Ever since the spring of 2009 when The-Powers-That-Be (TPTB) were out there claiming to see “green shoots” everywhere, the public has been treated to a non-stop propaganda campaign pushing the narrative of economic recovery.
President Obama himself proclaimed his belief in the strength of the American economy, stating for all the world to hear in his 2016 State of the Union Address that anyone who doubted everything was awesome in the main street economy was, to use his words, “peddling fiction.”
And surely Obama couldn’t be wrong. After all, good doctor Ben Bernanke spent several years injecting the US economy with his concoction of Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) and three rounds of Quantitative Easing (QE). How could anyone doubt but that the wise heads at the Fed have cured what ails us? The stock market just set a new record!
But if you dig down beneath the surface, you’ll find that everything is not awesome. Corporate earnings are down for the fifth quarter in a row. According to the report on Factset, “The second quarter  marks the first time the index has recorded five consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines in earnings since Q3 2008 through Q3 2009.” In other words, corporate earnings haven’t had a losing streak this long since the height of the last financial crisis.
Or take worker productivity, a measure of hourly output per worker, which has declined now for three straight quarters. As the Reuters article pointed out, “U.S. nonfarm productivity unexpectedly fell in the second quarter, pointing to sustained weakness that could raise concerns about corporate profits and companies’ ability to maintain their recent robust pace of hiring.” No kidding.
But why is worker productivity in the US declining? The Reuters article fails to provide a reason. So let me suggest one possibility: businesses are no longer investing in property, plant and equipment, the very things that drive productivity. As Forbes reports, “Corporate executives now shy away from capital spending. Companies are spending money to cut costs – labor cost especially, and also electricity – but few companies are increasing productive capacity.”
So what have executive been spending on if not new productive capacity? Stock buybacks that serve to boost earnings per share and increase bonuses. “Stock buybacks by big American companies are near a historical peak [as of May 2014], but the practice appears to do little to improve their underlying operations and robs them of money for research and future growth. USA Today’s John Waggoner calls stock buybacks a ‘sugar high’,” as John Morgan reports.
Morgan goes on to cite a 1999 quote from Warren Buffett, who said, “Repurchases are all the rage, but are all too often made for an unstated and, in our view, an ignoble reason: to pump or support the stock price.”
Let’s see then, we have stock markets at near record levels, while at the same time corporate earnings are on the decline as worker productivity erodes, which very likely is a consequence of businesses showing greater interest in engineering stock buy-backs rather than in capital spending. Sure sounds like a plan for long-term economic success to me.
I’ve mentioned only a few data points to illustrate that the economy, far from being robust, is in reality quite weak. But for more of the same, consider the following nine ugly charts. Obama’s term in office is highlighted in red.
Things that should be going up in a healthy economy – Labor Force Participation Rate, Median Family Income, Home Ownership – are all going dramatically down. Those items that one would expect to see going down if the economy really were as good as The-Powers-That-Be tell us – Food Stamps, Federal Debt, Money Printing, Healthcare Costs – are going straight up.
These charts tell a very different story from what Obama’s putting out. Maybe he’s the one peddling fiction.