There was a little glimmer of light in the Southern skies last week. It wasn’t exactly a light bulb flashing on over Wal-Mart Corporate Headquarters, but it did look as though someone was fumbling with the switch.
The company released its financial results for FY 2013 on Thursday and as usual, the results were boffo. Sales were up $10 billion, international sales rose 7.4 percent and the company gained market share in food, consumables, entertainment, toys, and health and wellness. Of course the company did its version of sharing the wealth, raising its dividend by 18 percent or $0.29 per share.
Those were the sounds of a cash register ringing, the door of a luxury automobile slamming, or the roar of a corporate jet taking off from Bentonville, Arkansas. The glimmer of light was in the footnotes. Same store sales grew only 1 percent in the fourth quarter where analysts were expecting the same 1.5 percent they had seen in a year earlier. Wal-Mart attributed this to a fall off in sales after Black Friday because, it said of an unusually long interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Another slowdown in sales hit in late January and continued into this month.
The company’s explanation for the recent flat sales was the January 1 payroll tax “increase” and higher gas prices. The former, of course wasn’t an increase at all but Wal-Mart, without a hint of irony, complained that the expiration of the tax holiday took $15 a week out of the pockets of families earning $30,000 a year.
While Wal-Mart was outwardly analytic about these by numbers, inwardly it was freaked. In emails leaked to Bloomberg News, Jerry Murray, Wal-Mart’s vice president of finance and logistics, called February the worst start to a month he had seen in his seven years with the company. An email from another company executive said in part, “Where are all the customers? And where’s their money?”
OK, they still don’t get it, but maybe they are finally paying attention because a lot of us have wondered just what the Waltons see as their end game. Did they even have one? And not just them; the same could be asked about the Brothers Koch, the men and women who run the banks, and the energy, insurance, and agribusiness conglomerates.
Granted it has all gone swimmingly so far; they have broken the unions, depressed wages, shipped jobs overseas, evaded, whether legally or not, their share of taxes; fought to destroy the safety net, and bought off a goodly portion of the nation’s politicians. They have also managed to capture an unseemly percentage of the national wealth all while convincing millions of Americans that they deserve special treatment as “The Job Creators.”
However they seem to have ignored the back half of the theory of supply and demand. They’ve produced goods at a reasonable price, made them accessible to millions of potential buyers, and inform those buyers of their availability, but they have overlooked the part about nurturing a sustainable market for those goods.
As more and more money finds its way into fewer and fewer hands the One Percent are either oblivious or unconcerned about the dwindling middle class or that the rising numbers below the poverty line are hard pressed to purchase anything more than the necessities to feed, clothe, and house their families.
Maybe not even that. The Center for Housing Policy estimates that the number of working households spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing rose from a national average of 21.8 percent in 2008 to 23.6 percent in 2010. These figures were based on the 2010 census and don’t include effects of the tightening rental market since them. There isn’t a single state in the union where a minimum wage earner can afford a two bedroom market rate apartment while working fewer than 63 hours a week.
The Harvard Joint Center on Housing Policy says these “severely cost-burdened” families spend only about three-fifths as much on food, half as much on clothing, and two-fifths as much on healthcare as do families living in more affordable housing.
Now the temporary respite on payroll taxes has ended and family budgets are being hammered by nearly daily increases in gas prices, soon to be reflected in the cost electricity, heat, and everything that must be transported by trucks. Still the Masters of the Universe who control corporate America fight to cut the safety net and kill the minimum wage bill, still clueless to the fatal flaw in their business plans.
Maybe they should pay less attention to their own bottom line and more attention to Wal-Mart’s. With its core constituency of middle and lower income families it could be an early warning system for the ultimate result of income inequality. When that light bulb really flashes on, maybe as early as the first quarter 2013 report, Wal-Mart and everyone else will be able to see where the money has really gone – into the pockets of people who do not need to spend it.