U.S. corporations are making record profits quarter after quarter, yet unemployment seems to be stuck at a devastatingly high rate. Why aren’t these financially flush big businesses hiring?
I’ve been writing a string of blogs about how tax debts are dealt with in bankruptcy, and I’ll get back to that after today. But this is the time of year when the nation’s major corporations report their quarterly profits, and so I found myself scratching my head about the disconnect between their huge profits and their lack of hiring. So I read a number of news stories and editorials, and this is what I got out of them:
1. Big businesses have gotten to be more “productive,” in the sense of producing more goods and services with less labor. That has happened partly through investments in labor-saving technology and partly by requiring employees to work harder and faster for the same pay. With the cut-throat labor market, companies don’t need to increase salaries to retain or replace their employees.
2. Profits have increased because a larger percentage of sales for large U.S. corporations have been overseas. Around 40 per cent of their profits are from foreign sales. For many companies, sales are growing modestly in the U.S. while growing much faster elsewhere, especially in the “emerging markets” of China, India, and South America.
3. Relatively strong overseas sales come with job growth overseas instead of here. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, in the past decade, U.S.-based multi-national corporations added 2.4 million jobs outside the country while cutting 2.4 million jobs here. Jobs naturally grow where sales are growing–someone has to take customer orders at the 3,000+ KFCs in China! But of course there’s also increased foreign outsourcing of work that used to be done here, from manufacturing to computer programming.
4. Normally when businesses are more productive, resulting in more profits, they tend to expand, thus creating more employment opportunities. But this has not been happening for three reasons.
a. With the double-whammy of very high unemployment and loss of home values, U.S. consumers either don’t have the means or the attitude to spend money, so companies are leery about expanding to increase production.
b. The international business environment—particularly the European sovereign debt crises in Greece, Italy and elsewhere—is making big business cautious.
c. Political gridlock in Washington, D.C. makes business planning very difficult.
The bottom line: big businesses don’t need to hire to produce the goods and services they are producing, at least within the U.S., and they don’t want to expand and hire here because of lackluster consumer demand and high uncertainty in the world economy and in domestic politics.