The Emperor Has No Clothes

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:” (Ecclesiastes 3)

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President-elect Donald Trump has been releasing his economic plan piece by piece each week. I want to put four of those pieces together here to show why Trump’s economic jigsaw puzzle won’t work.

Here are four major parts of Trump’s plan to “make America great again”:

  • Infrastructure projects funded by private investments to create new jobs
  • A 35% tariff on foreign imports by US corporations
  • A tax amnesty of 10% for US corporations who bring foreign earnings home
  • Tax cuts up to 15% of actual income for the wealthy

Why can’t they work? Could some of them work? The answer to both question is “no” — and for the very same reason.

US corporations deep in debt

Did you know that income inequality isn’t just limited to individual earnings? It also applies to corporations—and by the very same ratio: 1% to 99%.

On May 20, 2016, MarketWatch noted a Standard & Poor’s report that found “America’s 25 richest companies control more the half of all corporate cash Meanwhile, 99% of U.S. companies are drowning in debt.”

Fortune magazine on May 20, 2016, titled “Corporate America Is Drowning in Debt” echoed Marketwatch :

If you remove the top 25 cash holders, you’ll find that for most of Corporate America, cash on hand is declining even as these companies rack up more and more debt at historic rates. The bottom 99% of corporate borrowers have just $900 billion in cash on hand to back up $6 trillion in debt.

But this isn’t the worst news. The shocking news is: total US  corporate cash-to-debt ratio has declined to 15%, a level not seen since before the Financial Crisis of 2007.

How has this happened? Most financial writers say because of near-zero rates on overnight borrowing the Fed charges the investment banks who loan corporations money to create bonds that they then sell to other businesses, large institutions, and wealthy people.

US corporate bonds sold like hotcakes during most of the past decade. With all the easy money corporations received from bonds over ten years why didn’t the US economy boom?

Because corporations didn’t invest money they received from selling bonds on creating new jobs. They spent that money on share buybacks, dividends to shareholders, and buyouts of other companies.

All that stopped in spring, 2016. Since then there has been a massive selloff of corporate bonds in anticipation of interest rate increases by the Fed. These increases are expected to raise the costs of borrowing capital and bring on price inflation.

Like the subprime mortgage holders of 2007, corporations overspent because of easy-to-obtain credit from banks. According to MarketWatch the wealth of the corporate 1% masked a huge problem with corporate bonds: “the average U.S. company holds only 15 cents cash for every dollar it owes. This was back in April.

Since then 2.1 trillion dollars in value alone vanished from the corporate bond market after the November 2016 Presidential election.

Infrastructure projects to create more jobs

Once we know the extent of indebtedness of US corporations, Trump’s fiscal stimulus plan for creating jobs via private investment in infrastructure seems like an impossible dream.

Moreover, the Carrier deal makes more sense. Basically Trump’s deal was corporate welfare for a company so broke it needed to export US jobs to Mexico. Now Carrier says it will invest Indiana taxpayer money to automate its US plant so it can lay off even more American workers.

When the Fed raises interest rates, many US corporations will not even have a good-enough credit rating needed to invest in infrastructure projects.

The 35% tariff

Trump proposes a 35% tariff on US corporations who buy manufactured components or whole products from foreign corporations. This plan is utterly ludicrous. How can the corporate 99% who can afford to pay mere pennies for every dollar of debt afford to pay such a huge fee on imports?

Furthermore, it is the 1%, those companies loaded with cash on hand, that are most likely to buy from overseas manufacturers.

These 25 richest companies, mostly tech companies, don’t need cash to create jobs for Americans, but they do need a good reason for spending their money on new factories and equipment. And why would they hire American workers who are more costly and/or less-skilled than workers abroad or slower and less reliable than robotic devices?

Even fiscal conservative Republicans in Congress, including Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, are fiercely opposed to Trump’s plan for high tariffs and other trade barriers. Politically this piece of the plan doesn’t make sense. It would cripple the manufacturers Trump needs to provide more jobs for his followers.

The 10% tax amnesty

First of all, the 35% tariff on importing products that the 25 richest companies buy from abroad is hardly offset by an additional 10% tax on foreign earnings. In addition, consumers would be badly hurt by having to pay much higher prices for goods sold by corporations dinged by a 35% tariff.

For the corporate 99% such a tariff might well lead to bankruptcy.

Secondly, there is absolutely no guarantee that the corporate 1% would not use the money repatriated to US shores for share buybacks, takeovers, and dividends instead of investments. This is what happened after previous US tax amnesties.

Reducing taxes on the wealthy

Wealthy individuals are among the shareholders selling off their US corporate bonds this year, and heading for safer havens, perhaps in short-term debt or government bonds.

So who must pay for all four of Trump’s grandiose promises to make our economy great? It would have to be middle-class taxpayers and retirees if Trump gives huge income- and estate-tax breaks to the rich.

Hillary Clinton understood that American workers are strapped for money, wages having steadily fallen in real value over the past thirty years. Her infrastructure projects were based on the common-sense notion of raising taxes slightly on the wealthy and using government to create new jobs and more demand for US goods.

Idiocy Incorporated

The pieces of Donald Trump’s jigsaw-puzzle of a supply-side economic plan which depends solely on the rich for economic stimulus, on the other hand, aren’t workable right now.

The drowning-in-debt corporate 99% can’t initiate economic progress. Neither can increasingly impoverished taxpayers.  The corporate 1% could and probably would sell their wares abroad and use any tax savings on foreign income on share buybacks and dividends.

Like it or not, government exists to re-balance an out-of-whack economy like the one we have. Under Trump the US government deficit would grow dangerously higher, according to Martin Wolf perhaps 25% higher, forcing Congress to make draconian budget cuts.

Ultimately, Trump’s economic policies, if unchecked, would accelerate the breaking of our corporate debt bubble, bringing on a domestic crisis of unemployment and a huge recession.

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