Thursday, May 14, 2009

Henry Ford and Mass Production

First published in the April 24, 2009

Mass production needs mass markets. It’s not a new idea. Back in 1914 Henry Ford opened his Model T auto plant using the assembly-line method; a new invention at the time. To the anger and indignation of the nation’s business community, he offered the unheard of high wage of $5 a day.

Apparently he knew he would be producing more cars than Americans could buy, but the higher wage would help him sell what he could produce. Now, almost a hundred years later, America can produce millions of new cars Americans cannot afford, and the industry Henry Ford founded totters on the brink of bankruptcy.

When a country does not buy what it can produce it will have idle factories and idle workers: a recession as America is having now. Back in the 1930’s during the Great Depression the Roosevelt administration adopted a policy of spending the country out of depression. Having the government borrow and spend comes with worries and conflicts over debt and deficits, but it does pump money into the spending stream and create jobs.

The Roosevelt policy was the start of a great tradition in American politics for both Republicans and Democrats, who always adopt a policy of spending America out of recession. The Obama stimulus plan is in that great tradition. In the current down turn the government plans to spend on many new projects, pumping money into states and communities and leading the way for private sector spending.

The presumption of the stimulus policy is the same as always: government spending is regarded as inferior to private spending and therefore a temporary stimulus until private sector spending takes over. But in the recession of 2009 we may want to remember Henry Ford just to remind ourselves that adequate private sector buying power cannot be assumed.

A policy to spend America back into prosperity needs people and families who return all their money to the spending stream in stable and predictable ways. A married couple supporting themselves as cashiers can be expected to spend all their money on room and board, car loans, gasoline, phone service, clothing and, we hope, a little left over for health care and entertainment.

Cashier is one of America’s two biggest jobs, which are retail salesperson and cashier. Together they make up 8 million jobs, or almost 6 percent of America’s jobs at establishments. The median wage for a cashier reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is $17,160, but the 90th percentile wage is still only $24,600. For a couple both earning $24,600 the Federal income and payroll taxes come to $7,656.30, not to mention state income taxes, sales taxes, utility taxes, gas taxes and a few more. Retail sales and cashier are just two jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports hundreds more with millions employed earning wages no more than cashiers.

The millions who earn low wages and pay high taxes contrast sharply with news of the very rich and news of the growing inequality of income. Corporate heads with bonus and severance packages get millions of dollars. Hedge fund managers get paid in capital gains that have favorably lower tax rates than wages.

Recently the Statistics on Income Division of the IRS published its report on the 400 individual tax returns with the highest adjusted gross incomes. It is for the years 1992 to 2006. For 2006, they report the adjusted gross income for each of the top 400 was an average of $263.3 million dollars. The top 400 taxpayers divvy up a total of $105.3 billion dollars

So often discussion of the rich and the taxes they pay, or don’t pay, starts and ends with what is fair. The rich should pay their “fair share”, whatever that might be. But in a country that expects to spend itself into prosperity, it is worth asking how and when the rich get their billions back into the spending stream?

For the stimulus plan to work any income not spent as consumption, has to make its way back into the economy as loans to borrowers. After all, mass markets need mass production, which means saving has to be turned into loans for projects that support jobs building factories, rapid rail lines, solar panels and other real capital.

Financial intermediaries, formerly known as banks, savings and loans, credit unions, finance companies, mortgage or investment banks and a few more, cumulate the savings of savers in order to make loans to borrowers. They act as intermediaries because they are like agents in the middle of a transaction between savers and borrowers. Their sole function is to channel the savings of net savers back into the spending stream as loans to net borrowers.

There was a time when it was common for borrowers to create long lived assets, but back in the 1980’s adventurous money managers starting having loanable funds to buy thousands of real estate mortgages, which they bundled for resale into an interest earning asset like a bond. They called them Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO), or Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMO) and more recently, Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS). In that way mortgages could be resold to smaller investors who would not normally buy individual mortgages.

What is important to notice though is that repackaging and reselling mortgages does not create new assets. Reselling mortgages means more transactions that allow money managers to charge fees and potentially make money with price fluctuations, but nothing new or usable results from the repeated resale of mortgages.

As the 1980’s passed through the 1990’s and into the new millennium the traditional means of finance like stocks and bonds were still available, but they gave way to Mortgage Backed Securities and new and exotic investment derivatives: principal only strips, interest only strips, credit default swaps and on and on.

Reselling mortgages as Mortgage Backed Securities got so lucrative that money managers started running out of mortgages to bundle and resell. To keep it going it was necessary to start lending to unqualified homebuyers, a practice that many will remember as sub prime lending and sub prime loans.

We have to think financial intermediaries with qualified homebuyers, or qualified business and corporate borrowers, would lend to them before lending to unqualified borrowers in the sub prime lending market. Lending billions to unqualified borrowers suggests there was a large surplus of loanable funds.

It is not surprising that a bubble of surplus loanable funds and the fantastic growth in Mortgage Backed Securities took place after tax cuts that further reduced tax rates at the highest incomes, but especially for reductions in taxes on capital gains and the new tax reductions on corporate dividends. These reductions helped increase disposable incomes for the richest Americans, as the IRS data so clearly shows.

Recall a recent need for loanable funds to rebuild New Orleans following hurricane Katrina. Instead America’s loanable funds went for transactions where nothing happened, save for gambling in speculative financial derivatives. And then we realize tax cuts for the rich helped generate an immense surplus of loanable funds that were wasted on financial speculation rather than building productive capacity because millions of wage earners could not buy what America can produce.

Where are you Henry Ford when we need you? In 1975 America taxed the rich at a 70 percent marginal tax rate, but not that many years before marginal tax rates were 90 percent. Now the rich tend to pay 15 percent on capital gains and dividends.

The rich failed themselves, but they also failed the country, which is why America needs to return to taxing the rich at 90 percent.


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