Opinion Columns & Blogs

Banks, health care got big slices of economy

Economically, most Americans did not have a good past decade. But some benefited greatly, based on how the economic pie was sliced.

During the decade, the financial services industry saw its share of U.S. corporate profits rise to 41 percent. In the 1990s, financial services never had more than 19 percent.

In the third quarter of 2009, as the economy crept out of recession, all corporate profits were up $132.4 billion. Financial services profits were most of it — up $82.8 billion, according to the latest information from the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Financial services profits doubled as a share of gross national product, exceeding 3.3 percent. This was the industry, of course, that plunged the nation into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Health care is an amalgam of profit-seeking and nonprofit ventures. The makers of medical devices and pharmaceuticals saw profits grow by multiples during the decade. Other health care players put their income into more buildings.

Health care spending began the decade with 13.8 percent of the economy. In 2009 that share was 17.6 percent. The doctors, hospitals, nurses, nursing homes, imaging centers and the like went from one-eighth of the pie to one-sixth.

Looked at another way, health care spending took up even more. We spent an average of $4,039 for each American in 2000 (when disposable personal income averaged $25,945). This year, we spent $8,160 for each American (when average income was $35,752), according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Health insurance premiums more than doubled in the decade, while personal earnings went up by a third (and most of that went to inflation).

And then there's the federal government. Its piece of the nation's economic pie has grown from less than one-fifth of the economy to more than one-fourth.

The biggest part of that jump in the federal appetite occurred in the past two years, when the government became the bucket bailing out a sinking national economy. Even as the recession ends, federal spending has reached a new plateau that doesn't look set to fall back.

The financial services, health care and federal government slices overlap. The banks borrowed heavily from the federal government to escape collapse, which pushed up federal spending.

So, too, with health care, where federal spending for the poor and the elderly (Medicaid and Medicare) marches on, regardless of whether the economy grows or falls. Federal spending on these two health programs was expected to exceed 5 percent of gross domestic product in 2009.

When we bake a bigger pie, giving one or another diner a bigger slice is less of an issue. When the economy is stagnant and the pie stays the same size, bigger slices for some mean smaller slices for everyone else.