schwartz, New York Times
With the Dow Jones industrial average flirting with a record high, the split between American workers and the companies that employ them is widening and could worsen in the next few months as federal budget cuts take hold.

That gulf helps explain why stock markets are thriving even as the economy is barely growing and unemployment remains stubbornly high. With millions still out of work, companies face little pressure to raise salaries, while productivity gains allow them to increase sales without adding workers.

“So far in this recovery, corporations have captured an unusually high share of the income gains,” said Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “The U.S. corporate sector is in a lot better health than the overall economy. And until we get a full recovery in the labor market, this will persist.”

The result has been a golden age for corporate profits, especially among multinational giants that are also benefiting from faster growth in emerging economies like China and India.

These factors, along with the Federal Reserve’s efforts to keep interest rates ultralow and encourage investors to put more money into riskier assets, prompted traders to send the Dow past 14,000 to within 75 points of a record high last week.

While buoyant earnings are rewarded by investors and make American companies more competitive globally, they have not translated into additional jobs at home.

Other recent positive economic developments, like a healthier housing sector and growth in orders for machinery and some other durable goods, have also encouraged Wall Street but similarly failed to improve the employment picture.

Unemployment, after steadily declining for three years, has been stuck at just below 8 percent since last September.
With $85 billion in automatic cuts taking effect between now and Sept. 30 as part of the so-called federal budget sequestration, some experts warn that economic growth will be reduced by at least half a percentage point.

But although experts estimate that sequestration could cost the country about 700,000 jobs, Wall Street does not expect the cuts to substantially reduce corporate profits — or seriously threaten the recent rally in the stock markets.
“It’s minimal,” said Savita Subramanian, head of United States equity and quantitative strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Over all, the sequester could reduce earnings at the biggest companies by just over 1 percent, she said, adding, “the market wants more austerity.”

As a percentage of national income, corporate profits stood at 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, the largest share at any time since 1950, while the portion of income that went to employees was 61.7 percent, near its lowest point since 1966.

In recent years, the shift has accelerated during the slow recovery that followed the financial crisis and ensuing recession of 2008 and 2009, said Dean Maki, chief United States economist at Barclays. Corporate earnings have risen at an annualized rate of 20.1 percent since the end of 2008, he said, but disposable income inched ahead by 1.4 percent annually over the same period, after adjusting for inflation.

“There hasn’t been a period in the last 50 years where these trends have been so pronounced,” Mr. Maki said.
(Read more of this story at the New York Times.)

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