TIME Economy

Here’s the Secret Truth About Economic Inequality in America

Mmmmmoney: Get a grip; it's just paper
KAREN BLEIER; AFP/Getty Images Mmmmmoney: Get a grip; it's just paper

Once you look at the issue this way, it's hard to think of it any other way

We all know that inequality has grown in America over the last several years. But the conventional wisdom among conservatives and even many liberals has always been that inequality was the price of growth–in order to get more of it, we needed to tolerate a bigger wealth gap. Today, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia professor and former economic advisor to Bill Clinton, blew a hole in that truism with a new report for the Roosevelt Institute entitled “Rewriting the Rules,” which is basically a roadmap for what many progressives would like to see happen policy wise over the next four years.

There are a number of provocative insights but the key takeaway–inequality isn’t inevitable, and it’s not just a social issue, but also an economic one, because it’s largely responsible for the fact that every economic “recovery” since the 1990s has been slower and longer than the one before. Inequality isn’t the trade-off for economic growth; rather, it’s both the cause and the symptom of slower growth. It’s a fascinating document, particularly when compared to the less radical Center for American Progress policy report on how to strengthen the middle class, authored by another former Clinton advisor, Larry Summers, which was widely considered to set out what may be Hillary Clinton’s economic policy agenda.

While the two have some overlap, the Stiglitz report is bolder and more in-depth. It’s also a much more damning assessment of some of the policy changes made not only during the Bush years, but also during Bill Clinton’s tenure, in particular the continued deregulation of financial markets, changes in corporate pay structures, and tax shifts of the early 1990s. During a presentation and panel discussion on the topic of inequality and how it relates to growth (I moderated the panel, which included other experts like Nobel laureate Bob Solow, labor economist Heather Bouchley, MIT professor Simon Johnson and Cornell’s Lynn Stout, as well as pollster Stan Greenberg), Stiglitz made the point that both Republican and Democratic administrations have been at fault in crafting not only policies that forward inequality, but also a narrative that tells us that we can’t do anything about it. “Inequality isn’t inevitable,” said Stiglitz. “It’s about the choices we make with the rules we create to structure our economy.”

One of the big economic questions in the 2016 presidential campaign will be, “why does inequality matter?” The answer–because it slows growth and thus affects everyone’s livelihood–is simple. But the reasons behind it are complex and systemic. Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio were on hand to help connect the dots on that front, with de Blasio calling for more social action in order to “move to a society that rewards work over wealth,” and Warren re-iterating a hot button point that she made last week about inequality and the trade agenda; she believes that Fast Track trade authority for President Obama would allow big bank lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic to further water down financial reform that could combat inequality, which led the President to call her ill-informed (he didn’t elaborate much on why). Warren noted that the trade deal was being crafted in conjunction with 500 non-governmental actors, 85 % of whom are either industry lobbyists or from the big business sector.

Warren’s mantra about how America’s economic game “is rigged,” ties directly into two of the key takeaways from the Stiglitz report; first, that inequality is all about the political economy and Washington policy decisions that favor the rich, and secondly, that it’s not one single decision–Dodd Frank, capital gains tax, healthcare, or labor standards–but all of them taken together that are at the root of the problem. “Our economy is a system,” says Stiglitz, and combatting inequality is going to require a systemic approach across multiple areas–financial reform, corporate governance, CEO pay, tax policy, anti-trust law, monetary policy, education, healthcare, and labor law. It might also involve revamping institutions like the Fed; Stiglitz and Solow both agreed that the Fed needs to start tabulating unemployment in a new way, perhaps focusing not on a particular number target, but on when wages actually start to go up, which Stiglitz said is the best sign of when the country’s employment picture is actually improving.

Thinking in these more holistic terms would be a big shift for lawmakers used to tackling each of these issues alone in their respective silos. But as Stiglitz and the other economists on the panel pointed out, they are often interrelated–consider the way in which pension funds work with shareholder “activists” to goad corporations into over-borrowing to make large payouts to investors even as lowered wages and profits kept in offshore tax havens mean that long-term investments aren’t made into the real economy, slowing growth. Or how continuing to tie worker’s healthcare benefits to companies makes them virtual slaves, decreasing their ability to negotiate higher wages, not to mention start their own businesses.

It’s a huge topic, and the Roosevelt discussion was part of the continuing campaign on the far left to try to make sure that presumptive nominee Hilary Clinton doesn’t continue business as usual if and when she’s in the White House. Progressives are looking for her to do more than talk about minimum wage and redistribution; they want her to make fairly radical shifts in the money culture and political economy of our country. That would mean a decided split from the policies of the past, including many concocted by her husband’s own advisors, ghosts that Hilary Clinton has yet to publically reckon with.

TIME Economy

The Real Way to Fix Finance Once and for All

Bull statue on Wall Street
Murat Taner—Getty Images

Changing the way financial institutions operate will require more than calculations and complex regulation

We live in an age of big data and hot and cold running metrics. Everywhere, at all times, we are counting things—our productivity, our friends and followers on social media, how many steps we take per day. But is it all getting us closer to truth and real understanding? I have been thinking about this a lot in the wake of a terrific conference I attended this week on “finance and society” co-sponsored by the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

There was plenty of new and creative thinking. On a panel I moderated in which Margaret Heffernan, a business consultant and author of the book Willful Blindness, made some really important points about why culture is just as important as numbers, particularly when it comes to issues like financial reform and corporate governance. As Heffernan sums it up quite aptly in her new book on the topic of corporate culture, Beyond Measure, “numbers are comforting…but when we’re confronted by spectacular success or failure, everyone from the CEO to the janitor points in the same direction: the culture.”

That’s at the core of a big debate in Washington and on Wall Street right now about how to change the financial system and ensure that it’s a help, rather than a hindrance, to the real economy. Everyone from Fed chair Janet Yellen to IMF head Christine Lagarde to Senator Elizabeth Warren—all of whom spoke at the INET conference; other big wigs like Fed vice chair Stanley Fischer and FDIC vice-chair Tom Hoenig were in the audience—agree more needs to be done to put banking back in service to society.

MORE: What Apple’s Gargantuan Cash Giveaway Really Means

But a lot of the discussion about how to do that hinges on complex and technocratic debates about incomprehensible (to most people anyway) things like “tier-1 capital” and “risk-weighted asset calculations.” Not only does that quickly narrow the discussion to one in which only “insiders,” many of whom are beholden to finance or political interests, can participate, but it also leaves regulators and policy makers trying to fight the last war. No matter how clever the metrics are that we apply to regulation, the only thing we know for sure is that the next financial crisis won’t look at all like the last one. And, it will probably come from some unexpected area of the industry, an increasing part of which falls into the unregulated “shadow banking” area.

That’s why changing the culture of finance and of business is general is so important. There’s a long way to go there: In one telling survey by the whistle blower’s law firm Labaton Sucharow, which interviewed 500 senior financial executives in the United States and the UK, 26% of respondents said they had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace, while 24% said they believed they might need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct to be successful. Sixteen percent of respondents said they would commit insider trading if they could get away with it, and 30% said their compensation plans created pressure to compromise ethical standards or violate the law.

How to change this? For starters, more collaboration–as Heffernan points out, economic research shows that successful organizations are almost always those that empower teams, rather than individuals. Yet in finance, as in much of corporate America, the mythology of the heroic individual lingers. Star traders or CEOs get huge salaries (and often take huge risks), while their success is inevitably a team effort. Indeed, the argument that individuals, rather than teams, should get all the glory or blame is often used perversely by the financial industry itself to get around rules and regulations. SEC Commissioner Kara Stein has been waging a one-woman war to try to prevent big banks that have already been found guilty of various kinds of malfeasance to get “waiver” exceptions from various filing rules by claiming that only a few individuals in the organization were responsible for bad behavior. Check out some of her very smart comments on that in our panel entitled “Other People’s Money.”

MORE: The Real (and Troubling) Reason Behind Lower Oil Prices

Getting more “outsiders” involved in the conversation will help change culture too. In fact, that’s one reason INET president Rob Johnson wanted to invite all women to the Finance and Society panel. “When society is set up around men’s power and control, women are cast as outsiders whether you like it or not,” he says. Research shows, of course, that outsiders are much more likely to call attention to problems within organizations, since not being invited to the power party means they aren’t as vulnerable to cognitive capture by powerful interests. (On that note, see a very powerful 3 minute video by Elizabeth Warren, who has always supported average consumers and not been cowed by the banking lobby, here.)

For more on the conference and the debate over how to reform banking, check out the latest episode of WNYC’s Money Talking, where I debated the issue on the fifth anniversary of the “Flash Crash,” with Charlie Herman and Mashable business editor, Heidi Moore.

TIME

America’s Broken Ladder

Why racial and economic fairness can no longer be treated as separate issues

One thing is clear after the tragic death of Freddie Gray, the young African-American man who was fatally injured while in police custody in Baltimore last month: we cannot fix the problems of economic justice in this country without addressing racial justice. The deck is stacked against low-income Americans–African Americans and Latinos in particular. As a newly released report from a pair of Harvard academics has found, just being born in a poor part of Baltimore–or Atlanta, Chicago, L.A., New York City or any number of other urban areas–virtually ensures that you’ll never make it up the socioeconomic ladder. Boys from low-income households who grow up in the kind of beleaguered, mostly minority neighborhoods like the one Gray was from will earn roughly 25% less than peers who moved to better neighborhoods as children. So much for the American Dream.

This has big implications. Income inequality is shaping up to be the key economic issue of the 2016 campaign. If you have any doubt, consider that both Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, who declared their candidacies in the past few weeks, are already staking out positions. Clinton billed herself as the candidate for the “everyday American,” calling for higher wages and criticizing bloated CEO salaries. Meanwhile, Rubio said he wants the Republican Party–which, he said, is portrayed unfairly as “a party that doesn’t care about people who are trying to make it”–to remake itself into “the champion of the working class.”

What neither candidate has done yet is directly connect the recent spate of violence to the fact that the economic ladder no longer works for a growing number of Americans. Raising the federal minimum wage is just a first step. As Thomas Piketty showed in his best-selling book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, creating a system of capitalism that more equitably distributes wealth is our biggest challenge now. A few extra dollars an hour will help minimum-wage workers (a group in which minorities are overrepresented), but it won’t address deeper economic inequality. And as a growing body of research from outfits like the Brookings Institution has shown, more inequality means less opportunity. As Brookings senior fellow Isabel Sawhill puts it, “When the rungs on the ladder are farther apart, it’s harder to climb up them.”

The dirty secret of America in 2015 is that the wealth gap between whites and everyone else is far worse than most people would guess. A 2014 study by Duke University and the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a Washington-based consultancy, 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: $23,000. One reason for the difference is that a disproportionate number of nonwhites, along with women and younger workers of all races, have little or no access to formal retirement-savings plans. Another is that they were hit harder in the mortgage crisis, in part because housing is where the majority of Americans, especially nonwhites, keep most of their wealth. In this sense, the government’s policy decision to favor lenders over homeowners in the 2008 bailouts favored whites over people of color.

That’s bad news for a country that will be “majority minority” by 2043, according to Maya Rockeymoore, president of the Center for Global Policy Solutions. The U.S. economy continues to be stuck in a slow, volatile recovery. Lack of consumer demand driven by stagnant or falling wages, and decreased opportunity for many Americans, is what many economists believe is behind the paltry growth. Given that 70% of the U.S. economy is driven by consumer demand, it’s a problem that will eventually affect everyone’s bottom line, rich and poor.

How to fix it? We need to think harder about narrowing the gap between those at the bottom and the top. If most people, especially lower-income individuals and minorities, keep the bulk of their wealth in housing, we should rethink lending practices and allow for a broader range of credit metrics (which tend to be biased toward whites) and lower down payments for good borrowers. Rethinking our retirement policies is crucial too. Retirement incentives work mainly for whites and the rich. Minority and poor households are less likely to have access to workplace retirement plans, in part because many work in less formal sectors like restaurants and child care. Another overdue fix: we should expand Social Security by lifting the cap on payroll taxes so the rich can contribute the same share of their income as everyone else.

Doing both would be a good first step. But going forward, economic and racial fairness can no longer be thought of as separate issues.


This appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME

How Women Will Fix the Economy

Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde talk about what's next for the world economy

It’s not often that you get a chance to hear Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and IMF head Christine Lagarde interview each other. But I did Tuesday at the “Finance and Society” conference held at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. The event was unique in many ways; not only did it feature only women speakers, a rarity at financial events (I was a moderator), but it also went head on at one of the most contentious and important topics in economics right now: Why doesn’t the financial system do more to serve the real economy and society at large?

The event was the brainchild of Anat Admati, a Stanford professor and TIME 100 honoree whose book The Banker’s New Clothes is one of the sharpest takes on what’s still wrong with our banking system six years after the financial crisis. About a year ago, Admati told me that she wanted to get a bunch of smart women together to discuss why the global economy and financial system were still so screwed up, not so much because they were women, but because they happened to be the individuals who were actually questioning the conventional wisdom that finance was now in much better shape than before 2008, that the “too big to fail” problem had been solved, and that everyone could just go home and relax (see “The Myth of Financial Reform”). Women have frequently been whistle-blowers in finance; only now are they also among the most powerful people in the industry (aside from Yellen and Lagarde, the conference included many other top policymakers and thinkers), so it was a good idea to get everyone together to discuss the topic.

What the discussion made quite clear is that there’s a lot more that needs to be done to make the system safe. While Yellen said that banks have increased capital and decreased leverage, she also made it clear that “too big to fail” hasn’t been solved and that the Fed is worried about the risks that have been built up into the system because of the “unthinkable” period of low interest rates over the past six plus years, which was itself a response to the 2008 crisis. While she said the Fed believes low rates are still necessary right now to maintain employment and price stability, she also noted that Fed leaders were monitoring the deterioration in lending standards in various areas, like the market for leverage loans, and high-yield debt. As she put it, “equity market valuations are quite high,” and the divergence in monetary policy around the world (the Fed is pulling back from easy money while others, like the European Central Bank, are pouring more into markets) could lead to unexpected distortions and corrections. Yellen called out the “taper tantrum” of 2013 in particular, and noted that not just banks, but also insurance and pension funds might be caught out when rates eventually do rise (her opening speech can be read here).

For her part, Lagarde noted that there are still plenty of risks in the system — they have just migrated to different areas. Nonbanking entities that do finance (known as shadow banks) now hold more risks than major banks, which makes it harder for regulators to see where problems are. Liquidity is a bigger problem than bank solvency, and emerging markets are more likely to blow up than developed ones. Changing financial culture will be just as important to solving these problems as regulation, according to Lagarde, who advocates putting more women in positions of power within the industry, since they tend to be less oriented toward risk taking than men. Lagarde made a point she’s made before, which is that perhaps the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened if “Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters.”

I don’t know about that, but I do think that Lagarde was spot on to disagree with the notion that “banking should be boring.” This CW is often thrown around to indicate the idea that banks should do “plain vanilla” lending rather than complex deals with sliced and diced securities. Fair enough. But as the IMF chief pointed out, “Why should lending to the real economy be boring?” The shifts that need to happen to bring finance back in service to the real economy are myriad and complex. They include changing tax policy that rewards short-term gains over longer-term ones, reforming corporate governance, increasing personal liability, changing the structure of banks themselves and making our system of shareholder capitalism more inclusive. But the original mission of banking — finding new innovations and funding them to create growth in society at large — is anything but boring. The regulatory and cultural journey back to that, which will no doubt take several more years, should be interesting too.

TIME Apple

What Apple’s Gargantuan Cash Giveaway Really Means

Mmmmmoney: Get a grip; it's just paper
KAREN BLEIER; AFP/Getty Images Mmmmmoney: Get a grip; it's just paper

$200 billion dollars—and it only means 1 thing

Apple’s announcement today that it would increase its dividend 10.6% and give out the biggest chunk of cash to shareholders in history—$200 billion of capital will be returned to investors through March 2017—means one thing and one thing only. The market has topped.

As I’ve written numerous times in recent months, share buybacks and dividend payments of this type don’t signal underlying economic health so much as they indicate a market riding on a financialized sugar high, one built on easy money, cash hording and tax dodging, which will eventually crash. Carl Icahn himself admitted as much to me when I interviewed him back in 2013, for a TIME cover story that looked at his quest to get Apple to give back $150 billion worth of cash to investors. “This market will break,” he said back then, even as he and many others were pushing for America’s richest firms to give investors more of the $4 trillion on their balance sheets (about half of which is held offshore). The only question now is when.

Indeed, one of the reasons that Icahn and others have been able to demand such huge payouts, and that companies like Apple have been able to deliver them, is that the Fed has poured $4 trillion into the market over the last few years, and kept interest rates at historic lows. That’s a crucial part of understanding this massive Apple payout. Despite having nearly 10% of corporate America’s liquid assets on hand, Apple has borrowed much of the money needed to do its capital return program over the last few years, at the lowest rates in corporate history, in order to avoid taking money out of offshore tax havens and paying the U.S. corporate tax rate on it. (CEO Tim Cook has said he would support repatriating some of the money at a lower rate as part of a wider deal on offshore holdings.)

Not only does issuing debt in order to hand over cash to investors save Apple billions, it almost always boosts its share price–buybacks necessarily do that, since they artificially decrease the amount of shares on the market, without actually changing the real value of the company via true strategic investments, like research and development, worker training, or anything else that might bolster the underlying prospects of the firm. More broadly, buyback wizardry underscores one of the great ironies of American business today–the country’s biggest, richest companies have more contact with investors and capital markets than ever before, yet they don’t actually need any capital.

Apple, one of the most admired firms in the world, now spends a large chunk of time thinking about how to create value via financial engineering. This is by no means just about Apple, which is pouring a lot of its wealth into noble pursuits such as green energy even in places like China and some limited factories in America.

But there is a larger uncomfortable truth here that many economists have begun to suspect, on a wide scale, has a lot to do with our permanently slow growth economy. One key part of the theory of “secular stagnation,” which is being bandied about by experts such Larry Summers, is that financial markets are no longer serving the real economy because they funnel so much money away from it. Others go further, believing that financialization itself is a core reason for slow growth and the decreasing competitiveness of U.S. economy in a global landscape.

The biggest economic conundrum of our age–why many companies aren’t investing the cash they have sitting on their balance into our economy in things like factories, workers and wages—turns out to have an easy answer. It’s because they are using it to bolster markets and enrich the 1% via capital return programs instead. A recent paper from the Roosevelt Institute shows that as borrowing to fund paybacks to investors has increased over the last few years has increased, investment into the real economy has decreased.

It’s a trend that has reached a fever pitch in the last decade or so, and particularly the last few years. From 2003 to 2013, the 454 firms in the S&P 500 index did $3.2 trillion worth of buybacks, representing 51% of their income, and another $2.3 trillion on dividend payments, which represented an additional 35% of income. By 2014, buybacks and dividends represented 95% of corporate income, and if the trend continues, they’ll reach over 100% in 2015. The bulk of these buybacks, which sped up following the low interest rate, easy money environment following the 2008 financial crisis, were done during market peaks, belying the notion that such purchases represent firms’ own belief in a rising share price. Many of them were done with borrowed funds (corporate margin debt is at record highs). The buybacks didn’t help make companies more competitive, but they did enrich executives, who took between 66% and 82% of their compensation in stock over the last seven years.

What this means on a practical level is that the claim from corporate leaders about how tight credit conditions, a lack of consumer demand and an uncertain regulatory environment has kept them from investing their cash horde back into the real economy is not the case. William Lazonick, a University of Massachusetts professor who has done extensive research on the topic of buybacks, says that the move from a “retain and reinvest” corporate model to a “downsize and distribute” one is in large part responsible for a “national economy characterized by income inequity, employment instability, and diminished innovative capability.” I couldn’t agree more.

TIME Economy

Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Looking for Answers on Income Inequality

Will the rhetoric turn into real policy?

Income inequality is clearly going to be the key economic rallying issue of the 2016 presidential campaign. If you have any doubt, consider that both Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, who declared their candidacies over the last week, are already speaking out about their positions on the issue. Clinton billed herself as the candidate for the “everyday Americans,” criticizing CEOs’ swollen salaries. She also tweeted: “Every American deserves a fair shot at success. Fast food & child care workers shouldn’t have to march in the streets for living wages.” Meanwhile, Rubio told NPR he wants the Republican Party—which, he said, is portrayed unfairly as “a party that doesn’t care about people who are trying to make it”—to transform into “the champion of the working class.”

So will the rhetoric turn into real policy? Certainly, the pressure will be on Clinton to declare her position on minimum wage—she’s said she wants to have “a conversation” about the topic, but when so many states have already passed hikes, it will be hard for her to argue that there shouldn’t be a higher federal minimum wage. But as I’ve written before, that doesn’t solve the inequality problem. Clinton has said it’s unfair when “CEO are making 300 times the salary of their average workers,” but there’s an uncomfortable truth there, which is that many of the compensation and tax policies that allow those types of salaries were structured by economic advisers from her husband Bill Clinton’s administration—people like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Is she taking her own economic marching directions from that camp? Or will she go more toward the left-leaning economic ideas that people like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have been pushing for.

Hiring former CFTC chair Gary Gensler as financial head of her campaign is a smart move: He’s the only regulator who’s ever been seriously tough on Wall Street. But I’m betting Clinton will remain a centrist Democrat on the economy, and as Politico reported, her Wall Street backers aren’t too worried.

As for Rubio, whatever he might say about helping the working class, when it comes to real policy, he appears to be mouthing the same old Republican “tax cut, balanced budget” line. I really think the Right is going to have to come up with something beyond trickle-down economic logic, which most of the population now realizes is broken, in order to justify the fact that American wages have been stagnant since 2000, no matter which party was in charge, in the face of many a tax cut. How about some trickle-up ideas, guys?

For more on the economic positions of both candidates and how they might play out in 2016, listen to me discuss the topic with the FT’s Cardiff Garcia, and Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal on this week’s WNYC Money Talking.

TIME Economy

Low Wage Workers Are Storming the Barricades

Activists Hold Protest In Favor Of Raising Minimum Wage
Alex Wong—Getty Images Activists hold protest In favor of raising minimum wage on April 29, 2014 in Washington, DC.

A few weeks back, when Walmart announced plans to raise its starting pay to $9 per hour, I wrote a column saying this was just the beginning of what would be a growing movement around raising wages in America. Today marks a new high point in this struggle, with tens of thousands of workers set to join walkouts and protests in dozens of cities including New York, Chicago, LA, Oakland, Raleigh, Atlanta, Tampa and Boston, as part of the “Fight for $15” movement to raise the federal minimum wage.

This is big shakes in a country where people don’t take to the streets easily, even when they are toiling full-time for pay so low it forces them to take government subsidies to make ends meet, as is the case with many of the employees from fast food retail outlets like McDonalds and Walmart, as well as the home care aids, child caregivers, launderers, car washers and others who’ll be joining the protests.

It’s always been amazing to me that in a country where 42% of the population makes roughly $15 per hour, that more people weren’t already holding bullhorns, and I don’t mean just low-income workers. There’s something fundamentally off about the fact that corporate profits are at record highs in large part because labor’s share is so low, yet when low-income workers have to then apply for federal benefits, the true cost of those profits gets pushed back not to companies, but onto taxpayers, at a time when state debt levels are at record highs. Talk about an imbalanced economic model.

A higher federal minimum wage is inevitable, given that numerous states have already raised theirs and most economists and even many Right Wing politicos are increasingly in agreement that potential job destruction from a moderate increase in minimum wages is negligible. (See a good New York Times summary of that here.) Indeed, the pressure is now on presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton to come out in favor of a higher wage, given her pronouncement that she wants to be a “champion” for the average Joe.

But how will all this influence the inequality debate that will be front and center in the 2016 elections? And what will any of it really do for overall economic growth?

As much as wage hikes are needed to help people avoid working in poverty, the truth is that they won’t do much to move the needle on inequality, since most of the wealth divide has happened at the top end of the labor spectrum. There’s been a $9 trillion increase in household stock market wealth since 2008, most of which has accrued to the top quarter or so of the population that owns the majority of stocks. C-suite America in particular has benefitted, since executives take home the majority of their pay in stock (and thus have reason to do whatever it takes to manipulate stock price.)

Higher federal minimum wages are a good start, but it’s only one piece of the inequality puzzle. Boosting wages in a bigger way will also requiring changing the corporate model to reflect the fact that companies don’t exist only to enrich shareholders, but also workers and society at large, which is the way capitalism works in many other countries. German style worker councils would help balance things, as would a sliding capital gains tax for long versus short-term stock holdings, limits on corporate share buybacks and fiscal stimulus that boosted demand, and hopefully, wages. (For a fascinating back and forth on that topic between Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, see Brookings’ website.)

Politicians are going to have to grapple with this in the election cycle, because as the latest round of wage protests makes clear, the issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

Read next: Target, Gap and Other Major Retailers Face Staffing Probe

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TIME Economics

The Real Reason the Dollar Is So Strong Right Now

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Purestock—Getty Images/Purestock Close-up of American dollar bills

And why it could seriously hurt American business

When is a stronger U.S. dollar not a good thing? When it causes companies to sell fewer products overseas. That’s one of the big concerns at the moment among American CEOs, many of whom are worried about what the dollar’s strength against currencies like the euro and the yen mean for US exports–and corporate profits.

They have legitimate reason to worry. Each of the five major dips in U.S. corporate profitability since 1970 have occurred following reduced sales after periods of relative dollar strength. The Fed has recently expressed concerns about whether the dollar’s strength could hold back the US recovery, which has been lackluster to begin with. Wages are still growing at only around 2 %, not enough to push up consumer spending, which is the major driver of our economy. If US exports also begin to suffer, it could be difficult for the economy to sustain the 3% a year growth figure that is needed to create more jobs.

Some economists believe the dollar’s strength reflects the fact that the U.S. is still the prettiest house on the ugly block that is the global economy. (Certainly, to employ another metaphor, it’s the strongest leg on the global stool with China slowing sharply and the Eurozone debt crisis flaring back up as Greece looks likely to run out of money next month.) But I think it’s more about central bankers and their actions. The dollar’s strength reflects the Fed’s own recent indications that it will likely raise interest rates by the end of the year.

Indeed, the dollar’s strength almost perfectly tracks Fed statements about the coming end of easy money. The tightening of US monetary policy (or even the hint that policy will tighten at some point) has driven the dollar up (and oil down) even as Europe’s beginning of its own “QE” or quantitative easing program has driven the Euro down. None of it reflects the economic reality on the ground, but rather the fact that central bankers are, as investment guru Mohamed El-Erian frequently says, the “only game in town.” For more on what the stronger dollar might mean for consumers, companies and the economy as a whole, you can listen to Josh Barro from the New York Times and I discuss the topic on this week’s Money Talking.

TIME

The Market Mirage

What stock prices do--and don't--tell us about the actual value of a company

One of the hardest-dying ideas in economics is that stock price accurately reflects the fundamental value of a given firm. It’s easy to understand why this misunderstanding persists: price equals value is a simple idea in a complex world. But the truth is that the value of firms in the market and their value within the real economy are, as often as not, disconnected. In fact, the Street regularly punishes firms hardest when they are making the decisions that most enhance their real economic value, causing their stock price to sink.

There are thousands of examples I could cite, but here’s a particularly striking one: the price of Apple stock fell roughly 25% the year it introduced the iPod. The technology that would kick-start the greatest corporate turnaround in the history of capitalism initially disappointed, selling only 400,000 units in its debut year, and the company’s stock reflected that. Thankfully, Steve Jobs didn’t give a fig. He stuck with the idea, and today nine Apple iDevices are sold somewhere in the world every second.

This story illustrates the truth: Stock prices are usually short-term distractions, while true value is built up over time. According to McKinsey, 70% to 90% of a company’s value is related to its likely cash flow three or more years from the present. That makes sense–making money from new inventions takes time. Yet Wall Street analysts, whose opinions help set stock prices, typically base their assessments of a firm on one-year cash-flow projections. What’s more, like all individuals, they have their biases; during boom periods, they tend to believe that corporate earnings will be higher than during bear markets, regardless of the underlying corporate story.

CEOs, who are paid mostly in stock and live in fear of being punished by the markets, race to hit the numbers rather than simply making the best decisions for their businesses long term. One National Bureau of Economic Research study found that 80% of executives would forgo innovation-generating spending if it meant missing their quarterly earnings figures. It’s a system that, as behavior economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller puts it, has emerged from “convenience rather than logic.”

That’s not to say that stock prices don’t give valuable insight into what’s driving corporate America. A recent report from the Office of Financial Research (OFR), a government body that monitors financial stability, dug into why U.S. stocks have tripled over the past six years. While the gains in the market have indeed been driven by rising corporate earnings, that fact obscures a more troubling truth beneath–sales growth is trailing well behind earnings growth. Companies have higher profit margins (and thus higher stock prices) not because the economy is booming and they are selling more stuff but because they have cut costs, kept salaries flat and not invested in new factories or research and development.

Share prices have also been driven up by low interest rates that have allowed companies to borrow money on the cheap and use it for short-term gain. Corporate debt (not including debt held by banks) has risen from $5.7 trillion in 2006 to $7.4 trillion today. Much of that money has been used for stock buybacks, dividend increases and mergers and acquisitions. The OFR believes that “although this financial engineering has contributed to higher stock prices in the short run, it detracts from opportunities to invest capital to support longer-term organic growth.” As William Lazonick, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who does research on the topic, puts it, “We’ve moved from a world in which companies retain and reinvest their earnings to one in which they downsize and distribute them.”

Nobody–not Economists, not CEOs and not policymakers–thinks that’s good for real economic growth. Yet the markets stay up because of the dysfunctional feedback loops. Eventually, of course, interest rates will rise, money won’t be cheap anymore, and markets will go back down. None of it will reflect the reality on the ground, for companies or consumers, any more than it did during the boom times. For individual investors, there’s no clever strategy to get around any of this–you simply buy an index fund and hold it as long as you can before moving into T-bills or cash.

But there’s a deeper conversation to be had about how we might fix our system to bridge this gap between markets and reality. There are plenty of ideas out there, from a sliding capital gains tax based on how long you hold a stock to big limits on buybacks and corporate options pay. Any or all of these might help stock prices reflect what they should–the real value of a corporation.


This appears in the April 06, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Economy

Don’t Trust the Markets: A Correction Is Coming

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The Fed, despite its recent pronouncements, will trigger a fall in stock prices later this year

Up until yesterday’s Fed meeting, America’s central bankers said they were going to be “patient” about the timing of an interest rate hike, which most experts believe will ultimately result in a significant stock market correction (see my recent column about why). So why did that make markets go up so dramatically yesterday?

Because everything else about the Fed’s communication said “we’re going to be more patient than ever” about when and how to raise rates. The central bank downgraded its forecast on the US economic recovery, saying that the pace of the recovery had “moderated somewhat,” in large part because of the strong dollar.

Why is the dollar strong? Mainly because everyone knows that the easy money monetary policy in the US is coming to an end. (QE is over, and most economists are now predicting a rate hike by September.) Meanwhile, pretty much every other central bank is now easing monetary policy—witness the ECB’s new money dump, which has sent European markets soaring.

What does all this tell us? That markets and the real economy are disconnected in a way that is terrifying. Central banks are, as chief economic advisor to Allianz and former PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian put it to me recently, “the only game in town.” Every time the Fed says it will keep rates low a little longer, the market party goes on. All that means is that there will be more pain, eventually, when the punch bowl gets pulled away.

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