General Electric chief executive officer Jeff Immelt, speaking at the Detroit Economic Club, told listeners in the hard-hit city that it was time for America to rebuild its manufacturing base. "While some of America's competitors were throttling up on manufacturing and R&D, we de-emphasized technology... Our economy tilted instead toward the quicker profits of financial services," Immelt said, according to Reuters.
Immelt went on to say that manufacturing work should represent 20 percent of jobs, about twice its current level. In the decades following World War II, manufacturing employment made up about 30 percent of jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The comments from Immelt struck noted economic commentator Peter Schiff as ironic.
"He's right, and he ought to know," Schiff told DailyFinance. "GE is kind of a microcosm for the country. It used to derive most of its income from manufacturing." It later expanded its financing unit into areas like credit card lending. Immelt has publicly stated that downsizing GE's finance arm to 30% of firm profits is one of its top goals, especially after fears about the unit's solvency pushed GE stock below $6 this year. In 2006 and 2007, profit from the finance segment was more than 40% of total profit.
During his prepared remarks, Immelt also expressed interest in "in-sourcing" production work that was previously done by outside contractors -- often in foreign countries -- back to American factories. These are the kinds of steps that America must take to restore its competitive edge and middle class, Immelt said.
Schiff, who published Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse in 2007, has argued for years that without a solid manufacturing base, America's position as the greatest economic power of the 20th century would not last through the 21st century. "If we're going to continue to consume, we need to start producing. We can't simply keep running deficits month after month," he wrote. " We can either ratchet down our lifestyle to reflect the fact that we're not an industrial nation, or we can make more stuff. Those are the choices."
When asked whether or not the potential still existed to turn around the economy, Schiff expressed hope that government policy would stop obstructing necessary change. "It is possible... it might not be possible given what the government is doing today, but it is possible." He also added that as long as the Fed and the Treasury refuse to allow failure, there will be no chance to let the economy restructure itself and create real wealth.
James Cullen also edits and writes at CollegeAnalysts.com.