The following is the second of a three-part series exclusive for Occupy.com.
How have your personal finances been since the global economic crisis began in 2008? Are you in debt? Unemployed? Struggling? Are you below the poverty line? Has your standard of living stagnated – or declined? Turns out, it doesn’t matter how the population is doing, because, we are told, we are in an “economic recovery,” or haven’t you heard?
Why is this a “recovery”? It’s simple: because global banks and corporations are making record profits, obviously everything is “back on track.”
Despite international turmoil in financial markets, a collapsing Europe, natural disaster in Japan, and increased food and fuel prices spurring social unrest and poverty, global corporations had a wonderful year in 2011.
The Global 500 posted record revenues for 2011 at $29.5 trillion, up 13.2% from 2010. Eight of the top 10 conglomerates were in the energy sector, receiving “an extra boost… as average oil prices reached their highest inflation-adjusted level since the 1860s.” The oil industry alone generated $5 trillion in sales, roughly 17% of the total sales of the Global 500.
Commercial banks emerged as the second largest industry on the Global 500, “thanks largely to lending in new markets,” such as Latin America, certain parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The auto industry was the third largest industry on the Global 500, taking in a total of $2.4 trillion in sales, up 14.6% from 2010.
In 2011, as bank profits in the United States and Europe were increasing, the very same banks recording billions in quarterly profits were announcing cuts to thousands of jobs. In April of 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that three of Europe’s largest banks, Barclays, Deutsche Bank and Banco Santander, had reported major profits for the first quarter, “even during a financial crisis.”
As the banks in Europe were worried about their ability to continue reporting profits, they employed a new method to ensure continued plundering: buying back their bonds (government debts) at cheap rates. Thus, not only are they able to increase quarterly profits, but they are able to ensure that the crisis continues and deepens by perpetuating the problems that created it (and profiting along the way).
Major banks like Société Générale, Commerzbank AG, Banco Santander and others have opted for choosing short-term profits at the expense of long-term stability. Reports over the summer of 2012 suggested that global corporate profits were lagging due to the economic crisis in Europe. But not to worry, they’re still doing much better than you ever will.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, corporations began implementing massive layoffs to keep their profits up; interest rates remained low, which kept the costs of borrowing very low and, as the Financial Times reported in early 2012, “U.S. corporate profits are higher, as a share of gross domestic product, than at any time since 1950.”
According to a 2011 study from Northeastern University, since the Second World War, “there’s never been a worse recovery for jobs and worker pay,” and at the same time, “never a better one for corporate profits.” The economic “recovery” was said to have begun in June of 2009, but how is “recovery” defined? After all, people are still struggling, more than ever in recent history; unemployment is high, job losses soar, poverty spreads and insecurity reigns supreme.
So why, then, has it been said that the United States entered a “recovery”? Well, as the study pointed out, since June of 2009, 88% of all U.S. growth went to corporate profits, while wages and salaries represented 1% of growth. Compared to previous economic crises, the situation is much worse than ever before.
At the end of the recession in the early 1990s, 50% of U.S. growth went to worker pay, while corporate profits had actually declined by 1%. Following the dot-com bust in 2001, worker pay and jobs accounted for 15% of U.S. growth, while 53% of growth was accounted for by corporate profits.
In the recoveries of the 1973-75 and 1981-82 recessions, worker pay and jobs accounted for 30% of U.S. growth. In the midst of the current “recovery,” where 88% of growth is in corporate profits and 1% is in worker pay, employees have been roughly 6% more productive, working longer hours. As the study noted: “The only major beneficiaries of the recovery have been corporate profits and the stock market and its shareholders.”
Corporate profits in 2010 were 17% higher than in 2009, and when financial firms are included, the rate goes even higher. An analyst with Citigroup explained that roughly 90% of the growth in corporate profits “has come from cost-cutting,” largely facilitated by layoffs and hoarding cash.
As the Department of Commerce reported, corporate profits accounted for 14% of the national income over 2010, “the highest proportion ever recorded,” while the share of national income from smaller businesses fell to a 17-year low.
As profits soared, not only at multinational corporations, but at the major banks which caused the crisis in the first place, they continued to undertake massive layoffs. The Northeastern University report on corporate profits also noted that one of the main causes of the crisis in the first place was the relationship between increased corporate profits and decreased worker wages and benefits. Thus, without a hint of irony, the same things that created the crisis are exacerbated and made worse after the crisis: and this is what is called a “recovery.”
The Commerce Department revised its reporting of corporate profits from 2008, 2009, and 2010, noting that they were actually $343 billion higher than they had originally estimated. Over the same three-year period, personal income of American families was $265 billion lower than had been previously estimated. In late 2012, worker wages (as a total of U.S. GDP) reached an all-time low, while corporate profits reached an all-time high.
In fact, late 2012 saw corporate profits increase by 18.6% from the previous year, what Forbes reported was “the largest after-tax profit quarter in the nation’s history.” American worker wages, as a percentage of national GDP, had been – until 1975 – almost always at least half of U.S. GDP, and as recently as 2001, accounted for 49% of GDP. In 2012, they hit an “all-time low” at 43.5% of GDP. Further, CEO pay has also been rising 27 times faster than worker pay since 1978.
Of course, it’s not merely corporations raking in record profits, as the banks are not to be left behind. In the United States, second quarter profits for big banks in 2012 were at $34.5 billion, an increase of nearly $6 billion from the same time the previous year. Banks were making profits not seen since 2007, just before the financial crisis struck. Part of the reason for increased bank profits had to do with dramatic cuts in jobs and sales of assets.
In 2007, financial institutions in the United States employed over 2.2 million full-time employees, and in 2012 there were 100,000 fewer employees and 14% fewer banks. With help from the Federal Reserve, which provided immense funds for the financial industry (called “quantitative easing”) while maintaining very low interest rates, banks have been able to take in more profits from mortgages as the Fed continues to purchase bad mortgages from the big banks.
This is, of course, merely doing the same thing that created the financial crisis in the first place, but calling it a “solution.” Not to mention that the bill gets handed to the population.
In December of 2012, bank profits increased by 9.4% from the previous quarter, “the best quarterly performance in six years,” according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Banks thus had a combined profit of $37.6 billion in the third quarter of 2012, the highest total profit since the $38 billion profit recorded in the third quarter of 2006, during the height of the housing bubble.
Welcome to the “economic recovery,” where the big banks and corporations that created the global economic crisis – with the servile participation of our elected governments – are doing better than ever before, making record profits while poverty hits record levels. This is what we call “democracy.”
Perhaps it is time people begin to redefine the words “recovery” and “democracy,” unless we want to see more of the same.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, with a focus on studying the ideas, institutions, and individuals of power and resistance across a wide spectrum of social, political, economic, and historical spheres. He has been published in Dandelion Salad, AlterNet, CounterPunch, Occupy.com, Truth-Out, RoarMag, and a number of other alternative media groups, and regularly does radio, Internet, and television interviews with both alternative and mainstream news outlets. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project and has a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.