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.

TIME Companies

Are Alibaba’s Best Days Ahead or Behind It?

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma
Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., in Hong Kong on Sept. 15, 2014. Brent Lewin — Bloomberg / Getty Images

A question of whether Alibaba will prove the exception or the rule

This week’s record-setting IPO of the Chinese Internet firm Alibaba makes it feel like it’s 1999 all over again (a year I remember with some regret — I joined a “B to C” dotcom company that folded 18 months later).

But I have been feeling for some time that America’s IPO market is booming, but broken. I’ve been reading a lot of research recently, including this fascinating NBER paper looking at how much more robust innovation and investment is in private firms, rather than public ones. Particularly for tech companies, their best days as innovators and creators tend to be before they go public, rather than after. Once they are in the public markets, they become beholden to the quarter, and it’s more difficult to justify long-term investment and strategies that won’t yield fruit quickly (this is all the more true with the rise of “activist” investors).

It will be interesting to see whether Alibaba proves to be the exception or the rule to this.

For more on the subject, listen to New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and me debate it on this week’s WNYC Money Talking.

TIME

Rich Guy Philosophers Hit Silicon Valley

Peter Thiel is only the latest in an old trend

For some time now, there’s been a tendency on Wall Street for rich guys to become philosophers – think George Soros and his reflexivity thesis, or Ray Dalio and his little red book of self-criticism. Now, that trend seems to be coming to Silicon Valley – witness PayPal founder and investor Peter Theil’s new book Zero to One, which, among other things advises young people to drop out of college to do tech start ups (this from a guy with double Stanford degrees). While I agree with Theil’s advice that people should think different (a la Steve Jobs) to really come up with ground breaking innovations, I fear that this book may herald a new era of tech gurus who imagine themselves public intellectuals simple because they’ve made a lot of money.

Joe Nocera and I discussed the topic on this week’s WNYC Money Talking, along with where the tech industry itself is headed in the wake of Apple’s new product announcements.

 

TIME Tax

The Artful Dodgers

Companies that flee the U.S. to avoid taxes have forgotten how they got so big in the first place

If income inequality and the wealth share of the “1%” were the room-clearing economic issues of the past few years, corporate tax dodging is shaping up to be a focus of the next few.

President Obama recently used the word deserters to describe firms that have attempted to lower their tax rate by acquiring foreign firms, chiefly in order to switch to lower-tax jurisdictions. A few days ago, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew upped the ante by pushing Congress to take legislative action against such firms, as well as hinting that the Administration itself might try to regulate away inversions.

The stakes are high. Corporations in the U.S. today are hoarding about $2 trillion in profits overseas, arguing that the U.S. corporate tax rate of 35% makes it too difficult to bring this cash home and invest it here–better to keep the money abroad and pay lower taxes in other countries. Yet the truth is that legions of tax lawyers make sure that most big American corporations never pay anywhere close to that rate. FORTUNE 500 companies on average pay more like 19.4%, and a third pay less than 10%, chiefly because of all the generous loopholes Congress has afforded corporations over the years. Partly as a result, U.S. firms are enjoying record profit margins, making more money than ever before yet paying a lower share of the overall U.S. tax pie than they have in decades.

While there are plenty of creative ways for corporations to avoid paying U.S. taxes by stashing money in Ireland, the Netherlands or the Cayman Islands, inversions go a step further: those companies are more or less renouncing their corporate citizenship to avoid taxes. They want the benefits of U.S. talent and markets but not the responsibilities. This strikes many as grossly unfair, particularly given that taxpayer-funded, early-stage investments in areas like the Internet, transportation and health care research are the reason many of the largest U.S. companies got so big and successful to begin with. That’s a leg up–call it corporate welfare–that most firms conveniently forget when they start looking for places to hide their profits. As the academic Mariana Mazzucato argues in her excellent book The Entrepreneurial State, many of the most lauded corporate innovations, including the parts of smartphones that make them smart (Internet, GPS, touchscreen display and voice recognition), came out of state-funded research. Ditto any number of pharmaceutical, biotech and cybersecurity innovations. “In so many cases, public investments have become business giveaways, making individuals and their companies rich but providing little return to the economy or the state,” says Mazzucato.

Tax inversions that expatriate the gains of American corporations to enrich a tiny managerial caste symbolize a whole new genre of selfish capitalism. Globalization allows firms to fly 35,000 feet over the problems of both nations and workers, who are all too familiar with the reality on the ground–an economy in which wages still aren’t rising, good middle-class jobs remain hard to come by and public deficits remain large, since the private sector won’t spend to fill the void. Economics 101 tells us that when one sector saves, another must spend, but the textbooks didn’t anticipate this.

As a recent Harvard Business School alumni survey summed up the problem, we’re stuck in an economy that’s “doing only half its job.” Says Michael E. Porter, an author of the study, “The United States is competitive to the extent that firms operating here do two things–win in global markets and lift the living standards of the average American.” We’re doing the first but failing at the second. “Business leaders and policymakers need a strategy to get our country on a path toward broadly shared prosperity.”

Pressed on their overseas tax dodging, corporations say they’ll stop looking for better deals abroad only if the corporate rate shrinks. (They also want a tax holiday to repatriate foreign earnings.) While we should cut and simplify our tax code to put it in line with those of other developed countries (25% would be fine), the last time the U.S. offered a tax holiday, back in 2004, most of the repatriated money went to stock buybacks and dividends–not investments in factories and workers.

A new relationship between corporations and the U.S. Treasury is what’s really needed. Treasury’s Lew should push for changes to the tax code that would reduce the appeal of inversions to companies that pursue them. That would mean taking on corporate lobbyists and the money culture that has turned the tax code into Swiss cheese. As the inversion debate makes so clear, it’s about time.

TIME nation

Detroit: America’s Emerging Market

How the city can teach us to reinvest the rest of the U.S. economy

In August, a year after I wrote a TIME cover story on Detroit’s bankruptcy, I visited Motown again. This time I found myself reporting on a remarkable economic resurgence that could become a model for other beleaguered American communities. Even as Detroit continues to struggle with blight and decline–more than 70,500 properties were foreclosed on in the past four years, and basic public services like streetlights and running water are still spotty in some areas–its downtown is booming, full of bustling restaurants, luxury lofts, edgy boutiques and newly renovated office buildings.

The city struck me as a template for much of the postcrisis U.S. economy–thriftier, more entrepreneurial and nimble. Many emerging-market cities, from Istanbul to Lagos to Mumbai, share similar characteristics, good and bad. The water might be off on Detroit’s perimeter, but migrants are flooding into its center, drawn by lower-cost housing and a creative-hive effect that’s spawned a host of new businesses.

Much of the resurgence has been led by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who a few years back decided to relocate his company’s headquarters downtown, moving from the suburbs to take advantage of the city’s postcrisis “skyscraper sales,” as well as the growing desire of young workers to live in urban hubs. “If I wanted to attract kids from Harvard or Georgetown, there was no way it was going to happen in a suburb of Detroit, where you’re going to walk on asphalt 200 yards to your car in the middle of February and have no interaction with anyone in the world except who’s in your building,” says Gilbert, 52.

Since 2010, Gilbert has created 6,500 new jobs downtown, bought up tens of thousands of square feet of cheap real estate and brought in 100 new business and retail tenants, including hot firms like Twitter, as well as a bevy of professional-services firms. Lowe Campbell Ewald, one of General Motors’ advertising agencies, recently moved back downtown after years in the suburbs, citing better client-recruitment possibilities there. Companies of all types are catering to a growing number of young entrepreneurs who are making the most of cheap real estate (Quicken subsidizes rents and mortgages) and local talent (southern Michigan still has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of industrial-product designers) to create new businesses. For instance, there’s Chalkfly, a dotcom that sells office and school supplies online, and Shinola, the cult-hit watch company that advertises $600 timepieces as “made in Detroit.” Their success is already raising rents–per-square-foot rates have doubled in the past four years–and bringing in tony retail brands like Whole Foods.

The question now is how to spread the prosperity. The answer starts with better public transportation. Motown has always been a disaster in this respect. It used to be that nobody wanted to go downtown; now nobody wants to leave. The M-1 Rail, a new public-private streetcar due to be completed in 2016, aims to link neighborhoods. GM, Penske, Quicken and other firms are contributing the majority of its $140 million cost, and the rail will be donated back to the city within a few years. Studies show that a similar project in Portland, Ore., has generated six times its cost in economic development. In the past few months, officials from New Orleans and Miami have visited Detroit to study the project.

Reinventing Detroit’s manufacturing sector is the next step. That means connecting the dots between the public and private sectors, businesses and universities, and large and small firms. Detroit’s old industrial model was top-down: the Big Three dictated terms to thousands of suppliers, who did what they were told. The new model will be more collaborative. Many of the innovations in high-tech materials, telematics and sensors are happening on campuses or at startups, with the aid of groups like the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The University of Michigan has become a test bed for driverless cars. A new federally funded $148 million high-tech manufacturing institute just opened in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

One could imagine the automakers playing a key role in this resurgence by investing more broadly in local innovation, via their own venture-capital arms. Ford, which acquired a local digital-radio technology startup last fall, is beginning to do just that. It would provide a much needed injection of cash into the city’s innovation economy and offer the automakers a new line of business.

Ultimately, it will take all that and more to ensure that Detroit’s downtown rebirth grows into a boom that is more broadly shared.

TIME Economy

Banking Is for the 1%

Can’t get credit? You aren’t the only one. Why banks want to do business mainly with the rich

The rich are different, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, and so are their banking services. While most of us struggle to keep our balances high enough to avoid a slew of extra fees for everything from writing checks to making ATM withdrawals, wealthy individuals enjoy the special extras provided by banks, which increasingly seem more like high-end concierges than financial institutions. If you are rich, your bank will happily arrange everything from Broadway tickets to spa trips.

Oh, and you’ll have an easier time getting a loan too. A recent report by the Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute, the public-policy unit of the finance giant, found that while the rich have ample access to credit and banking services six years on from the financial crisis, low- and medium-income consumers do not. Instead, they pay more for everything from mortgages to credit cards, and generally, the majority of consumers have worse access to credit than they did before the crisis. As the Goldman report puts it, “For a near-minimum-wage worker who has maintained some access to bank credit (and it is important to note that many have not in the wake of the financial crisis), the added annual interest expenses associated with a typical level of debt would be roughly equivalent to one week’s wages.” Small and midsize businesses, meanwhile, have seen interest rates on their loans go up 1.75% relative to those for larger companies. This is a major problem because it dampens economic growth and slows job creation.

It’s Ironic (and admirable) that the report comes from Goldman Sachs, which like several other big banks–Morgan Stanley, UBS–is putting its future bets on wealth-management services catering to rich individuals rather than the masses. Banks would say this is because the cost of doing business with regular people has grown too high in the wake of Dodd-Frank regulation. It’s true that in one sense, new regulations dictating how much risk banks can take and how much capital they have to maintain make it easier to provide services to the rich. That’s one reason why, for example, the rates on jumbo mortgages–the kind the wealthy take out to buy expensive homes–have fallen relative to those of 30-year loans, which typically cater to the middle class. It also explains why access to credit cards is constrained for lower-income people compared with those higher up the economic ladder.

Regulation isn’t entirely to blame. For starters, banks are increasingly looking to wealthy individuals to make up for the profits they aren’t making by trading. Even without Dodd-Frank, it would have been difficult for banks to maintain their precrisis trading revenue in a market with the lowest volatility levels in decades. (Huge market shifts mean huge profits for banks on the right side of a trade.) The market calm is largely due to the Federal Reserve Bank’s unprecedented $4 trillion money dump, which is itself an effort to prop up an anemic recovery.

All of this leads to a self-perpetuating vicious cycle: the lack of access to banking services, loans and capital fuels America’s growing wealth divide, which is particularly stark when it comes to race. A May study by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a Washington-based consultancy, and Duke University found that the median amount of liquid wealth (assets that can easily be turned into cash) held by African-American households was $200. For Latino households it was $340. The median for white households was $23,000. One reason for the difference is that a disproportionate number of minorities (along with women and younger workers of all races) have no access to formal retirement-savings plans. No surprise that asset management, the fastest-growing area of finance, is yet another area in which big banks focus mainly on serving the rich.

In lieu of forcing banks to lend to lower-income groups, something that’s being tried with mixed results in the U.K., what to do? Smarter housing policy would be a good place to start. The majority of Americans still keep most of their wealth in their homes. But so far, investors and rich buyers who can largely pay in cash have led the housing recovery. That’s partly why home sales are up but mortgage applications are down. Policymakers and banks need to rethink who is a “good” borrower. One 10-year study by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for example, found that poor buyers putting less than 5% down can be better-than-average credit risks if vetted by metrics aside from how much cash they have on hand. If banks won’t take the risk of lending to them, they may eventually find their own growth prospects in peril. After all, in a $17 trillion economy, catering to the 1% can take you only so far.

TIME Economy

Last Tango in Buenos Aires

Argentina’s debt snarl tells us how risky the global financial system still is

There’s a legal adage that goes, “Hard cases make bad law.” A recent U.S. court ruling against Argentina, which pushed the country into a new technical default on its sovereign debt, is a case in point. In 2001, Argentina defaulted on $80 billion worth of sovereign debt, the bonds that a country issues to raise money. It had to restructure, just as Greece had to more recently, and over the years, some 93% of creditors went along with the cut-rate deals, taking “exchange” bonds that paid 30¢ on the dollar. But some, like Elliott Management, the hedge fund started by Wall Street titan Paul Singer, held out. Tens of millions of dollars in legal fees later, Elliott won its case.

U.S. federal judge Thomas Griesa ruled earlier this summer that unless Argentina paid creditors like Elliott and other holdouts 100% of their claims, it couldn’t pay anybody else either. Paying Elliott in full would mean that, contractually, the country would also have to pay everyone else in full too–a $29 billion commitment. The case is full of gnarly legal and financial issues. But what it tells us is dead simple: the world financial order is still far too complex and opaque.

It’s tough to cry for Argentina–or the hedge funds. Elliott says Argentina’s claim that it has been victimized by “vulture funds” is a populist political strategy to drum up support for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s flagging party. “Argentina isn’t a poor country. It’s a G-20 nation,” says Jay Newman, Elliott’s Argentina-portfolio manager. “It’s chosen for political reasons not to negotiate a fair settlement with us or more than 61,000 other bondholders.” Certainly no one would argue that the Argentine government is a paragon of best practices; Argentina, which had the same per capita GDP as Switzerland in the 1950s, has defaulted eight times.

Then again, the vultures haven’t done so badly either. Many bought bonds postdefault for pennies on the dollar. Now they are eschewing an already rich return for a regal one, while setting a precedent that could make creditors reluctant to cooperate when nations default in the future. “This has become a morality play which has given rise to a host of new legal problems,” says Jonathan Blackman, the Cleary Gottlieb partner defending Argentina. Both sides are waging an ugly media war complete with ad campaigns, as thousands of other creditors and financial institutions around the world nervously await the final result.

The Argentine crisis says three important things about the global economy. First, the balance between creditors and debtors has shifted. As data from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) show, there’s more debt globally than there was before the 2008 financial crisis. But now, the largest portion of it consists of public-sector debt. “Debt in the economy is like a balloon,” explains Susan Lund, a partner at MGI. “When you squeeze it out of one place, it grows in another.” With the rise in public debt comes a greater risk of sovereign defaults, which can wreak havoc on the global economy. (Remember the euro crisis?)

Second, the global economy is becoming more fragmented. The fact that a federal court in New York City ruled in favor of the holdouts is a sign that the global economy is splitting along national and ideological lines: British courts tend to go with majority rule in sovereign cases, and local markets have any number of other ways of handling sovereign-debt deals. The BRIC nations, aside from increasingly cutting their own trade deals, have set up a new development bank, which may become a source of capital for countries like Argentina if they remain shut out of the Western credit markets. That could give Russia and China more leverage over, for example, Argentina’s natural resources. (The country has the world’s second largest shale-gas deposit.)

Finally, the case shows how much work remains to be done in making our financial system more transparent. In addition to establishing a single standard for sovereign default, we desperately need to make complex security holdings more visible. Academics like Joseph Stiglitz say Elliott Management actually stands to benefit from an Argentine default, since nearly $1 billion worth of credit-default swaps exist on the country; that’s insurance that will pay out now that Argentina has defaulted. While the Elliott subsidiary that went to court against Buenos Aires says it holds no such swaps, the hedge-fund firm as a whole doesn’t disclose trading positions, and the swaps holdings of individual companies aren’t public record. They should be. Knowing exactly who stands to gain–or lose–from fiscal turmoil that can affect all of us could help make the right fixes at least a little more apparent.

TO READ MORE BY RANA FOROOHAR, GO TO time.com/foroohar

TIME mergers

Why Big Mergers Are Bad for Consumers

When big companies merge, it’s good for the bankers — but not so good for the rest of us

Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox wants to take over Time Warner. Comcast wants to buy Time Warner Cable. AT&T and DirecTV may hook up to compete against them. T-Mobile and Sprint are looking to connect, as are any number of other large communications firms, not to mention technology and pharma giants. We are in a new golden age of mergers and acquisitions–M&A activity was up sharply in 2014 and is already at pre-financial-crisis levels. Now bankers are salivating at the billions of dollars in fees such deals generate. The question is, Will the deals be any good for the rest of us?

Since the early 1980s, antitrust regulators like the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have tried to answer that question by asking another: Will a given merger bring down prices and improve services for consumers? If the answer was even remotely yes, then the merger–no matter how big–was likely to go through. But voices on all sides of the antitrust debate are beginning to question whether that rationale is actually working anymore.

Nobody would argue that the megamergers that have taken place over the past 30 years in pharmaceuticals, for example, have brought down drug prices. Or that the tie-ups between big airlines have made flying more enjoyable. Or that conglomerate banks have made our financial system more robust. “Merging companies always say that they’ll save money and bring down prices,” says Albert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute, a think tank devoted to studying competition. “But the reality is that they often end up with monopoly power that allows them to exert incredible pressure in whatever way they like.” That can include squeezing not only customers but also smaller suppliers way down the food chain.

Take the book business, for example. Though publishing is minuscule as a percentage of the economy, it has recently become a focal point in the debate over how our antitrust system works (or doesn’t), mostly because it illustrates the incredible power of one corporation: Amazon. In 2012, the Department of Justice went after tech giant Apple and a group of five major book publishers for collusion, winning a case against them for attempting to fix the prices of e-books. The publishers argued their actions were a response to anticompetitive monopoly pricing by Amazon. Apple is appealing.

Did the verdict serve the public? Many people, including star trial attorney David Boies, say no. Boies, who’s been representing large firms on both sides of the antitrust issue as well as the DOJ over the past several decades, says the verdict is “a failure of common sense and analysis.” Regulators often bring collusion cases, for example, because they are relatively easy to prove. Yet in this case, argues Boies, it led to an outcome in which the entrenched market participant, Amazon, was strengthened, and new participants–Apple and the book publishers–that hoped to create a competing platform in the e-book industry were shot down. “The result is that Amazon gets bigger, and eventually regulators will have to go after them,” says Boies. “We really need a more realistic, commonsense view of antitrust enforcement.” Amazon declined to comment.

The “Bigger Is Better” ethos of the 1980s and 1990s grew not only out of conservative, markets-know-best thinking. It was also fueled by a belief on the left that antitrust enforcement was wasteful and that regulating big companies was preferable to trying to stop them from becoming too big in the first place. Neither side got it right. Big companies aren’t always concerned first about the welfare of their customers–or particularly easy to regulate. The idea of letting companies do whatever they want as long as they can prove that they are decreasing prices may be far too simplistic a logic to serve the public–or even the corporate–good. Amazon shares have tumbled as investors worry about the future of a company that has so successfully compressed prices that it generates as much as $20 billion in revenue a quarter but no profit.

How to fix things? We need a rethink of antitrust logic that takes into consideration a more complex, global landscape in which megamergers have unpredictable ripple effects. We also need a new definition of consumer good that encompasses not only price but choice and the kind of marketplace diversity that encourages innovation and growth. Tech and communications firms today are like the railroads of old: it will take a strong hand to rein them in. That’s a task not for regulators but for Congress and a new Administration. Until then, with corporate coffers full and markets flying high, the big are only likely to get bigger.

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