A Total-Returns Profile of Economic Polarization in America
Based on work with Dirk Bezemer, with charts by Howard Reed
Polarization in America, 23 September 2019
“More than half of all Americans feel pressure and strain, according to the April 2019 Global Emotions Report published by Gallup. Most (55%) Americans recall feeling stressed much of the day in 2018. That’s more than in all but three countries globally. Nearly half of Americans felt worried (45%) and more than a fifth (22%) felt angry. ‘Even as their economy roared, more Americas were stressed, angry and worried last year than they have been at many points during the last decade,’ Julie Ray, a Gallup editor, wrote in the summary report.”
USA Today, April 26, 2019
“For me the relevant issue isn’t what I report on the bottom line, it’s what I get to keep. … I love depreciation.”
Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal
1. Introduction and overview: A debt-strapped era of downward mobility
Those who praise the post-2008 economy as a successful recovery point to the fact that the stock market has soared to all-time highs, while the unemployment rate has fallen to a decade-low. But is the stock market a good proxy for how the overall economy is doing? The low reported unemployment rate sidesteps the predominance of minimum-wage jobs, part-time “gig” work, and the fact that the Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018 reports that 39% of Americans do not have $400 cash available for a medical or other emergency, and that a quarter of adults skipped medical care in 2018 because they could not afford it. The latest estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that nearly half (48 percent) of households headed by someone 55 and older lack any retirement savings or pension benefits. Even in what the press calls an economic boom, most Americans feel stressed and many are chronically angry and worried. According to a 2015 survey by the American Psychological Association, financial worry is the “number one cause of stress in America today.”
The Fed describes them as suffering from “financial fragility.” What is fragile is their economic status and self-worth, teetering on the brink of downward mobility. Living in today’s financialized economy creates stresses that seem more damaging emotionally than living in a poor country. America certainly is not a poor country, but it has become so debt-ridden, and its wealth and income growth so highly concentrated, that much of its population is emotionally worse off than that of almost any other country in the world.
The U.S. economy’s soaring wealth and income finds its counterpart on the liabilities side of the balance sheet. Rising stock prices have been fueled by corporate stock buyback programs and debt leveraging, not earnings from new tangible investment and employment. And rising real estate prices reflect the decline in interest rates, enabling a given rental flow to be capitalized into higher bank loans and market prices. Additionally, the wave of foreclosures on junk mortgages and debt-strapped new home buyers has reduced home ownership rates, forcing more of the population into a rental market, whose rising charges for housing have supported general real estate prices. Thus, these capital gains do not reflect a thriving economy, but a higher-cost one that is polarizing between creditors and debtors, property owners and renters, and the financial sector vis-à-vis the rest of the economy.
The main culprit for the economy’s falling growth rate and the general middle-class economic squeeze is debt – or more specifically, the burden of having to pay it back, with penalties, fees and lower credit ratings. The mainstream press depicts the rising market price of homes as a benefit to homeowners, a capital gain as if they almost were real estate speculators or capitalists in miniature, not wage-earners running up debt. GDP statisticians include the rise in valuation of owner-occupied real estate and the rising rents it saves homeowners from having to pay as adding to GDP. But homeowners do not receive a corresponding income for living in their homes, even if rents rise in their neighborhood. And debt-financed home-price inflation has become a major factor squeezing family budgets in today’s world.
When they fall behind in their payments and are subject to late fees and higher interest rates, these payments are treated as an addition to GDP (“financial services”), as if the economy is getting richer. So when the specific components of what seems to be empirical statistical evidence of affluence are analyzed, they consist not of real product and prosperity but transfer payments from the economy at large to the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector.
Payments on the economy’s rising debt should rightly be viewed as a subtrahend from national income. But the GDP accounting format treats this rising debt as a necessary cost of production. In this line of theorizing, creditors provide a productive service whose value is reflected in the rate of interest and the magnitude of fees and penalties. Ultra-low interest rates, resulting from financial lobbying pressures, have held down the cost of carrying this debt, but these low official rates mask the reality that many debtors fall behind and have to pay penalty fees and high penalty interest rates.
These payments are added to today’s GDP measure, even as they leave less family income available to be spent on products. The result is a statistical confusion concerning how much GDP growth is actual income and product growth, and how much is rent extracted from disposable personal and corporate income. That is the basic conceptual issue addressed in this paper.
The key to understanding the U.S. economy is not so much GDP as capital (asset-price) gains and the offsetting debt burden financing these gains. This financialized overhead is not real growth. It does not make the economy richer. This paper explains why, and provides a statistical format to measure the magnitude of rent extraction or the FIRE sector on the “product” side of the economy, deflating disposable personal income available to spend on goods and services, and capital gains on the “total returns” side, so as to show how most wealth is achieved not by actual production but by increasingly debt-financed asset-price inflation.