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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Folly of Subsidizing Retail

Next to giving subsidies for a company to relocate, or to prevent it from locating, the lease defensible common use of investment incentives is for retail. Why should this be? Let me count the ways.

Most importantly, retail is a derivative economic activity, as David Cay Johnston says. A location's population and income determine how much retail it can support. For this reason, the apparent job creation of retail subsidies is completely phantom, as sales and jobs are simply transferred from older stores to newer locations. The best proof of this is contained in a groundbreaking study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the regional planning agency of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

East-West Gateway's study found that from 1990 to 2007 (i.e., before the financial crisis), the over 100 local governments of the St. Louis metro area had collectively provided over $2 billion in subsidies for malls and other retail facilities. Most of this was in the form of tax increment financing, a popular local subsidy tool in both Missouri (to the tune of $339 million annual average from 2004 to 2006; see p. 7 in the source) and Illinois. Yet, by the end of this 17 year period, there were only 5400 more retail jobs in the metro area than at the beginning. This would total $370,370 per job if the jobs were created by the subsidies; however, it is more likely that they are simply due to income growth in the region. (Note to reporters: This would be a great study to replicate in your area.)

Second, retail jobs are not all that good. Here is a custom graph from FRED showing the nominal wage trend for all production and non-supervisory workers (blue) and for production and nonsupervisory workers in retail (red). As you can see, the wage gap has been increasing for 40 years. As of September, the exact figures were $13.86/hr. for retail vs. $19.81/hr. for all private industries. Moreover, given that the overall total as shown in the graph actually represents a decline in real wages, the decline in retail is much more pronounced.

FRED Graph

In addition to the low pay, retail workers rarely get benefits. According to a new report, only 29% of retail workers get health care benefits, even though half of retail employees have college degrees and 70% are over age 24.

Third, retail does not generate much secondary employment, the way manufacturing does. It does require warehouse jobs, but those generally get subsidized, too, as in the case of Wal-Mart.

The bottom line, then, is simple. Retail is a derivative economic activity that generates almost no new spinoff activity, and local governments (except perhaps in poor areas with food deserts) should not subsidize it. As we have seen in St. Louis, local governments have proven perfectly capable of wasting billions of dollars for temporary gains in sales tax revenues. It's time to stop the madness.

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