How much have Americans received of the nearly $3 trillion that the Fed printed since the financial crisis and that it handed to its primary dealers, and of the additional trillions it loaned the biggest banks to keep them from collapsing? The recipients included the likes of JPMorgan, now in discussions with Federal and state agencies to settle its various mortgage scams for $11 billion; it made $53.2 billion in net profits over the last three years.
American consumers weren’t so lucky – at least those not on the receiving end of Wall Street bonuses or any of the asset bubbles. They didn’t even get the crumbs. As Wal-Mart, where many of them shop, is finding out on a continual basis this year. These folks are strung out. They’re not earning enough, the lucky ones who have jobs. Their pay has been cut, and if they were laid off and found new jobs, they likely earn less than before. Many of them are working part-time because full-time jobs have become elusive for them. Inflation is eating into their paychecks. They’re struggling.
And they’re cutting back at Wal-Mart. This has caused a lot of handwringing at headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s been going on all year. Already in February, Jerry Murray, VP of finance and logistics, wrote in a now infamous email that month-to-date sales were “a total disaster.”
Now a new email leaked out. An ordering manager at headquarters told a supplier that they were “looking at reducing inventory for Q3 and Q4.” The supplier, who’d leaked the email to Bloomberg and insisted on remaining anonymous “to protect his relationship with the company,” said that other Wal-Mart suppliers had also received messages of an order pullback. Wal-Mart was cutting orders across the range, he said, including general merchandise and apparel.
Wal-Mart apparently had underestimated just how much its customer base had gotten clobbered by this economic “recovery” that the Fed had so wisely engineered with Wall Street. As these folks are trying to make ends meet by watching what they’re spending, merchandise has piled up at Wal-Mart stores across the country, and ballooned 6.9% in the second quarter, while sales grew an anemic 2%, in line with inflation. But Wal-Mart had opened a bunch of new stores, and on a same-store basis, sales actually fell 0.3%.
“We are managing our inventory appropriately,” David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, told Bloomberg to assuage frazzled investors who’d started dumping the stock the moment the email surfaced. “We feel good about our inventory position,” he said, possibly one eye on a ShopperTrak report that forecast retail sales growth for the holiday selling season of only 2.4%, barely at the rate of inflation and nothing more. It would be the worst performance since 2009.
But there was another problem, one related to Wall Street. To please investors by showing earnings growth despite crummy sales, Wal-Mart did what all good American companies did: it cut its workforce – by 120,000 over the past few years, down to 1.3 million, while at the same time adding 500 new stores in the US. Investors were pleased. The company was moving in the right direction. The stock went up. But given the shortage of manpower, merchandise has had trouble making it to the shelf – to the point where customers complained about the empty-shelf syndrome. And that too put a damper on sales.
It’s tough when your customers, a large cross-section of American consumers, have to tighten their belts. Whatever economy the Fed “fixed,” it didn’t fix their economy.
But there are winners, and they don’t buy at Wal-Mart. They’ve recently been coming out of the woodwork to thank the Fed. Warren Buffett, perhaps the largest beneficiary in the world of the Fed’s policies, praised the Fed on CNBC last week. “Since the panic of five years ago, he’s done a terrific job,” he said about Chairman Bernanke. The next day, he elevated the Fed to the “greatest hedge fund in history” – huge complement – and raved about how many billions it was raking in annually. Yup, with the trillions it had printed.
This is how far we’ve come: it’s suddenly considered the epitome of success when an omnipotent quasi-non-governmental entity – one that claims to manage the economy and claims to be concerned about employment and other economic fundamentals – becomes the “greatest hedge fund in history.”
Then it was corporate raider Carl Icahn, another huge beneficiary of the Fed’s policies, who tweeted, “Our country owes Bernanke a great deal for pulling us out of the mess several of the largest investment banks go us into in ‘08.” Perhaps he hasn’t talked to a Wal-Mart shopper in years.
At Bloomberg Markets 50 Summit yesterday, it got outright funny when JPMorgan Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee and Blackstone Group Chairman and CEO Steve Schwarzman were discussing the current LBO frenzy that the Fed’s policies have fostered, and that they themselves have milked, along with a slew of other frenzies. Business Insider took notes:
“There is some sort of echo of the 80s,” Lee said, remembering the LBO insanity of that time. “Behavior that is non-acceptable, it starts creeping up and become more acceptable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a private equity firm do something more unusual.”
“It’s back… it’s like Freddy Krueger,” Schwarzman said, referring to the disfigured serial killer of the 1980s movie series, A Nightmare on Elm Street.
“That movie didn’t end well,” Lee said.
Because no frenzy ends well. But that’s all the Fed with its policies has stimulated in the economy. The winners are loving it. The hapless Wal-Mart shoppers not so much.