FoxConn: Less is less

As part of its deal with Wisconsin for state monies being handed over, FoxConn’s job numbers are put forward every December (but will not be publicly revealed until March or April of 2020).

Last year, FoxConn was short the 260 jobs it needed for 2018 when it only hired 156 employees. For 2019, FoxConn needs 520 jobs, and the company is claiming it has already met that goal.

Note: If FoxConn manages to have 520 employees in 2019, it also gets the 2018 funds it originally missed out on. Good deal for FoxConn, it seems.

But, media reports by Jake, Murphy’s Law, the verge in October, and the verge in December indicate that FoxConn is doing little more than moving shells on a table: there appears to be nothing actually going on other than some relatively small construction of warehouse-type buildings even while the company claims that everything is fine.

Indeed, the verge’s December review scuttles any possible thought that FoxConn is doing anything considered to be manufacturing at all. All the buildings FoxConn has bought are still empty, and plans that originally should be nearing completion are delayed again and again (the latest is that LCD manufacturing of any kind will not start until 2022).

As a neighbor of mine remarks, FoxConn is a complete mystery. Nothing the company is actually doing seems to make any sense whatsoever from the perspective of trying to be a viable project of some (or any) kind.

As Jake noted on January 1st of this year, even Mt. Pleasant, which still formally embraces FoxConn, is holding off on transferring to FoxConn more of the land that the village previously bought from homeowners for the project. Given FoxConn’s lack of activity, there are questions over whether FoxConn will ever use all of this land. As Jake observes, Mt. Pleasant is facing an additional $112 million of debt in 2020, and so it is facing some serious debt problems:

Take a look at that $86.2 million in debt principal and $9.0 million in interest. Basically Mount Pleasant has to pay off one debt payment by borrowing more money, and they also plan to keep adding $48 million in sewer and other water work, along with other expenses. So $8.4 million in taxes from Foxconn compared to $143 million in expenses that are earmarked to their specific TID district? And a lot more in new debt expenses for the future? Doesn’t seem like a good deal to me.

Even with the extra borrowing, they’re still bleeding the Foxconn district’s balance down from $103.3 million to less than $72 million, which means that if more money and tax base isn’t returning to the Foxconn district in the next few years (and that seems increasingly unlikely), there’s even more debt and more borrowing that’ll have to happen.

Or…the Village will go bankrupt because it can’t (or won’t) keep going further into debt to keep pumping false hope into this white elephant. At that point, state taxpayers would likely be asked to bail out Mount Pleasant, based on this provision that is part of the Fox-con package approved by the GOP Legislature in 2017 and signed by then-Governor Walker.

Given that FoxConn has quietly (see the verge’s December reporting) transferred control of its Wisconsin operations to a subsidiary called Foxconn Industrial Internet (Fii) that is NOT part of the original FoxConn deal, it seems that FoxConn is preparing to walk away and leave Wisconsin suing a shell company that has few to any assets in Wisconsin for all of the broken promises.

I have a bad feeling about this.

Update (10 Jan. 2020): Corrected some typos and re-wrote sections of the paragraph on Mr. Pleasant’s debt problems.

Economic indicators at the end of 2019

As usual, I am piggy-backing on the good work Jake is doing.

The economy of late

Over the past several weeks, Jake has been posting extensively about the economic reports being released.

Gold standard job numbers

Reports on these numbers are a daily occurrence of late. As of Friday, Dec. 6th, the Department is touting Wisconsin as a national leader in job growth.

Yes, Jake notes, wages are up, but there are some holes to this news that means no one should be popping champagne corks just yet. Jake observes that these job numbers actually under-report the growth that was being reported in the monthly jobs reports. The recent rise in unemployment during the latter half of 2019, in addition, could either indicate a hotter, more competitive job market or a job market that is beginning to cool down.

Jake also points out some of the key takeaways from the Wisconsin’s Shifting Job Market report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. This report provides an examination of the job growth (or lack of growth) in Wisconsin over a ten-year period, from 2008 to 2018. As Jake explains:

The Policy Forum goes on to note that the Madison area has done exceptionally well in this 10-year time period for overall job growth, and in particular in these high-paying, educated/skilled positions.

For example, the Madison metro area has experienced strong job growth in general since 2008, with employment growing by over 54,000 overall (16%) and in 17 of the 22 occupational groups. Perhaps most strikingly, employment in highly coveted computer and mathematical occupations—which include software and web developers and computer programmers—has led the way, growing faster than in any other group.

* * *

[Manufacturing jobs, on the other hand, have been stagnant or in decline, particularly in the Milwaukee area.] And that trend has not gotten any better in 2019, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that manufacturing employment in the Milwaukee metro area is at its lowest level in more than 8 years, with a decline of 2,000 manufacturing jobs over the last 12 months.

That being said, the Milwaukee metro as a whole has rebounded some in 2019, with health care being a huge reasons for its job growth. As have the 2 next largest metropolitan areas in the state, for that matter. While these numbers aren’t adjusted for seasonality (and therefore require a year-over-year comparison), the Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay areas have done better for adding jobs than the rest of the state.

[One year] Job growth Oct 2018-Oct 2019
Milwaukee metro +11,800 (+1.3%)
Madison metro +4,700 (+1.2%)
Green Bay metro +2,400 (+1.3%)

The down side is that while the remainder of the state outside of those 3 metro areas accounts for just over 1/2 of the state’s employees, it’s actually lost 5,100 jobs (-0.3%) while the Bigger 3 have grown. And many of those [remaining] areas have also been stagnating in population growth with lower educational levels.

The full jobs data for the year from June 2018 to June 2019 also has some revealing information. According to Jake:

Remarkably, [Wisconsin’s] 0.40% rate of [job] growth and 39th-place rankng in the US put Wisconsin 3rd out of 7 Midwest states for private sector job growth, with only Minnesota (+0.61%) and Indiana (+0.70%) doing better than us. So unlike much of the 2010s, we’re not trailing much of our region, but our region is badly below the US rate of growth of 1.25%. Which sounds a whole lot like the 2000s before the Great Recession, which wasn’t good for the Midwest even before the economy caved in.

If you go into Wisconsin’s figures by county, this stat jumps out at you.

Private sector job change, June 2018- June 2019
Dane County +5,033
Rest of State +4,987

Total job change, June 2018 – June 2019
Dane County +6,595
Rest of State +2,745

That’s right, Dane County added more than half the private sector jobs in Wisconsin over that 12-month period, and over 70% of [total] jobs. And literally 1/2 of the 72 counties in Wisconsin LOST jobs between June 2018 and June 2019. Oh, but we’re the crazy hippie moonbats in Madison while the outstate GOPs are the ones in touch with how to grow business in 2019. Riiiight.

FoxConn

Jake has the latest on a Libertarian-leaning think tank pointing out that FoxConn truly is turning into a shadow theater of the absurd:

  • The subsidies granted to FoxConn will depress economic activity in the state for a decade or more.
  • The state is saddled with economic waste because of Wisconsin’s commitments to FoxConn that cannot now go to actual businesses that could use that money productively.
  • A recent Fox-Conn announcement about developing its Green Bay facility contained just a fraction of what was originally announced for that facility (seems to be a pattern with FoxConn) and has been met with a ‘believe it when we see it response.’

Update (10 Jan. 2019): Changed spelling of Fox-Conn to FoxConn.

Taxes and spending

Jake has a look at the latest WisPolicy Forum report on taxing and spending in the mid-west.

As Jake observes from the report, for the twenty-year period from 1997 to 2017, Wisconsin has led the mid-west in declining tax revenues, a commensurate decline in education spending, and a comparative increase in spending on Medicaid, corrections, and highways. These changes, Jake explains, are tied directly to the policy choices of recent years.

For example, a reason Medicaid spending is higher in Wisconsin because we refuse to take the expanded Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act, which would push those expenses onto the Feds instead of us (on a related note, a Pew report earlier this year placed Wisconsin 45th in the country for federal aid).

On the Corrections side, this is an obvious effect of the “lock em up” mentality of WisGOPs that has ended up with the state spending more on Corrections than the UW System. The “6th in the US” highway spending number can be connected back to a huge increase in local wheel taxes to fix roads that Scott Walker and the WisGOP Legislature refused to pay for.

Two things should be added to this post and the WisPolicy Forum’s tax report, however. First, the report is only dealing with changes in averages. So, the big shift in Wisconsin in the tax burden away from the wealthy and onto the shoulders of the middle-class is ignored. And, the over-reliance on property taxes in Wisconsin for funding local government and schools only makes this discrepancy worst, as property taxes based on a flat percentage are inherently regressive.

Second, several taxes are left out of this analysis completely, including unemployment taxes that employers pay on the first $14,000 of annual income paid to each employee. The 2018 Tax Measures Report has all of this tax information. Compared to the other fifty states, Wisconsin’s unemployment taxes are below average:

Tax amounts per covered employee in 2018

2018 Tax Measures Report at 64. As seen here, in 2018 Wisconsin’s average unemployment tax burden for employers was $255. For comparison, Minnesota’s was $340, Michigan’s was $352, and Iowa’s was $318.

Other measures likewise indicate that the unemployment tax burden on employers is exceptionally low in Wisconsin among mid-western states:

Average employer contribution in 2018 for every $100 in wages paid to an employee
Wis. 0.54
Minn. 0.56
Mich. 0.64
Iowa 0.69

For every dollar of tax paid in 2018, the amount going to
Benefits owed / Trust fund surplus
Wis. 0.75 / 0.25
Minn. 0.94 / 0.06
Mich. 0.63 / 0.37
Iowa 1.08 / -0.08

2018 Tax Measures Report at 62, 34, 33, and 26, respectively.

So, Wisconsin has the lowest unemployment tax burden of these four states, and 25 cents of every tax dollar being paid is going into the trust fund (only Michigan is saving more monies than Wisconsin for its trust fund).

Compared to these other states, then, employers in Wisconsin have little to complain about relative to employers in other mid-western states. And, this now very light tax burden in Wisconsin is very much the result of state policies that have made it difficult to impossible for employees to qualify for unemployment benefits or which make it difficult for employees to even files a successful claim.

The Wisconsin October 2019 jobs report is not good

The October 2019 jobs report has almost no information about the monthly jobs picture and mostly discusses labor force participation rates:

The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) today released the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) preliminary employment estimates for the month of October. The data shows that Wisconsin added 17,200 private-sector and 16,500 total non-farm jobs from October 2018 to October 2019. Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate in October was 67.1 percent, while the state’s unemployment rate in October was 3.3 percent. The national unemployment rate for October 2019 was 3.6 percent.

• Place of Residence Data: Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate in October was 67.1 percent in October, 3.8 percent higher than the national rate of 63.3 percent. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate in October was 3.3 percent, 0.3 percent lower than the national rate of 3.6 percent.

• Place of Work Data: Wisconsin added 17,200 private-sector and 16,500 total non-farm jobs from October 2018 to October 2019. From September 2019 to October 2019 Wisconsin’s private-sector and total non-farm jobs declined by 1,100 and 1,200 respectively.

Luckily, Jake looks at the actual data, and there are a lot of negative numbers:

Wisconsin jobs change
Oct 2019
-1,200 total jobs, -1,100 private sector, -1,300 manufacturing

Sept 2019 revision
-1,200 total jobs, -700 private sector
-700 manufacturing

Revised Sept totals
+600 all jobs, +100 private sector, -2,900 manufacturing

Oct 2018 — Oct 2019
+16,500 total jobs, +17,200 private sector
-7,700 manufacturing

Jake further observes that Wisconsin now has “only 100 more manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin than we had 2 years ago” and that “the number of ’employed’ Wisconsinites has declined by more than 30,000 since peaking in early 2018, and is now at its lowest level in since Trump took office in January 2017.”

Wisconsin has some serious jobs troubles and needs some advice from Yoda.

Yoda

Final job numbers for 2018 are in

Jake has the details, and they are not pretty.

Job growth Dec 2017 - Dec 2018, QCEW
U.S. +1.5%
Mich +1.04%
Minn +0.91%
Ind. +0.88%
Wis. +0.60% <--
Ohio +0.549%
Iowa +0.547%
Ill. +0.31%

For 2018, the mid-west was well behind the rest of the nation. Only Michigan, with the money for auto manufacturing being pumped into that state, broke 1% job growth.

National headlines about a strong economy simply do NOT apply to Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, and Illinois.

Finally, Jake has the final job numbers for Gov. Walker during his time in office

All job growth, Dec 2010 - Dec 2018
Minn +319,619
Wis. +222,260

In 2010, Minnesota had fewer people and fewer jobs than Wisconsin. By the end of 2018, Minnesota surpassed Wisconsin in both categories. Wisconsin’s austerity put a brake on growth while a focus on middle-class growth and investment paid dividends in Minnesota, allowing that state to take the lead over Wisconsin.

Jake also has some information about current trends in manufacturing growth, and the news is NOT good.

Manufacturing and GDP, 2007-2018

This information, when combined with information from UW economist Menzie Chinn, indicates that manufacturing in the mid-west is already in decline. As Jake sums up this bad news:

the 2016-type slowdowns in manufacturing and the Midwestern economy as a whole are starting all over again. Except now we have a higher US budget deficit, with less room for upside as unemployment is likely as low as it can get, and more trade restrictions and adjustments are coming in the near future. Ruh roh.

Strangely, now seven days later, there are still absolutely NO reports in mainstream media about these job numbers or economic trends.

Here is the news that I could find when searching for “qcew wisconsin job numbers” that have to do with jobs:

If anything, further job cuts will compound the decline in jobs that seems already underway.

Low unemployment rates and low unemployment benefits — record lows for a reason

Mark Sommerhauser’s article about possible changes to criminal prosecution of unemployment fraud has a remarkable chart detailing the roller coaster plunge in unemployment benefits in Wisconsin since the end of the great recession.

UI benefits chart

In 2018, only $1.11 million in first-week unemployment benefits were paid out in Wisconsin. Here are some numbers to provide some perspective on this decline in unemployment benefits.

Historical comparisons

At the January 2019 Advisory Council meeting, the financial report included some jaw-dropping numbers regarding the stellar decline in unemployment taxes employers pay and the even steeper drop in unemployment benefits being paid to claimants. Tom McHugh explained during his presentation that benefit payments in 2018 had not been this low prior to 1994.

So, a comparison between the years 2018 and 1994 seems in order. Monthly claims history data reveal:

| Year | Init. claims | Benefits paid |
| 1994 | 430,452      | $405,625,564  |
| 2018 | 283,398      | $397,746,075  |

So, while the amounts of benefits paid are relatively close — a difference of around $8 million — there is a difference of 147,000 initial claims between the two years. These numbers mean that in 2018 the Department paid on average $1403 in unemployment benefits for each initial claim, whereas in 1994 the Department paid on average $942 in unemployment benefits for each initial claim that year.

In part, the lower number in 1994 exists because the maximum weekly benefit that year was only $243, whereas in 2018 the maximum possible weekly benefit rate was $370.

But, this data also includes information about the weeks being claimed versus the weeks that are actually compensated.

| Year | Weeks claimed | Weeks compens. | Prct. |
| 1994 | 2,589,895     | 2,443,988      | 94.4% |
| 2018 | 1,659,861     | 1,352,076      | 81.5% |

In 2018, just over 81% of the weeks being claimed were leading to actual payment of unemployment benefits, whereas in 1994 fully 94.4% of initial claims led to the payment of unemployment benefits.

The available weekly claims data for these years adds another eye-popping wrinkle to this comparison: the size of the labor force.

| Year | Init. claims | Covered emply. |
| 1994 | 452,526      | 2,301,412      |
| 2018 | 279,912      | 2,817,338      |

Note: changes in the number of initial claims being filed likely exist because of what is being measured: weekly versus monthly claims data.

So, in 2018 there was a drop of nearly 62% in initial claims from 1994 even through the number of covered employees actually increased by more than 500,000. If eligibility for unemployment benefits was the same in 2018 as it was in 1994, there should obviously have been more unemployment claims given the 500,000 employee increase in the eligible labor force. But, rather than an increase in claims in 2018 there has instead been sharp dive in unemployment claims.

Someone might argue that the workforce in Wisconsin has substantially changed from 1994 to 2018. That explanation does not hold much water.

Union sector comparison

This chart shows that there have been slight declines in manufacturing from 1994 to 2017 in Wisconsin as a percentage of the workforce (from 25.44% of the workforce to 21.21% of the workforce) as well as in public sector employment (15.06% to 12.84% of the workforce). But, the real changes have not been so much in the makeup of the workforce so much as in the percentage of who belongs to a union. Only private construction has NOT seen a dramatic drop in both union coverage and union membership from 1994 to 2017. And, those drops are by half or more from what existed in 1994. So, the decline in unionization is at least strongly correlated with the decline in Wisconsin employees receiving unemployment benefits in this state.

Fraud comparisons

The other major factor at play with the decline in unemployment benefits is the increased prosecution by the Department for alleging fraud.

As the Department’s fraud allegations are a relatively new phenomena (while unemployment fraud has always existed as a category, prosecutions did not begin in earnest until this last recession), this data cannot provide a look back all the to 1994. But, this data does reveal what the Department has been doing since 2011.

Initial claims and fraud cases by year

Here, the number of fraud cases as a percentage of total initial claims actually increased in 2013 and 2014, declined in 2015 and 2016, and has held steady at 1.67% of total initial claims in 2017 and 2018.

The over-payments being assessed as percentage of benefits being paid out, however, actually increased slightly in 2018, going from 1.11% of all unemployment benefits paid out in 2017 to 1.18% in 2018.

over-payments assessed by year

The decline in collections in 2018 from 2017 was more sizable, dropping from 3.14% of all benefits paid out to 2.58% of all unemployment benefits paid out in 2018.

over-payments collected by year

Noticeably, the collection of over-payments allegedly connected to fraud were in 2018 still more numerous than collections for non-fraud over-payments. Only in 2011, the first year of the Walker administration, was the ratio of fraud to non-fraud over-payment collections well below 100% (at 55.51% that year).

What’s next?

This month, the Department announced that unemployment rates are at a record low of 2.8%. As Jake has described these numbers, this low unemployment rate masks significant job losses in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is trailing the rest of the mid-west in job growth (and the mid-west itself as a region is trailing the rest of the nation in job growth).

The 1994 numbers described above indicate that while the state’s economy has not actually changed all that much from what existed in 1994, the unemployment system itself has markedly change. Even with a maximum weekly benefit rate in 2018 that is $127 higher than what existed in 1994, total unemployment benefits being paid out are about the same in 2018 in absolute dollars (i.e., NOT adjusted for inflation), 24 years later. This stagnation is shocking.

The big change with unemployment during the last eight years or so is the expansive and aggressive charging of unemployment fraud by the Department for accidental claim-filing mistakes. The case law is now over-flowing with decisions about how the Department has charged claimants with fraud for accidental claim-filing mistakes, defended those charges despite all evidence to the contrary, and even sought retribution against those who dared challenge the Department’s wishes on this front.

And, it is obvious to anyone filing unemployment benefits today about how complicated and difficult the claims-filing process has become. It is now all too easy for someone to make an accidental mistake during their weekly claim certification and then find themselves facing charges for unemployment concealment simply for not understanding what is being asked.

Note: this confusion and resulting mistakes ares even more likely when language and technology barriers are considered. Unemployment claims are on-line only now and STILL only in available English.

Finally, the decline in union representation and coverage from 1994 to 2018 indicates that the institutions that could have raised alarms and fought back against these changes to the unemployment system today lack the strength and support to conduct such a fight. As a result, these fundamental and far-reaching changes to the unemployment system have occurred without significant challenges.