Friday, July 19, 2013

Walmart Workers Can't Be Paid Much More

. Friday, July 19, 2013

Sorry for the quiet around here. We've been busy with real projects. But to keep the lights on I thought I'd re-post something I wrote on Facebook that got long enough to be of bloggish length. It's not normal subject matter for us, but it is related to some these we discuss from time to time. It concerns Justin Fox's claim that low wages for employees of corporations like Walmart are a "social decision" distinct from economic logic. I think he's right, but not really in the way that he means.

There's a much better way to get at this. Walmart and other low-end retailers are both producers (of goods/distribution of goods) and consumers (of labor). Their business model is to forego some of their producer surplus (hence the very low profit margin, around 3% of revenues) in order to boost volume. Per store, Walmart makes around $1.4 million/year... it's just that they have over 10,500 stores so their overall profits (~$15bn) sound impressive and their revenues (~$450bn) are astounding.

If you considered each store as its own "small business" you'd wonder what the hell they were doing, because to staff those stores they have to hire a ton of people to accommodate all that volume. That's why this model only works at scale. To maintain even a 3% profit margin they have to extract some of their workers' producer surplus to make up for the surplus they have given to consumers to capture market share. This is what a high volume/low margin business looks like. It's even more severe at Amazon. But they don't capture as much of their workers' surplus as people think.

Walmart's stores are staffed on average by about 300 people who make on average $12.67 per hour or ~$25k/year if they work full-time and take two weeks of unpaid vacation. $1.4mn profit per store /300 workers = ~$4,500. So that's how much surplus value Walmart is "extracting" from labor, if you don't factor in anything else like retaining earnings, paying shareholders, investing in new stores/products, etc. That's a lot of trouble to make a measly $1.4mn! The only way it makes sense (for shareholders) is if volume is HUGE. Which it is. Since the shareholders are relatively concentrated -- six Waltons own nearly half of the shares -- they make a killing. But it's practically all volume.

Anyway, $3k or so is the upper limit of how much more each worker could earn under the current business model. Say it's the difference between $25k and $30k. That's certainly not nothing, but it does not represent such a qualitative difference in standard of living that anyone would consider Walmart employees to be well-paid if they all got the full $4,500.

So what else could be done other to increase that $4,500/year? Walmart could claw back some of their producer surplus from consumers by raising prices and using the proceeds to raise wages, which would constitute a simple redistribution from customers to employees assuming no money taken by management/ownership and completely inelastic consumer demand. Both assumptions are pretty heroic in this case. That would basically just shuffle cash from some poor people (Walmart's customers) to other poor people (Walmart's employees). Or they could reduce margins even further, but 3% is already pretty thin. Or they could raise margins by paying their suppliers (e.g. poor Chinese workers) even less, and give the extra profits to their American workers. They could redistribute salaries from management -- their CEO makes $20 million to manage a company with $450 billion in revenues -- but Walmart employs over 2 million people... we're talking 10 bucks per worker per year if the CEO was paid nothing at all.

So any redistributionary choice that would fundamentally change the situation would seem to involve deciding which group of poor people are made worse off: Walmart's customers, its employees, or its suppliers. The political equilibrium right now is a mix of employees and suppliers. Changing policy -- say, by raising the minimum wage -- involves changing two of those variables: one goes up, one goes down. There's just not enough cash which can be taken from management to make all that much of a difference on a per worker basis, even if you reduced managements' salaries to $0 and retained no profits for future investments or any other purpose. And per-worker profit is so low that there's a pretty firm limit on how much more they can be paid.

Now, Walmart's business model of extremely high volume at very low margins does not represent the entire economy, although I see a number of trends pushing more and more of the retail economy in that direction, so this logic won't always apply. But it's about as close to the competitive equilibrium models of econ 101 as contemporary markets get. So if there was ever a case to be made that wages are social decisions rather than economic decisions -- and there is, although I'd prefer "political decisions" over who captures the producer and consumer surplus to "social decisions", which just sounds slippery -- Walmart probably isn't the best example for Fox to use.

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen's column today speaks to a related issue: the politics of wealth vs income.

International Political Economy at the University of North Carolina: July 2013
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