TIME Business

GE Makes a Big Bet on Manufacturing

Rana Foroohar is TIME's assistant managing editor in charge of economics and business.

The company’s plan to make things again is a test for the entire American economy

If one company mirrors the travails of American business over the past decade, it’s General Electric. The manufacturing giant founded by Thomas Edison in 1892–and the last of the original firms in the Dow Jones industrial average still listed on that index–grew into a multinational powerhouse that made everything from lightbulbs to locomotives as the U.S. became the world’s lone superpower. Its nickname said everything: Generous Electric. But by the time the 2008 economic crisis hit, GE had gone from being an industrial innovator to being the country’s sixth largest bank, relying on financial wizardry rather than engineering to satisfy investors.

Perhaps the most enduring quality of the broader economic recovery since then has been the gap between reality and perception. While growth and jobs are up, only about 1 in 4 Americans believes the economy is getting stronger, according to a recent survey by the investment firm BlackRock. The reason is clear: personal incomes aren’t rising, except at the very top. Historically, the key to achieving broad income growth has been creating more middle-income jobs. And those have traditionally come from the manufacturing sector.

Which is partly why, in order to save his company, CEO Jeffrey Immelt borrowed $3 billion from Warren Buffett and vowed to retool GE–away from complex financial schemes and back toward making things. GE, in other words, is trying to do what the U.S. as a whole needed to do: rebalance its economy and get back to basics.

So, six years on from disaster, how is it going?

Immelt has made progress. With the recent spin-off of GE’s consumer-finance division, which peddles financial products ranging from private-label credit cards to auto loans, the share of profits that comes from finance has gone from more than half to about 40%. The target is to get it back down to around 25%. As CFO Jeff Bornstein recently put it to me, “We had to decide whether we wanted to be a tech company that solves the world’s big problems or a finance company that makes a few things.”

GE’s executives are betting on a few megatrends, including the belief that emerging-market economies are entering a period very much like the post–World War II period in the U.S. Those countries will need new houses, bridges, roads, airports and all types of consumer goods in unprecedented quantities. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2025, emerging-economy nations will spend more than $20 trillion a year in this way. That means that future economic growth may well be centered on making things, rather than trading on their value.

To help capture its share of that action, GE is trying to copy some of Silicon Valley’s methods. The company has set up a “growth board” that operates like an internal venture-capital firm, vetting new ideas presented by employees and then dishing out a bit of time and capital to explore them. The result is that production cycles for projects like new oil-drilling equipment or LED lighting systems are shortening dramatically. An idea that once took two years to test might go from paper to production in 45 days.

The firm is also sourcing new ideas from the crowd. One recent design for a bracket on a jet engine came from a 22-year-old in Indonesia who had tapped into a website where the company posts problems and offers payouts to whoever can solve them.

Still, the big question is just how many good new jobs America’s industrial firms, small and large, will actually create in the coming years. So far, the trends are positive. In October, the Boston Consulting Group’s annual survey of senior manufacturing executives found that the number of respondents bringing production back from China to the U.S. had risen 20% in the past year. GE’s new hub in San Ramon, Calif., which was launched more than two years ago to explore the burgeoning “Internet of things” (i.e., machine-to-machine communication via the Internet), has gone from zero employees to more than 1,000. The company is also using more local small and midsize suppliers, thanks to new technologies like 3-D printing that let startups achieve more speed and scale.

Such trends at GE and elsewhere have yet to replace the 1.6 million manufacturing jobs lost in the recession. The good news about our postcrisis economy is that it is smarter and nimbler and growing in the right sectors. The bad news is that it still doesn’t have enough good jobs for those who need them. The way forward may be clear, but getting there is another story.

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TIME Economy

Where the Next Financial Crisis Will Come From

financial crisis
Mutlu Kurtbas—Getty Images

It won't be from the banking sector

The next financial crisis won’t come from the banking sector. That’s the message implicit in the latest report on the global financial sector from the Financial Stability Board, the group that monitors what’s happening with the world’s money flow. Instead, it’s very likely to come from the massive and growing “shadow banking” sector—an area mostly untouched by our government regulators.

New numbers show that the shadow banking industry—which includes everything from money market funds to real-estate trusts to hedge funds—grew by a whopping $5 trillion in 2013 to $75 trillion. If you look at the sector as a percentage of the global economy, that’s nearly what is was pre-crisis, back in 2007.

That means many of the risks that used to be held on bank balance sheets have moved to the non-regulated areas of finance. This says a number of important things. First and perhaps most importantly, all the backslapping in Washington about how much “safer” our banking system is now than it was six years ago is meaningless. While banks are still plenty risky, increasingly, new financial risk isn’t being held in banks — it’s being held in places that regulators can’t see it. (see my debate with Treasury over that fact here.) That Dodd-Frank financial regulation wasn’t able to do more about this is a real pity.

One of the ways that you can already see how the shadow-banking sector is influencing the financial markets is in margin debt. That’s a measure of the amount of debt that investors are using to buy stocks – and right now, New York Stock Exchange margin debt is at record highs; some think that’s because hedge funds have become such huge market players, in some cases as large or larger than banks in terms of their influence. Margin debt at record highs is scary for many reasons, one of which is that when there’s a lot of margin debt and the market turns, it speeds up a fall, leading to the kind of snowball effect that can lead to a market crash.

While that won’t necessarily happen any time soon, it’s worth remembering that debt itself is always the best predictor of financial crisis. As plenty of research shows, over the last two hundred years or so, every single financial crisis has been preceded by a big increase in debt levels. The growth in the shadow banking sector means we now know less, not more, than we did about who’s holding debt than before the financial crisis of 2008. That’s something we should all be worried about.

TIME Economy

What You Need to Know About the Stock Market Sell-Off

For the last few years, markets were from Mars, and the real economy was from Venus. The two literally occupied different worlds, as stock prices kept rising, even as wages were stagnant and growth was slow. As of yesterday, that divide has been bridged. Stock prices finally plunged into a real correction of the kind we haven’t seen since the apex of the European debt crisis three years ago.

The question is, why now? The answer comes in two parts. First, with Europe in danger of tipping into recession, and China’s growth much lower than the official statistics would indicate (that’s one of the big reasons oil prices are down since China is now the world’s major consumer of energy), investors have realized that a wimpy recovery in the U.S. isn’t enough to buoy global growth. Sure, growth numbers were a bit better this year than last, but we’re still in a 3 percent economy that doesn’t look or feel much different than the 2 percent economy (see my Curious Capitalist column on that topic). If you think of the global economy as three legs on a stool, the legs being the U.S., Europe, and the emerging markets led by China, what’s becoming very clear to markets is that a 3 percent economy in the U.S. isn’t enough to sustain global momentum. Indeed, the U.S. may grow faster than the world as a whole this year, which is an odd thing for a developed market. It speaks to how weak the global economy as a whole still is.

Second, markets have realized that this recovery has been a genetically engineered recovery. It’s been engineered by the monetary scientists at the Fed, who’ve pumped $4 trillion into the economy since 2009 in an attempt to strengthen an economy that is fundamentally not as strong as it looks. Despite the Fed’s best efforts (and I agree that they needed to do something, especially in the beginning), the real economy simply hasn’t caught up to the markets. Unemployment has ticked down, but wages still haven’t ticked up. It’s no accident that weak retail sales in the U.S. were one of the economic indicators that triggered the sell-off. As I’ve said many times before, you can’t have a sustainable recovery, one markets can really believe in, until you have the majority of the population with more money in their pockets.

The reality is that this hasn’t happened in the last few years, and for many people, decades (the average male worker today makes less in real terms than he did in the early 1970s).

So does this mean we are in for a long, slow slide? Not exactly. I’d bet more on increased volatility (if you are a subscriber, you can read this piece I wrote on the coming Age of Volatility, back in 2011). Markets will go up and down, but as long as the U.S. is the prettiest house on the ugly block that is the global economy, money may stay parked in the largest American multinationals longer than you’d think. Whether or not our economy deserves the vote of confidence is another question.

TIME Walmart

Why Walmart Workers Losing Healthcare Might Not Be Bad

Getty Images

Ironies abound

Talk about irony. In the same week that Walmart announced employees who work less than 30 hours will be losing their health care coverage, the company also announced that it’d be getting deeper into the business of selling insurance, making it easier for customers to price shop for insurance in stores. In some ways, this mirrors Walmart’s overall business model—keep prices down for consumers, but keep wages and benefits for employees low too.

Ironically, under the rules of Obamacare, it’s possible that those part time employees will get a better deal on health care exchanges, thanks to subsidies that help lower income workers buy insurance. It’s all part of the new landscape created by the Affordable Care Act. As Obamacare turns one year old, Joe Nocera and I discussed how it’s changed healthcare, business, and the economy, on WNYC’s Money Talking.

TIME Banking

Banking by Another Name

Traditional lenders aren't doing their job. Enter a raft of startups to do it for them

You know credit is tight when the former chair of the Federal Reserve can’t get a mortgage. Ben Bernanke, who isn’t exactly hard up (he reportedly makes at least $200,000 a speech), recently lamented that he wasn’t able to refinance his home because of tight credit conditions. This is an inglorious reminder that the housing recovery is being driven not by first-time home buyers or people who want to trade up but by wealthy people who don’t need a loan. Since most middle-class Americans still hold most of their wealth as equity in their homes, we won’t achieve a sustainable recovery until we fix the housing market.

Banks would say the difficult credit conditions reflect the higher costs of complying with new regulations like Dodd-Frank. There’s some truth to that but not enough to justify turning down nearly any borrower who can’t put down 30% cash on a house. A more accurate explanation is that home-mortgage lending isn’t nearly as profitable as securities trading, which is where big banks still make much of their money these days. And so, hidden in the sluggish housing recovery is another revolution: American banks continue to morph into investment houses in ways that could ultimately put our financial system at risk.

Rather than Bemoan this, I am encouraged by some of the innovative companies trying take advantage of these shifts. A whole new category of nontraditional lenders is springing up to take traditional banking’s place. Nonbank financial firms, a category that includes everything from companies like Detroit-based Quicken Loans to peer-to-peer lenders like the Lending Club, are growing exponentially. (Peer-to-peer lending is the relatively new practice of lending money to unrelated individuals without going through a traditional intermediary like a bank.) This category of nonbank banks is taking up a lot of the slack left by traditional banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis. During the first half of this year, almost a quarter of mortgages made by the top 30 lenders came from nonbank firms, the highest level since the financial crisis began.

Many of these lenders use unconventional metrics to judge how creditworthy borrowers really are. They’re focusing not just on borrowers’ salary and tax returns, which are the basis of most traditional mortgage-lending calculations, but also on their field of work, what kind of degree program they are in or what their potential income trajectory might be.

Such metrics enable these lenders to take on risks that traditional banks now shun. “There’s a misperception out there that millennials don’t want to buy a home,” explains Mike Cagney, CEO of Social Finance, a company that has already done over $1 billion in crowdsourced student-loan refinancing and is now pushing into the online mortgage market. “But the reality is that they don’t have the credit to do it.” Cagney says many of his initial mortgage borrowers mirror the profile of the customers to whom he gives reduced-rate student loans–upwardly mobile young professionals, many with degrees from top schools, who have bright futures in high-income professions but little cash in the bank. Particularly on the coasts, where real estate prices are high, it is nearly impossible for a young person to buy a home with a traditional credit profile.

Of course, it’s not only upwardly mobile future members of the 1% who deserve a break on credit. Research shows that many low-income borrowers with steady jobs are much better credit risks than they look like on paper. One University of North Carolina study found that even poor buyers could be better-than-average credit risks if judged on metrics other than how much cash they have on hand. That’s not to say we should have runaway borrowing as we did in the run-up to 2008, but credit standards are still very tight relative to historical averages.

Nontraditional lending has already shown there is an alternative to the not-very-public-minded banking system we have in place now. That raises the question, Why should big banks whose primary business model is no longer consumer lending be government-insured in the first place? (Many would argue that the bailout guarantee implicit in such insurance was the reason the too-big-to-fail institutions were able to leverage up and cause the subprime crisis in the first place.) Perhaps the safest thing would be for banking as a whole to go back to a model in which institutions simply keep a lot more cash on hand, or have unlimited liability as a hedge against risk taking? Who knows? That might make mortgage lending look good again.

TIME Economy

We Still Haven’t Dealt With the Financial Crisis

Five Years After Start Of Financial Crisis, Wall Street Continues To Hum
A street sign for Wall Street hangs outside the New York Stock Exchange on September 16, 2013 in New York City. John Moore—Getty Images

It often takes years after a geopolitical or economic crisis to come up with the proper narrative for what happened. So it’s no surprised that six years on from the financial crisis of 2008, you are seeing a spate of new battles over what exactly happened. From the new information about whether the government could have, in fact, saved Lehman Brothers from collapse, to the lawsuit over whether AIG should have to pay hefty fees for its bailout (and whether the government should have penalized a wider range of firms), to the secret Fed tapes that show just how in bed with Wall Street regulators still are (the topic of my column this week), it seems every day brings a debate over what happened in 2008 and whether we’ve fix it.

My answer, of course, is that we haven’t. To hear more on that, check out my debate on the topic with New York Times’ columnist Joe Nocera, on this week’s episode of WNYC’s Money Talking:

TIME Economy

Our Dysfunctional Financial System

Tapes of what really happens between bankers and regulators show how far we have to go

In some ways, the most shocking thing about the 46 hours of secret audiotapes made by former Federal Reserve bank examiner Carmen Segarra in 2012 is that they are no shock at all. Did anyone ever doubt that the New York Fed was in hock to Wall Street? Or that Fed bank examiners–the regulators tasked with monitoring the risks banks take–might fear alienating the powerful financiers on whom they depend for information or future jobs?

It’s one thing to know and another to hear in painful, crackling detail how the Fed’s financial cops slip on their velvet gloves to deal with Goldman Sachs. Or how Segarra, one of a group of examiners brought in after the financial crisis to keep a closer watch on the till, was fired, perhaps for doing her job a little too well. One can only hope that this latest example of regulatory capture by Wall Street will focus minds on the fact that six years on from the crisis, we still have a dysfunctional financial system.

Consider one of the shady deals highlighted on the secret tapes of New York Fed meetings, which Segarra made with a spy recorder before she was let go and which were made public on Sept. 26 in a joint report by ProPublica and This American Life. The 2012 transaction with Banco Santander, initiated in the midst of the European debt crisis, ensured that the Spanish bank would look better on paper than it really was at the time. Santander paid Goldman a $40 million fee to hold shares in a Brazilian subsidiary so that it could meet European Banking Authority rules. The Fed employees, who work inside the banks they examine (yes, it’s literally an inside job), knew the deal was dodgy. One even compared it to Goldman’s “getting paid to watch a briefcase.” But it was technically legal, and nobody wanted to make a fuss, so the transaction went through.

It’s hard to know where to begin with what’s problematic here. I’ll focus on the least sexy but perhaps most important point: existing capital requirements–the cash that banks are obligated to hold to offset risk–are pathetic. Despite all the postcrisis backslapping in Washington about how banks have become safer, our system as a whole has not. No too-big-to-fail institution currently is required to keep more than 3% of its holdings in cash (a figure that will rise to 5% and 6% in 2018), which means banks can fund 97% of their own investments with debt. No company outside the financial sector would dream of conducting daily business with that much risk. As Stanford professor Anat Admati, whose book The Bankers’ New Clothes makes a powerful case for reining in such leverage levels, told me, “We’ve got to get rid of this idea that banking is special and that it should be treated differently than every other industry.”

Of course, if you start telling financiers they should use more than a few percentage points of their own money when they gamble, they’ll throw a fit. They will tell you that would make it impossible for them to lend to real businesses. They will also uncork lots of complex financial terms–“Tier 1 capital,” “liquidity ratios,” “risk-weighted off-balance-sheet exposures”–that tend to suffocate useful (a.k.a. comprehensible) debate. Financiers use insider jargon to intimidate and obfuscate. This is something we need to fight. In banking, as in so many things, complexity is the enemy. The right questions are the simplest ones: Are financial institutions doing things that provide a clear, measurable benefit to the real economy? Sadly, the answer is often no.

One thing we’ve learned since the crisis is that bailing out Wall Street didn’t help Main Street. Credit to individuals and many businesses plummeted during and after the bailouts and remains below precrisis levels today. Numerous experts believe that the size of the financial sector is slowing growth in the real economy by sucking the monetary oxygen out of the room. Banks don’t want to lend; they want to trade, often via esoteric deals that do almost nothing for anyone outside Wall Street.

This disconnect between the real economy and finance is now being closely studied by policymakers and academics. Adair Turner, a former British banking regulator, thinks that only about 15% of U.K. financial flows go to the real economy; the rest stay within the financial system, propping up existing corporate assets, supporting trading and enabling $40 million briefcase-watching fees. If the New York Fed really wants to redeem itself, it might consider commissioning a similar study to look at Wall Street’s contribution to the U.S. economy. After all, if finance can’t justify itself by showing it’s actually doing what it was set up to do–take in deposits and lend them back to all of us–what can justify it?

TIME Economy

The 3% Economy

Yes, 3% growth is better than 2%. But, for most Americans, it’s actually more worrisome

A little over three years ago, I wrote a column titled “The 2% Economy,” explaining how a recovery with only 2% GDP growth, no new middle-class jobs and stagnant wages wasn’t really a recovery after all. Like everyone, I hoped that once growth kicked up to about 3%, middle-class jobs and wages would finally revive.

But we’re now in a 3% economy, and I’m writing the same column. Only this time, the message is more disturbing. Growth is back. Unemployment is down. But only a fraction of the jobs lost during the Great Recession that pay more than $15 per hour have been found. And wage growth is still hovering near zero, where it’s been for the past decade. Something is very, very broken in our economy.

It’s a change that’s been coming for 20 years. From World War II to the 1980s, according to data from the McKinsey Global Institute, it took roughly six months after GDP rebounded from a recession for employment to recovery fully. But in the 1990–91 recession and recovery, it took 15 months, and in 2001 it took 39 months. This time around, it’s taken 41 months–more than three years–to replace the jobs lost in the Great Recession. And while the quantity has come back, the quality hasn’t. The job market, as everyone knows, is extremely bifurcated: there are jobs for Ph.D.s and burger flippers but not enough in between. That’s a problem in an economy that’s made up chiefly of consumer spending. When the majority of people don’t have more money, they can’t spend more, and companies can’t create more jobs higher up the food chain. This backstory is laid out in an interim Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report cautioning that poor job creation and flat wages are “holding back a stronger recovery in consumer spending.” If this trend is left unchecked, we are looking at a generation that will be permanently less well off than their parents.

There are so many signs of this around us already. The decline in August home sales–a result of wealthy cash buyers and investors stepping back from the market–shows how what little recovery in housing we’ve seen so far has been driven by the rich; anyone who actually needs a mortgage has been slower to jump in. The real estate recovery too is very bifurcated, with much of the gains concentrated in a few more affluent, fast-growing cities. (Plenty of places in the Rust and Sun Belts are still underwater.) While overall consumer debt is down, it is still high by international standards, and student debt is off the charts. When I asked one smart investor where he expected the next financial crisis to come from, he said, “Student debt.” Interest rates on tuition loans are high and fixed, and the loans can’t be refinanced, meaning they’re a trap that’s hard to escape. And student debt continues to grow fast. History shows that the speed of increase in debt, more than the sheer amount, is a predictor of bubbles. By that measure, student debt is blinking red: it has tripled over the past decade and now outstrips credit-card debt and auto loans.

It’s easy to understand why. Much of the population is desperately trying to educate its way out of a terrifying cycle of downward mobility. But students are fighting strong structural shifts in the economy. While technology-driven productivity used to be what economists said would save us from jobless recoveries, technology these days removes jobs from the economy. Just think of companies like Facebook and Twitter, which create a fraction of the jobs the last generation of big tech firms like Apple or Microsoft did, not to mention the multitude of middle-class positions created by the industrial giants of old.

And we’re just getting started: consider the outcry in certain cities over companies like Zillow, Uber and Airbnb, which are fostering “creative destruction” in new sectors like real estate, transportation and hotels. McKinsey estimates that new technologies will put up to 140 million service jobs at risk in the next decade. Critics of this estimate say we’re underestimating the opportunities that will come with everyone having a smartphone. All I can say is, I hope so. What’s clear is that development isn’t yet reflected in stronger consumption or official economic statistics.

What I do see is growing discontent with the economic status quo. In my 2011 column I wrote, “It’s clear that the 2% economy heralds an era of even more divisive, populist politics–at home and abroad.” Ditto the 3% economy. Witness outrage over displaced lower-income workers in the Bay Area, or the fact that the Fed is keeping interest rates low in part because gridlock has prevented Washington from doing more to stimulate the real economy, or the Treasury Department’s new rules limiting American companies’ ability to move outside U.S. tax jurisdiction. Whatever number you put on growth, a recovery that doesn’t feel like a recovery is, yet again, no recovery at all.

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