Friday, September 16, 2016

Poverty Level Down, As Incomes Surge

Popular Economics Weekly

Fewer Americans lived in poverty in 2015 and median incomes charted their first increase since the Great Recession, according to data released Tuesday by the Census Department. The official poverty rate fell 1.2 percentage points between 2014 and 2015 to 13.5 percent, and the number of people in poverty fell by 3.5 million, Census said. The threshold for a family of two adults and two children to be considered living in poverty was $24,036.

And new data showing middle-class household incomes growing at the fastest rate since the recession seemed to confirm that a recovery that’s remained slow and uneven is finally touching the lives of ordinary, especially middle-class Americans.

In fact, this could be the income growth needed to bring US back to 3 percent GDP growth; something that hasn’t happened since 2007 before the Great Recession. Millions of Americans escaped poverty last year and incomes rose at their biggest gainever, as the 6-year long economic recovery finally hit home for households. Median middle-class wages surged 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2015, the Census Department said Tuesday, the first annual increase since 2007, just before the economy plunged into recession.

This is in large part due to almost non-existent inflation, which has not returned to even the Fed’s 2 percent target, hence the reluctance of Janet Yellen’s Federal Reserve to raise interest rates at all this year. But that may change, as rising wages also have an effect on inflation, since wages make up some two-thirds of product costs.

An even better way to increase growth is to invest more in what would grow our economy; like infrastructure, education, R&D, the environment, etc. That’s why productivity has ground to a halt, which is the main driver of future growth.

At least 43 companies plan to cut, or leave unchanged, their capital spending levels in 2016, while about 20 are increasing, according to a Reuters review of Standard & Poor's 500 companies that have given explicit early guidance.

However, Citibank seems to disagree. It’s mainly the energy sector that has cut back on new investments due to the slump in energy prices. This, however, is boosting growth in capex spending in other sectors, says Tobias Levkovich, Citigroup chief equity strategist. There's no reason to think stock buybacks, the current straw man for the lack of productive investment, are replacing capital expenditures. Rather, he said, they are complementing them.
"While misperceptions abound when it comes to companies allegedly not investing in their businesses and preferring to buy back stock instead, there is little corroborating evidence," Levkovich argued. "S&P 500 companies have had capital investment dollars ahead of the amount used for buybacks for more than four and a half years and capex has hit a record every year since 2011."
And a major reason for this is the low cost of capital is today’s low inflationary environment. So there is good reason to keep interest rate as low as possible, until we see signs of more normal GDP growth.

Harlan Green © 2016

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