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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Can the Economy Endure a Two-Month Shutdown?

The Daily Escape:

Cannon Beach, OR – 2020 photo by franks28

The short answer to the question above is no, not without outright financial support for individuals by the government. That support if it comes, is likely to be too little, too late.

But the Fed tried something. On Sunday, it announced that it slashed its federal funds rate by a full percentage point, to a target range between 0% and 0.25%. In addition, they launched a new Quantitative Easing program for another $700 billion.

Investors threw up all over the Fed’s Sunday moves, because we’re looking at a “demand shock”, the state-enforced loss of consumer sales,something that can’t be stimulated away. The S&P futures immediately plunged 5% to hit its downside limit. That made for an interesting Monday, with the Dow ending down nearly 3,000 points, or another 13%. In the past month, the market has lost nearly a third of its value.

All these efforts to provide stability actually showed the market that our leaders have no idea what they’re doing. It’s the exact opposite of inspiring confidence.

Did the Fed panic? Fed Chair Jay Powell lowered rates right after Trump said he had the authority to remove Powell. That makes it seem, true or not, like the Fed is now in Trump’s pocket. No confidence-builder there.

Looking through a wider lens, Mr. Market has decided that the Fed is pushing on a string. Rates were already so low that there was little gain from the interest rate reduction, and little else that the Fed could do. Mostly, the Fed signaled that it is very frightened about the prospect of a global recession.

In addition, the market understood that the stimulus bill working its way through the House and Senate is inadequate to the task ahead. For one thing, Pelosi’s bill promises paid sick leave, but as written it only covers about 20% of all workers.

Again through that wide-angle lens, the growing COVID-19 business lockdown strategy will have an economic impact similar to a natural disaster, like a hurricane, but played out over a longer time frame. FEMA has found that 40% of businesses close in a natural disaster. And of the businesses that reopen, only 29% survive the after the following two years.

Since our economy is 70% services, many industries facing the lockdown, like tourism, casinos, restaurants, and hotels, will soon be in meltdown mode. The Fed has no answer to a massive drop in consumer spending, only the president and Congress can solve that.

We know that 40% of Americans don’t have enough cash on hand or room on a credit card to handle a $400 emergency. Many service industry workers will be hit with either cutbacks in their hours, or outright job losses. Without financial assistance, we’ll quickly see defaults on rent or mortgages, and delinquencies on credit cards and car payments.

So the Fed creates some more money. But just like in 2008, rather than distributing it to every citizen, they’re giving it to the banks. Somehow, all that money is going to people who already have plenty, while those who need it get nada.

Why is the answer always to give more to the supposed “job creators” when we get basically nothing in return? Why not just send a check to the actual people who need it?

Finally, what will this interest rate cut do for the economy?

  • Are restaurants going to start hiring workers that can’t actually come to work just because loans are cheap?
  • Are workers not collecting a paycheck going to go out and buy a new car/TV/house because interest rates dropped a bit?
  • Are banks going to lend cheap money to airlines, restaurants, and cruise lines when we have no idea how long this will last?

Every company on the planet has simultaneously realized that it is in an existential cash-flow crisis due to COVID-19. The big and smart companies already have drawn down their unused loan facilities to ride through the slowdown.

The slower and the smaller firms are staring at an economic nuclear-winter scenario where their revenue plunges for months, and they can’t pay their staff, or make their fixed payments.

The speed and comprehensiveness of the lockdowns, and their drastic impact make what’s going to happen very clear. Our leaders are in a fog of denial. They don’t see that much of what was the traditional mode of operating our system is crumbling.

During the 2008 financial crisis, we learned that events can move too quickly for anyone to intervene and limit the damage. Our business environment’s drive for highly efficient systems, from just-in-time inventory sourcing to reducing the number of hospital beds per capita, have created fragile systems that are now being stress-tested.

We may be learning, to our collective detriment, that all of these systems along with our leaders, have failed us.

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Auto Loan Delinquencies Are Rising

The Daily Escape:

Tetons twilight from Snake River overlook, WY – November 2019 photo by timtamtoosh. Ansel Adams once shot a picture from this spot.

From Wolf Richter:

“Serious auto-loan delinquencies – auto loans that are 90 days or more past due – in the third quarter of 2019, after an amazing trajectory, reached a historic high of $62 billion, according to data from the New York Fed today….”

Total outstanding balances of auto loans and leases in Q3, according to the New York Fed, rose to $1.32 trillion. That $62 billion of seriously delinquent loan balances are what auto lenders, particularly those who specialize in subprime auto loans, are now attempting to either get to current status, or to repossess. If they cannot cure the delinquency, they’re hiring specialized companies to repossess the vehicles, which will then be sold at auction. And the repo business is booming!

The difference between the loan balance and the proceeds from the auction, plus all of the costs involved, are what a lender stands to lose on each delinquent loan.

Worse, lenders are still making new subprime loans, and a portion of those loans will also become delinquent, and a smaller portion of them will default. Wolf helpfully adds a chart that shows today’s level of delinquencies as a percentage of the auto loan portfolio is the same as it was in 2009, when we were in the middle of the Great Recession:

It’s useful to remember that in 2009 and 2010, the US was confronting the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression. People were defaulting on their auto loans because they’d lost their jobs. That isn’t the case today, we’re near full employment.

Let’s differentiate “Prime” auto loans and leases from “Subprime”. Prime auto loans have minuscule default rates. Of the total of $1.3 billion in auto loans and leases outstanding, according to Fitch, Prime auto loans currently have a 60-day delinquency rate hovering at a historically low 0.28%.

That means that most of the delinquencies are in the subprime category. In fact Wolf says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Of the $1.32 trillion in auto loans outstanding, about 22% are subprime, so about $300 billion. Of them roughly, $62 billion are seriously delinquent…around 20% of all subprime loans outstanding.

We know that the subprime delinquencies are not caused by an employment crisis or, by the brutal recession we endured during the 2008 financial crisis. Employment is still growing, and unemployment claims are near historic lows. But subprime auto loans are defaulting at very high rates.

What’s going on? It’s car dealers’ greed. They’re striving to sell more cars. Customers with a subprime credit rating have already been turned down when they try to buy things on credit. But, when they walk on a car lot, their bad credit rating is magically no longer an issue.

The dealers know they’re sitting ducks, who won’t negotiate. They accept the price, the monthly payment, and the trade-in value. They’re just happy to be in a new car. When they drive off the lot, they have a high monthly payment, which, since they already have trouble making ends meet, will soon be late, or in default.

The subprime car buyers really have little choice if they need a car to get to work. Poor people are smart about doing what it takes to survive: If you don’t have a down payment or a good credit rating, and need a car to keep your job, it means a bad deal is better than no deal.

They take the bad deal because if things get worse, they probably will only lose the car.

The kicker is that auto loans aren’t the loan category with the highest delinquencies. Student loans have even higher delinquencies:

  • Outstanding student debt stood at $1.50 trillion in the third quarter of 2019, an increase of $20 billion from Q2 2019
  • 9% of aggregate student debt was 90+ days delinquent or in default in Q3 2019

The student loans total of about $1.5 trillion, is higher than the $1.32 trillion of auto loans.

The system is broken. Someday soon, the job market will deteriorate. We’ll be back listening to why we should bail out lenders and investors who lend, securitize, and sell these loans to investors who are chasing yeild.

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Saturday Soother – January 5, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Bryce Canyon NP, looking down at the Wall Street trail – this photo was taken on New Year’s Eve by natsmith69. The photographer says he didn’t hike down because of the government shutdown.

Two topics for today: First, the December jobs report, which was encouraging in the face of a roller-coaster stock market. Employment rose a very strong 312,000 jobs in December, bringing the full count of jobs added for 2018 up to 2.6 million, the strongest year for job gains since 2015.

Unemployment ticked up to 3.9%, largely because more people were drawn into the labor market as measured by the civilian labor force participation rate. It moved up two-tenths to 63.1%, its highest level since 2014. That’s a reminder that the job market still has capacity to expand.

Wage growth accelerated slightly, and tied cyclical highs. Weekly hours worked edged up, job gains for the prior two months were revised upwards, and a very high 70% of private industries added jobs.

It seems that low unemployment has finally started to lead to pressure to raise pay.

Despite all of this positive labor market news, there are economic headwinds in the volatile stock market, Trump’s trade war, and slower economic growth abroad.

Some economists are forecasting a grim outlook for near-term US economic growth. OTOH, low unemployment, job gains, and higher wages should boost consumer spending, which accounts for almost 70% of the US economy.

Try to keep calm about the stock market. There isn’t much definitive economic news that should make you decide to bail out of stocks just now.

Item two: The shut-down. On Friday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) after another meeting about the shut-down, said that Trump threatened to keep the government closed for “months or even years” until he gets his desired wall funding.

Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) described the meeting as a “lengthy and sometimes contentious conversation with the president.” She said both sides agreed to continue talks. She then said: (brackets by Wrongo)

 We cannot resolve this until we open up [the] government…

So far, most Republicans are keeping a stiff upper lip, saying just what Trump says. But there are a few cracks, notably Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and possibly, Susan Collins (R-ME), who are asking to re-open the federal government without a deal on funding the border wall.

Clearly there is a deal to be had. It probably looks like funding Trump’s wall, which is a rounding error in the federal budget, in return for passing a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) relief bill as part of immigration reform. Lawmakers in both parties are sympathetic to immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.

The Hill reports that Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), a member of GOP leadership, said that while he hasn’t been involved in overall immigration discussions, expanding the scope of negotiations could be one way to break the logjam:

You know, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to make it bigger, and that’s always one of the options here…

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is urging Trump to strike a deal on comprehensive immigration reform:

Why would he not agree to such a thing…We could go small, we could go a little bigger… but I’d like to see the president say, ‘OK, we’ve got a new Congress. We’ve got divided government. I’m the president who can actually make this happen.’

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) is pitching his proposal that would establish a $25 billion border trust fund and codify protections for DACA recipients. Remember that Trump rejected a similar offer from Senate Democrats last year, so it isn’t clear where the goalposts for such a deal are today. We’ll have to watch the drama unfold.

Time to let go of the news and settle into a Saturday soother, maybe while taking down ornaments. Start the process of soothing by brewing up a yuuge cup of Panama Ninety Plus Perci Lot 50 coffee ($60/8 oz.) from Birdrock Coffee of San Diego, CA. Coffee Review rates it at 97, with tastes of fruit while being giddily brandy-toned. Maybe that’s a rave.

Now settle back in a comfy chair and listen to the “Adagio for Oboe, Cello, Organ and Strings” by Domenico Zipoli. Zipoli was an Italian Jesuit priest who lived much of his life in what is now Argentina. He studied with Scarlatti, became a Jesuit, worked as a missionary and died in 1726 in Argentina at age 38:

If fate had granted Zipoli another 20 to 25 years, he would be regarded today as a major composer.

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Today’s Wages Have the Same Purchasing Power as in 1978

(Email publishing of The Wrongologist should be restored as Wrongo is using a different vendor, WordPress. Apologies to those who read in email.)

The Daily Escape:

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, as it might have looked at night in the 12th Century lit by camp fires. Mesa Verde is unique since it is the only NP that preserves the works of man – photo by Rick Dunnahoo

This is going to be a historic year, even when compared to 2018. And it’s starting out with a bang. The government is shut down, half the cabinet is empty, the 2020 presidential race has officially started, and the Democrats are taken over the House.

And that’s without whatever Mueller shoe will drop sometime in the year, or whatever Twitter atrocities Trump decides to commit. In other words, we’re going to have our hands full.

But today, let’s talk about how bad the economy is below the surface of the headline numbers. Debt is rising, and rising debt is supposed to be matched by rising income. It shouldn’t be a surprise that more income is required in order to service more debt. But so far, in the 21st century, for the bottom 90%, debt is growing while income is stagnating.

Pew’s Fact Tank has an analysis that speaks to this problem. Average hourly earnings for non-management private-sector workers in July were $22.65, 2.7% above the average wage from a year earlier. But in the years just before the 2007-08 financial collapse, average hourly earnings often increased by around 4% year-over-year.

And during the high-inflation years of the 1970s and early 1980s, average wages commonly jumped 7%, 8% or even 9% year-over-year.

However, after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has about the same purchasing power it did in 1978. In fact, in real terms average hourly earnings peaked more than 45 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today.

Here is Pew’s chart demonstrating the problem:

Because there’s been little growth in wages, the growth in the standard of living for those below the 90th percentile has been largely fueled by additional consumer debt. The WSJ reports that consumer debt, including credit cards, auto and student loans and personal loans, is on pace to top $4 trillion in 2019, the highest in history. Debt allows you to furnish your home, pay for education, and get a car without having to save for them. In that way, it supports the growing economy.

But Pew also shows how most of the income gains went to those at the top of the food chain:

 

 

Among people in the top 10th of the distribution, real wages have risen a cumulative 15.7%, to $2,112 a week – nearly five times the usual weekly earnings of the bottom tenth ($426).

This lack of symmetrical growth in debt and income actually matters. At some point household borrowers will default in greater numbers than they do today. When those losses occur, the monetary system won’t be able to bail out debtors (or banks) this time around as handily as we did in 2008.

 

Sluggish and uneven wage growth is a key factor behind widening income inequality in the US. Another Pew Research Center report found that in 2016, Americans in the top tenth of the income distribution earned 8.7 times as much as Americans in the bottom tenth ($109,578 versus $12,523).

Compare that to 1970, when the top 10th earned 6.9 times as much as the bottom 10th ($63,512 versus $9,212).

There is no simple solution to get American workers back on the right track. At a minimum, it will take a political groundswell aimed at overturning the way the tax code favors corporations. Along the way we will have to displace the political power of our corporate oligarchs.

Government must be made to serve the public interest, not Mr. Market.

Democracy is the sole mechanism enabling our citizens to have political and economic agency. But, democracy will cease to matter in a corporate-controlled, globalized system of government influence.

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Saturday Soother – Voter Turnout Edition

The Daily Escape:

Autumn, Blue Ridge Mountains, near Asheville, NC – 2018 photo by RedWhiteTruee

Wrongo guesses that we’ll know Tuesday night whether being an A-hole is a winning strategy for the Donald.

While traveling in Russia, Wrongo finished reading (and recommends) Amor Towle’s “A Gentleman in Moscow”. If you haven’t read it, the story is about a Russian nobleman who is sentenced in 1922 by the Bolsheviks to the equivalent of permanent house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. He spends 30+ years living there.

Doesn’t it seem that we have been locked up for the past two years, waiting on the mid-terms? Let’s hope that on Tuesday, the doors will fly open, because we want out. We want a world with fewer lies, with fewer insults, maybe even a return to sanity.

Here’s a thought to launch you into the weekend. Despite Friday’s news about brisk new jobs creation, and the headline unemployment rate being at a 50-year low, MarketWatch reported that just 28% of Americans are financially healthy:

Some 44% of people said their expenses exceeded their income in the past year and they used credit to make ends meet. Another 42% said they have no retirement savings at all.

That’s despite a nine-year-long bull(ish) stock market, and consumer confidence levels nearing record highs. And, there’s more:

The median American household currently holds just $11,700 in savings, according to a recent analysis of Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data by personal-finance site Magnify Money. The top 1% of households in the U.S. by income have a median savings of $1.1 million….The bottom 20% by income have no savings accounts and the second lowest 20% income earners have just $26,450 saved.

Meanwhile, the majority of Americans in a recent survey said their finances have not improved since the 2016 elections. Market Watch quotes Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate:

All of this is a call to action: We need to make savings, both for retirement and for emergencies a higher priority, so that they aren’t the source of financial regret later in life.

So, all of you politicians who are running on the great economy ought to study up on a few facts, and find a few solutions.

A good start for the rest of us is showing up to vote on, or before next Tuesday.

But Wrongo senses that you’ve had enough, that you need to check out of the news feeds, to stop being carpet-bombed by political ads, and contemplate…nothing. To help you get started on your Saturday Soothing, brew up a large, hot steaming cup of Kenya Konyu coffee, with its sweet, tart and savory notes of dried berries and richly bittersweet flowers ($16.25 for 10 oz.). It comes from Branch Street Coffee Roasters in Youngstown, in the swing state of Ohio.

Since it’s another rainy Saturday in the Northeast, stay indoors and listen to English composer Sir Michael Tippett’s “Concerto for Double String Orchestra”. Here, the Adagio, the middle movement of the Concerto, is played by the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother – December 23, 2017

The Daily Escape:

(Hat tip Ilargi)

Nine. Just nine countries voted against the UN General Assembly’s resolution on Jerusalem, demanding that the US rescind its declaration that Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital. That included us. Our major allies like Britain, France, Germany and Japan voted for the resolution, though some allies, like Australia and Canada, abstained. The overall vote tally was 128 to 9, with 35 abstentions, for the resolution. From the Guardian:

Nine states – including the United States and Israel –voted against the resolution. The other countries which supported Washington were Togo, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands, Guatemala and Honduras.

Along the way, the world was treated to Nikki Haley telling UN diplomats that she would be taking down the names of those who failed to vote with the US. It may surprise you to know that the Russians call Haley the “Waffle House Bumpkin”. Trump went further, saying:

All of these nations that take our money and then they vote against us at the Security Council or they vote against us…at the Assembly…They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars and then they vote against us…Well, we’re watching those votes…Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt voted for the resolution.  Do you think that means that they don’t need the money badly enough to roll over when ordered? Or is something larger at stake?

Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said:

I think this was a…self-inflicted wound and really unnecessary, clumsy diplomacy on the part of the United States…More than that, I think it symbolizes the self-defeating notion that for the United States, ‘it’s my way or the highway.’

Since the Inauguration, we practice foreign policy, kindergarten-style. Taking names and threatening our allies will not make Trump and/or Haley successful statesmen. And no, this isn’t an example of “The Art of the Deal“: There will be no deal when one country tries to bully the entire world.

There has been lots of right wingnut talk about the US “getting out of the UN”, and it isn’t beyond the realm of the possible with the current administration.

It is truly painful to watch America in decline, both at home, and abroad. And a time when US global leadership is more necessary than it has been since the end of the Cold War. Come on, Trump, give us back the US we love and the US the world needs.

Will he do it? Can he?

Well, it’s Saturday, and if you haven’t finished your participation in Making America Great by maxing out your credit cards, you need a really big soother. Today, we continue with Christmas music.

So brew a hot steaming cup of Red Rooster Coffee’s Holiday Blend, ($14.99/lb.) with its notes of crème brulee, caramel, and gingersnap cookie.

Now get in a chair where you can see your (hopefully) fully-decorated tree and turn on the tree lights, settle back and listen to “L’Adieu des Bergers” (the Shepherd’s Farewell) by Hector Berlioz.

This piece is about Christ’s life immediately following his birth. It is performed by the Mainzer Domchor, (the choir of the Mainz Cathedral). Founded in 1866, it is comprised of boys’ and men’s voices. Renée Fleming is the soloist:

First Stanza:

Thou must leave thy lowly dwelling,

The humble crib, the stable bare.

Babe, all mortal babes excelling,

Content our earthly lot to share.

Loving father, loving mother,

Shelter thee with tender care.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Rising Interest Rates Will Add $233 to Monthly Household Expenses

The Daily Escape:

Snoqualmie Falls, WA

We are in the middle of the holiday shopping frenzy, so it may be a bad time for Wolf Richter to mention this:

Outstanding “revolving credit” owed by consumers – such as bank-issued and private-label credit cards – jumped 6.1% year-over-year to $977 billion in the third quarter, according to the Fed’s Board of Governors. When the holiday shopping season is over, it will exceed $1 trillion.

If that’s not bad enough, WalletHub points out that the Federal Reserve is planning on raising interest rates – see here for the credit card interest calculator by Sofi – and that will make credit card debt a lot more expensive, since credit card rates move with short-term interest rates:

The Fed’s four rate hikes since Dec. 2015 have cost credit card users an extra $6 billion in interest in 2017. That figure will swell by $1.46 billion in 2018 if the Fed raises its target rate again in December, as expected.

Everyone expects the Fed to raise rates today. This would bring the incremental costs of five rate hikes so far to $7.5 billion next year. So how do these rate hikes translate for households with credit card balances? Finance charges are concentrated in households that do not pay off their balances every month. Many of these households are among the least able to afford higher interest payments. More from Wolf: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

195.9 million consumers had a revolving credit balance at the end of Q3, with total account balances of $1.35 trillion. This equals $6,892 per person with revolving credit balances. If there are two people with balances in a household, this would amount to nearly $14,000 of this high-cost debt. If the average interest rate on this debt is 20%, credit-card interest payments alone add $233 a month to their household expenditures.

Economists are assuming that the Fed will hike interest rates three times in 2018. The Fed thinks that the “neutral” rate (the target at which the federal funds rate is neither stimulating, nor slowing the economy) is between 2.5% to 2.75%. Since today’s rate is 1.25% to 1.50%, that is a long way up from the current target range. Again, from Wolf:

Interest rates on credit cards would follow in lockstep. These rate hikes to “neutral” would extract another $8 billion or so a year, on top of the additional $7.5 billion from the prior rate hikes.

But there is a double whammy, because credit card balances will also continue to rise. Rising credit card balances combined with rising interest rates on those balances will produce sharply higher interest costs to people who already can’t pay off their monthly credit card balances.

For many card holders with poor credit, this will eventually lead to default. Credit card delinquencies have started to tick up, from 2.16% in Q1 2016 to 2.53% in Q3. That is a low overall level of delinquency, but we need to look at to losses in the subprime segment (those with the lowest credit scores) and at the lenders that specialize in subprime lending. And there, delinquency rates are jumping.

Debt is not always a choice. A catastrophic medical debt, the death of the primary breadwinner, or loss of employment with no new job for an extended period of time can destroy a lifetime of savings in as little as a few months to a few years.

Since the crash of 2007, a great many people have be unable to find employment that is enough to support a family. And they have taken multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. Or any job that they can find.

It is this financial uncertainty which has a knock on effect for credit scores also. It’s no secret that without a good credit score, loans, mortgages and jobs can be pushed further out of reach. In times like these people often turn to the best credit repair companies as a way of fixing and improving their individual credit. Above all, no matter what your financial circumstances, it’s highly important to regularly check in with your spending and saving habits.

And this is in what economists and politicians say are the best of times, with the lowest unemployment rate since 2000.

Increased costs for consumer credit coupled with increased delinquencies could become a third point reason for populist economic anger. Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and the coming GOP attack on Medicare and Medicaid are also justifiable reasons for economic anger.

Where will voters turn for a solution?

After all, governance has ceased to be a part of the job description of our political parties.

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Retail Stores Are Closing Fast

The Daily Escape:

Cougar with Radio Collar – Griffith Park, Los Angeles, via Nature Photography

Retailers are closing thousands of stores and going bankrupt at a rate not seen since the Great Recession, and tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs as a result. Although thanks to insolvency experts like Bankruptcy Calgary operated by Hudson & Company, solutions are available to help individuals struggling with debt, the atmosphere for retailers seems far more bleak.

Retailers blame Amazon and other online vendors for the lack of physical sales nowadays. This could be true as more and more people do seem to find it easier to order online than physically enter a store to purchase a product. With e-commerce sales booming, more businesses seem to be offering online products. However, one reason that many businesses seem to succeed is due to software, like samcart, offering their customers a hassle-free checkout. This means that the whole process of ordering online is becoming so much easier for the consumer that it’s not surprising that retail stores are beginning to feel the effects.

While some brick-and-mortar retailers are doing well, many are losing money. The Atlantic reports that:

Overall retail employment has fallen every month this year. Department stores, including Macy’s and JC Penney, have shed nearly 100,000 jobs since October—more than the total number of coal miners or steel workers currently employed in the US.

Wolf Richter has the following chart showing the nature of the problem for retail stores:

But the e-commerce industry won’t rescue out-of-work retail employees. Most warehouses are regional, and located far from residential areas, which means they might not be within a reasonable commuting distance for displaced workers. By contrast, retail stores are typically located near residential centers. E-commerce warehouses also employ fewer people than retail stores, since the warehouses are increasingly automated, and no longer need to buy roll cages from PHS Teacrate or other companies due to not needing stock delivered to smaller stores.

Yves Smith offers this idea: (parenthesis by the Wrongologist)

One of the reason so many real world retailers are hitting the wall so hard is that private equity leverage and asset stripping made them particularly vulnerable. While the losses to online retailers would have forced some downsizing regardless, the fact that so many are making desperate moves in parallel is in large measure due to the fact that…their private equity (PE) overlords have made them fragile.

That’s a new angle for evaluating Amazon’s performance: it’s not that retailers are closing because Amazon is expanding, but Amazon is expanding because retailers are closing. Jeff Bezos should be thanking the PE firms for looting the retail industry.

The Federal Reserve’s low interest rates also made it easier for Private Equity funds to load these retailers up with debt. Management could borrow more money than necessary, pay themselves cash bonuses, and claim “interest rates are low; making payments will be easy“.

They would even show you the math. Of course, that math assumed that store sales would continue climbing in the future. If sales fell, high debt payments could quickly become an outsized burden.

The Private Equity all-stars often follow a particular deal model. After purchasing the retail company, the PE firm sells the real estate owned by the retail company to another entity (owned by the PE fund). Then the retail company makes lease payments to its new landlord. This splitting of the assets into an operating company and a property company allows the PE fund manager to make a cash distribution to its investors early on, producing a quick return on the deal. Later, the property company will be sold.

The problem with this approach is that businesses that choose to own their real estate are typically seasonal businesses, as all retailers are. Or they are low margin businesses particularly vulnerable to the business cycle, like restaurants. Owning their property reduced their fixed costs, making them better able to ride out bad times.

To make this picture worse, the PE firms often “sell” the real estate to itself at an inflated price, which justifies saddling the operating business with high lease payments, making the financial risk in the operating company even higher. Of course, those high rents make the property company look more valuable to prospective investors, who may fail to look close enough at the retailer who is paying the rents.

Companies with little debt generally can survive lower sales. They can engage in cost-cutting, maybe encourage some employees to retire early, etc. It’s easier to survive if they own their own property. But when you’ve got a lot of debt, and servicing that debt requires that sales continue to rise quarter after quarter without fail, then things become a LOT more fragile.

Trump claims he’s created 500,000 new jobs in his first 100 days. Notice that he doesn’t say what these jobs are, or where they were created. Certainly they weren’t in Retail. Or Coal. Or Steel. Those jobs aren’t coming back.

Here is Jonathan Richman with his 1990 song “Corner Store” which laments what towns have lost to the malls:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway Lyric:

Well, I walked past just yesterday
And I couldn’t bear that new mall no more
I can’t expect you all to see it my way
But you may not know what was there before
And I want them to put back my old corner store.

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Is Taxing Robots a Solution to Fewer Jobs?

The Daily Escape:

(Slot canyon with dust devil – photo by Angiolo Manetti)

Yesterday, the Dutch voted in an election pitting mainstream parties against Geert Wilders, a hard-right, anti-Islam nationalist whose popularity is seen as a threat to politics-as-usual across Europe, and possibly, as an existential threat to the EU.

Wilders, who wants to “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands and pull out of the EU, has little chance of governing, as all of the mainstream parties have already said they won’t work with him. Given Holland’s complicated form of proportional representation, up to 15 parties could win seats in parliament, and none are expected to win even 20% of the vote. OTOH, polls show that four in 10 of the Netherlands’ 13 million eligible voters were undecided a day before voting, and there is just 5 percentage points separating the top four parties, so Wilders could surprise everyone.

As Wrongo writes this, the Dutch election results are not known, but PBS NewsHour coverage on Tuesday surfaced a thought about taxing robots. PBS correspondent Malcolm Brabant was interviewing workers in Rotterdam:

Niek Stam claims to be the country’s most militant labor union organizer. He says the working class feel insecure about their prospects because of relentless automation and a constant drive to be competitive. The union is campaigning for robots to be taxed.

Brabant then interviewed a worker:

Robots do not buy cars. Neither do they shop for groceries, which leads to a fundamental question: Who’s going to buy all these products when up to 40% of present jobs vanish?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Silvia Merler, blogging at Bruegel, says:

In a recent interview, Bill Gates discussed the option of a tax on robots. He argued that if today human workers’ income is taxed, and then a robot comes in to do the same thing, it seems logical to think that we would tax the robot at a similar level. While the form of such taxation is not entirely clear, Gates suggested that some of it could come from the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency…and some could come directly in some type of a robot tax.

The main argument against taxing robots is made by corporations and some economists (Larry Summers), who argue that it impedes innovation. Stagnating productivity in rich countries, combined with falling business investment, suggests that adoption of new technology is currently too slow rather than too fast, and taxing new technology could exacerbate the slowdown.

It can be argued that robots are property, and property is already taxed by local governments via the property tax. It might be possible to create an additional value-added tax for robots, since an income tax wouldn’t work, as most robots are not capable of producing income by themselves.

Noah Smith at Bloomberg argues that the problem with Gates’ basic proposal is that it is very hard to tell the difference between new technology that complements human work, and new technology that replaces them. Shorter Noah Smith: Taxation is so hard!

Why are Western economies stagnant? Why has wage growth lagged GDP growth? Automation is certainly a key factor, but rather than point the finger at the corporations who continually benefit from government tax policies, let’s just assign blame to an object, a strawbot, if you will. That way, we won’t look too carefully at the real problem: The continuing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations.

Automation isn’t the issue, tax laws that allow economic treason by corporations in their home countries are the issue.

Why is nationalism on the march across the globe? Because fed-up workers see it as possibly the only answer to the neoliberal order that is destroying the middle class in Western democracies.

Let’s find a way to tax robots. Something has to offset Trump’s tax breaks for the rich.

Now, a musical moment. Did you know that “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” was a thing? Apparently, some dedicated celebrators prepare for the day itself by raising hell for up to a week beforehand. With that in mind, here is some pre-St. Pat’s Irish music, with Ed Sheeran singing “Nancy Mulligan” a love song about his grandparent’s marriage during WWII, against the wishes of her parents, and despite their Catholic/Protestant differences:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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