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Davos: peeling back the veneer

Davos: peeling back the veneer.

(c) World Economic ForumScrolling through the website of the World Economic Forum – convening this week in Davos, Switzerland – one might confuse the premier platform for global capital with a savvy and hip think tank, or perhaps a philanthropic aid and development charity. The content is carefully curated to sedate and comfort. The right buzzwords are there: “impact investing”, “embracing democracy”, “our oceans”, and “sustainability.” In the Issues section, one finds Environmental Sustainability, Health for All, and Social Development. An article by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz (a critic of globalization) is featured front and center, as if to proclaim, ‘challenging the stodgy status quo through edgy, unorthodox economic thinking – that’s what we do here.’

There’s nothing to indicate that this is, in fact, a platform for multinational corporations, among them human rights abusers, political racketeers, property thieves and international environmental criminals. But then, that wouldn’t exactly make for a very inviting homepage.

Here, for example, is the WEF mission statement:

The World Economic Forum encourages businesses, governments and civil society to commit together to improving the state of the world. Our Strategic and Industry Partners are instrumental in helping stakeholders meet key challenges such as building sustained economic growth, mitigating global risks, promoting health for all, improving social welfare and fostering environmental sustainability.

Rather than getting bogged down in a detailed evaluation of WEF’s high-minded claims and eco-populist rhetoric, it may be more efficient to consider the behavior of those corporations and banks that comprise the Forum’s list of Industry Partners – described as “select Member companies of the World Economic Forum that are actively involved in the Forum’s mission.”

Among them are Shell, Nike, Syngenta, Nestlé, and SNC Lavalin – companies you’ll also find on Global Exchange’s list of the Top 10 Corporate Criminals of 2013, based on offenses like unlivable working conditions, corporate seizures of indigenous lands, contaminating the environment, and similar transgressions. At least seven other companies “actively involved in the Forum’s mission” are recentalumni of the Corporate Criminal list.

Or consider Corporate Accountability International’s Corporate Hall of Shame, comprised of “corporations that corrupt the political process and abuse human rights, the environment and our public health.” Seven of the ten ­– Walmart, ExxonMobil, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Monsanto, and Nestlé (which has the dubious distinction of making both lists) are WEF Industry Partners.

How about climate change? This is now an issue that regularly features ominously in the WEF’s “Global Risks” annual report. Curious, then, that in addition to Shell and ExxonMobil, the Forum’s Industry Partners include most of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, from BP and Chevron to Gazprom and Saudi Aramco.“Carbon Majors” a peer-reviewed study in the scientific journal Climatic Change, lists the 90 entities most responsible for extracting the fossil fuels burned over the past 150 years. The top six are WEF Industry Partners.

Despite the carefully crafted words of concern for the poor and hungry, the WEF’s many food corporations – from Unilever and Pepsico to Cargill and General Mills – have actually parleyed the misery of the food crisis into further control over the food system, as well as spectacular profits. During the 2008 food crisis, the organization GRAIN released a report revealing that “nearly every corporate player in the global food chain is making a killing from the food crisis …. Such record profits … are a reflection of the extreme power that these middlemen have accrued through the globalisation of the food system. Intimately involved with the shaping of the trade rules that govern today’s food system and tightly in control of markets and the ever more complex financial systems through which global trade operates, these companies are in perfect position to turn food scarcity into immense profits.” (1)

Global banks also played a pivotal role in precipitating – and making a killing off – this food crisis. According to an investigative report by Frederick Kaufman, Goldman Sachs instigated a “global speculative frenzy” on food which “sparked riots in more than thirty countries and drove the number of the world’s “food insecure” to more than a billion …. The ranks of the hungry had increased by 250 million in a single year, the most abysmal increase in all of human history.” (2) Needless to say, scroll down to “G” in the Industry Partners list, and Goldman Sachs is there.

The fact is, digging into any of the crises we face will reveal the complicity of the very corporations that the World Economic Forum represents. A study conducted for the UN, for example, estimated the combined environmental externalities of the world’s 3,000 biggest companies to be $2.2 trillion in 2008, “a figure bigger than the national economies of all but seven countries in the world that year.” (3)

Impression of the World Economic ForumThese are just a few of innumerable possible examples. The corporations represented by the World Economic Forum are the agents principally responsible for destroying the planet, ravaging livelihoods, and literally starving people, all while aggrandizing unprecedented profits into the hands of an ever-tinier super elite. Seen in this light, all the burnished social and environmental concern-speak of the WEF is so much vacuous corporate swagger, the crudest sort of greenwash. Even though these companies actually spend huge amounts of capital and energy fighting environmental regulation and the citizen’s groups who are suffering their abuses, they simultaneously pursue a strategic embrace of environmental discourse and narratives; they accept the existence of the problems while promoting privatized, technocratic strategies for addressing them. These strategies pivot between those that assign responsibility for causing and fixing the problems to individual consumers, and those that position the corporations themselves as crucial players in the common cause of “improving”/”cleaning” the environment – the same one, incidentally, that they destroyed.

The absurdity of this schizophrenia reaches extreme limits: the WEF is solemnly concerned about global warming because – get ready for it – it represents one of the biggest threats ever to global trade and corporate capitalism! The primary perpetrator of global warming is now portraying itself as a victim. In WEF-land, global warming is like a mysterious, autonomous, alien force invading from afar, without cause or explanation. It “affects us all”, so we must all roll up our sleeves and unite – fossil fuel corporations included – in the battle against a common external foe.

There is, however, one part of the WEF’s mission that is being genuinely fulfilled: “building sustained economic growth”, code for increasing the power and wealth of its corporate partners. That this is the first of the “challenges” described in the WEF mission statement is no accident. Economic growth might seem an odd mismatch to the other issues, like social welfare and environmental sustainability, but the WEF has clearly embraced the notion that endless growth is not only compatible with environmental sustainability, it is actually necessary for it. That this myth has been thoroughly debunked seems to have conveniently escaped the WEF’s notice. (4)

This farce would be laughable but for the immense power and enormous control commanded by the corporations and banks the World Economic Forum represents. When the WEF promises to address agriculture, food security, environmental sustainability, and the like, we should be very worried for exactly those things. Peel away the eco-charity veneer and the WEF’s actual mission stands naked: advance the power, growth, and wealth of the corporate rulers of the world.

In no way should The World Economic Forum be allowed to insert itself as a legitimate voice on the resolution of the very issues that its agenda – the perpetual growth of its partners – precipitates. On the contrary, it should be fiercely resisted – precisely what the alternative World Social Forum, Occupy WEF, and other anti-globalization groups were created to do. (5)

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Alex Jensen is Project Coordinator at the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). Alex has worked in the US and India, where he coordinated ISEC’s Ladakh Project from 2004 to 2009. He has collaborated on the content of ISEC’s Roots of Change curriculum and the Economics of Happiness discussion guide. He holds an MA in Globalization and International Development from University of East Anglia. He has worked with cultural affirmation and agro-biodiversity projects in campesino communities in a number of countries and is active in environmental health/anti-toxics work.

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(1) GRAIN (2008) ‘Making a Killing from Hunger’, 28 April,http://www.grain.org/article/entries/178-making-a-killing-from-hunger, and

http://www.grain.org/article/entries/716-corporations-are-still-making-a-killing-from-hunger

(2) Kaufman, F. (2010) ‘The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away With It’, Harper’s Magazine, July,http://frederickkaufman.typepad.com/files/the-food-bubble-pdf.pdf

(3) Jowit, J. (2010) “World”s top firms cause $2.2tn of environmental damage, report estimates”, The Guardian, 18 February, 2010.

(4) see, e.g.: Jorgenson, A. and Clark, B. (2012) ‘Are the Economy and the Environment Decoupling?: A Comparative International Study, 1960–2005,’ American Journal of Sociology 118(1),1–44; Jorgenson, A. and Clark, B. (2011) ‘Societies Consuming Nature: A Panel Study of the Ecological Footprints of Nations, 1960-2003’, Social Science Research 40:226-244; Stern, D. (2004) ‘The Rise and Fall of the Environmental Kuznets Curve’, World Development, 32(8):1419–1439; Hornborg, A. (2003) ‘Cornucopia or Zero-Sum Game? The Epistemology of Sustainability’, Journal of World-Systems Research IX(2): 205-216.

(5) see http://www.fsm2013.org/en andhttp://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/23/us-davos-idUSTRE80M13X20120123

THE RETAIL DEATH RATTLE « The Burning Platform

THE RETAIL DEATH RATTLE « The Burning Platform.

“I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.” ― Emile Gauvreau

 

 

If ever a chart provided unequivocal proof the economic recovery storyline is a fraud, the one below is the smoking gun. November and December retail sales account for 20% to 40% of annual retail sales for most retailers. The number of visits to retail stores has plummeted by 50% since 2010. Please note this was during a supposed economic recovery. Also note consumer spending accounts for 70% of GDP. Also note credit card debt outstanding is 7% lower than its level in 2010 and 16% below its peak in 2008. Retailers like J.C. Penney, Best Buy, Sears, Radio Shack and Barnes & Noble continue to report appalling sales and profit results, along with listings of store closings. Even the heavyweights like Wal-Mart and Target continue to report negative comp store sales. How can the government and mainstream media be reporting an economic recovery when the industry that accounts for 70% of GDP is in free fall? The answer is that 99% of America has not had an economic recovery. Only Bernanke’s 1% owner class have benefited from his QE/ZIRP induced stock market levitation.

 

 

The entire economic recovery storyline is a sham built upon easy money funneled by the Fed to the Too Big To Trust Wall Street banks so they can use their HFT supercomputers to drive the stock market higher, buy up the millions of homes they foreclosed upon to artificially drive up home prices, and generate profits through rigging commodity, currency, and bond markets, while reducing loan loss reserves because they are free to value their toxic assets at anything they please – compliments of the spineless nerds at the FASB. GDP has been artificially propped up by the Federal government through the magic of EBT cards, SSDI for the depressed and downtrodden, never ending extensions of unemployment benefits, billions in student loans to University of Phoenix prodigies, and subprime auto loans to deadbeats from the Government Motors financing arm – Ally Financial (85% owned by you the taxpayer). The country is being kept afloat on an ocean of debt and delusional belief in the power of central bankers to steer this ship through a sea of icebergs just below the surface.

 

The absolute collapse in retail visitor counts is the warning siren that this country is about to collide with the reality Americans have run out of time, money, jobs, and illusions. The most amazingly delusional aspect to the chart above is retailers continued to add 44 million square feet in 2013 to the almost 15 billion existing square feet of retail space in the U.S. That is approximately 47 square feet of retail space for every person in America. Retail CEOs are not the brightest bulbs in the sale bin, as exhibited by the CEO of Target and his gross malfeasance in protecting his customers’ personal financial information. Of course, the 44 million square feet added in 2013 is down 85% from the annual increases from 2000 through 2008. The exponential growth model, built upon a never ending flow of consumer credit and an endless supply of cheap fuel, has reached its limit of growth. The titans of Wall Street and their puppets in Washington D.C. have wrung every drop of faux wealth from the dying middle class. There are nothing left but withering carcasses and bleached bones.

 

The impact of this retail death spiral will be vast and far reaching. A few factoids will help you understand the coming calamity:

  • There are approximately 109,500 shopping centers in the United States ranging in size from the small convenience centers to the large super-regional malls.
  • There are in excess of 1 million retail establishments in the United States occupying 15 billion square feet of space and generating over $4.4 trillion of annual sales. This includes 8,700 department stores, 160,000 clothing & accessory stores, and 8,600 game stores.
  • U.S. shopping-center retail sales total more than $2.26 trillion, accounting for over half of all retail sales.
  • The U.S. shopping-center industry directly employed over 12 million people in 2010 and indirectly generated another 5.6 million jobs in support industries. Collectively, the industry accounted for 12.7% of total U.S. employment.
  • Total retail employment in 2012 totaled 14.9 million, lower than the 15.1 million employed in 2002.
  • For every 100 individuals directly employed at a U.S. regional shopping center, an additional 20 to 30 jobs are supported in the community due to multiplier effects.

 

The collapse in foot traffic to the 109,500 shopping centers that crisscross our suburban sprawl paradise of plenty is irreversible. No amount of marketing propaganda, 50% off sales, or hot new iGadgets is going to spur a dramatic turnaround. Quarter after quarter there will be more announcements of store closings. Macys just announced the closing of 5 stores and firing of 2,500 retail workers. JC Penney just announced the closing of 33 stores and firing of 2,000 retail workers. Announcements are imminent from Sears, Radio Shack and a slew of other retailers who are beginning to see the writing on the wall. The vacancy rate will be rising in strip malls, power malls and regional malls, with the largest growing sector being ghost malls. Before long it will appear that SPACE AVAILABLE is the fastest growing retailer in America.

 

The reason this death spiral cannot be reversed is simply a matter of arithmetic and demographics. While arrogant hubristic retail CEOs of public big box mega-retailers added 2.7 billion retail square feet to our already over saturated market, real median household income flat lined. The advancement in retail spending was attributable solely to the $1.1 trillion increase (68%) in consumer debt and the trillion dollars of home equity extracted from castles in the sky, that later crashed down to earth. Once the Wall Street created fraud collapsed and the waves of delusion subsided, retailers have been revealed to be swimming naked. Their relentless expansion, based on exponential growth, cannibalized itself, new store construction ground to a halt, sales and profits have declined, and the inevitable closing of thousands of stores has begun. With real median household income 8% lower than it was in 2008, the collapse in retail traffic is a rational reaction by the impoverished 99%. Americans are using their credit cards to pay their real estate taxes, income taxes, and monthly utilities, since their income is lower, and their living expenses rise relentlessly, thanks to Bernanke and his Fed created inflation.

The media mouthpieces for the establishment gloss over the fact average gasoline prices in 2013 were the second highest in history. The highest average price was in 2012 and the 3rd highest average price was in 2011. These prices are 150% higher than prices in the early 2000′s. This might not matter to the likes of Jamie Dimon and Jon Corzine, but for a middle class family with two parents working and making 7.5% less than they made in 2000, it has a dramatic impact on discretionary income. The fact oil prices have risen from $25 per barrel in 2003 to $100 per barrel today has not only impacted gas prices, but utility costs, food costs, and the price of any product that needs to be transported to your local Wally World. The outrageous rise in tuition prices has been aided and abetted by the Federal government and their doling out of loans so diploma mills like the University of Phoenix can bilk clueless dupes into thinking they are on their way to an exciting new career, while leaving them jobless in their parents’ basement with a loan payment for life.

 

The laughable jobs recovery touted by Obama, his sycophantic minions, paid off economist shills, and the discredited corporate legacy media can be viewed appropriately in the following two charts, that reveal the false storyline being peddled to the techno-narcissistic iGadget distracted masses. There are 247 million working age Americans between the ages of 18 and 64. Only 145 million of these people are employed. Of these employed, 19 million are working part-time and 9 million are self- employed. Another 20 million are employed by the government, producing nothing and being sustained by the few remaining producers with their tax dollars. The labor participation rate is the lowest it has been since women entered the workforce in large numbers during the 1980′s. We are back to levels seen during the booming Carter years. Those peddling the drivel about retiring Baby Boomers causing the decline in the labor participation rate are either math challenged or willfully ignorant because they are being paid to be so. Once you turn 65 you are no longer counted in the work force. The percentage of those over 55 in the workforce has risen dramatically to an all-time high, as the Me Generation never saved for retirement or saw their retirement savings obliterated in the Wall Street created 2008 financial implosion.

 

To understand the absolute idiocy of retail CEOs across the land one must parse the employment data back to 2000. In the year 2000 the working age population of the U.S. was 213 million and 136.9 million of them were working, a record level of 64.4% of the population. There were 70 million working age Americans not in the labor force. Fourteen years later the number of working age Americans is 247 million and only 144.6 million are working. The working age population has risen by 16% and the number of employed has risen by only 5.6%. That’s quite a success story. Of course, even though median household income is 7.5% lower than it was in 2000, the government expects you to believe that 22 million Americans voluntarily left the labor force because they no longer needed a job. While the number of employed grew by 5.6% over fourteen years, the number of people who left the workforce grew by 31.1%. Over this same time frame the mega-retailers that dominate the landscape added almost 3 billion square feet of selling space, a 25% increase. A critical thinking individual might wonder how this could possibly end well for the retail genius CEOs in glistening corporate office towers from coast to coast.

 

This entire materialistic orgy of consumerism has been sustained solely with debt peddled by the Wall Street banking syndicate. The average American consumer met their Waterloo in 2008. Bernanke’s mission was to save bankers, billionaires and politicians. It was not to save the working middle class. You’ve been sacrificed at the altar of the .1%. The 0% interest rates were for Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. Your credit card interest rate remained between 13% and 21%. So, while you struggle to pay bills with your declining real income, the Wall Street bankers are again generating record profits and paying themselves record bonuses. Profits are so good, they can afford to pay tens of billions in fines for their criminal acts, and still be left with billions to divvy up among their non-prosecuted criminal executives.

Bernanke and his financial elite owners have been able to rig the markets to give the appearance of normalcy, but they cannot rig the demographic time bomb that will cause the death and destruction of our illusory retail paradigm. Demographics cannot be manipulated or altered by the government or mass media. The best they can do is ignore or lie about the facts. The life cycle of a human being is utterly predictable, along with their habits across time. Those under 25 years old have very little income, therefore they have very little spending. Once a job is attained and income levels rise, spending rises along with the increased income. As the person enters old age their income declines and spending on stuff declines rapidly. The media may be ignoring the fact that annual expenditures drop by 40% for those over 65 years old from the peak spending years of 45 to 54, but it doesn’t change the fact. They also cannot change the fact that 10,000 Americans will turn 65 every day for the next sixteen years. They also can’t change the fact the average Baby Boomer has less than $50,000 saved for retirement and is up to their grey eye brows in debt.

 

With over 15% of all 25 to 34 year olds living in their parents’ basement and those under 25 saddled with billions in student loan debt, the traditional increase in income and spending is DOA for the millennial generation. The hardest hit demographic on the job front during the 2008 through 2014 ongoing recession has been the 45 to 54 year olds in their peak earning and spending years. Combine these demographic developments and you’ve got a perfect storm for over-built retailers and their egotistical CEOs.

The media continues to peddle the storyline of on-line sales saving the ancient bricks and mortar retailers. Again, the talking head pundits are willfully ignoring basic math. On-line sales account for 6% of total retail sales. If a dying behemoth like JC Penney announces a 20% decline in same store sales and a 20% increase in on-line sales, their total change is still negative 17.6%. And they are still left with 1,100 decaying stores, 100,000 employees, lease payments, debt payments, maintenance costs, utility costs, inventory costs, and pension costs. Their future is so bright they gotta wear a toe tag.

The decades of mal-investment in retail stores was enabled by Greenspan, Bernanke, and their Federal Reserve brethren. Their easy money policies enabled Americans to live far beyond their true means through credit card debt, auto debt, mortgage debt, and home equity debt. This false illusion of wealth and foolish spending led mega-retailers to ignore facts and spread like locusts across the suburban countryside. The debt fueled orgy has run out of steam. All that is left is the largest mountain of debt in human history, a gutted and debt laden former middle class, and thousands of empty stores in future decaying ghost malls haunting the highways and byways of suburbia.

The implications of this long and winding road to ruin are far reaching. Store closings so far have only been a ripple compared to the tsunami coming to right size the industry for a future of declining spending. Over the next five to ten years, tens of thousands of stores will be shuttered. Companies like JC Penney, Sears and Radio Shack will go bankrupt and become historical footnotes. Considering retail employment is lower today than it was in 2002 before the massive retail expansion, the future will see in excess of 1 million retail workers lose their jobs. Bernanke and the Feds have allowed real estate mall owners to roll over non-performing loans and pretend they are generating enough rental income to cover their loan obligations. As more stores go dark, this little game of extend and pretend will come to an end. Real estate developers will be going belly-up and the banking sector will be taking huge losses again. I’m sure the remaining taxpayers will gladly bailout Wall Street again. The facts are not debatable. They can be ignored by the politicians, Ivy League economists, media talking heads, and the willfully ignorant masses, but they do not cease to exist.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley

 

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