That's never been more clear than now, as Wall Street is a road leading to record corporate profits, while Main Street is a road leading to high unemployment and sluggish wage growth.
Corporate America has never been so lean and lush. Many stocks are trading near 52-week highs, fully recovered from hits than landed hard during the Great Recession of 2008. Two years after the official end of the recession was declared, American companies are posting strong, and in many cases record, earnings in the second quarter of this year.
In fact combined earnings of companies in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index are expected to increase almost 14 percent from the same period one year ago, spelling record results for many corporations. Also, corporations collectively are hoarding more cash than ever before, posting glowing balance sheets. At the end of 2010, companies held an estimated $1.9 trillion of excess cash, and so far in 2011 most have not let go.
Contrast that with what's happening on Main Street. Unemployment remains high, at more than nine percent. That's a daunting figure considering the recession officially ended two years ago. Some economists think the number could trickle higher even in coming months.
But that's not the hardest part of Main Street's story. Wages among the middle class employed are flat, and many people are now doing jobs and daily tasks that three and four people did just several years before. So as corporate profits jump with increases of 20 percent or more to all-time highs, and stocks rise on Wall Street in accord to levels near all-time highs, Main Street America is shuffling along a different path, trying to keep up in the new, new economy.
The reason for the opposing trends is clear. In the recession, companies became obsessed with avoiding the one cost that's hardest to control: payroll costs.They can quickly reduce inventory, they can quickly delay technology investment, but they can't quickly and easily shift from bloated payrolls.
Also, companies are benefiting from the adage that any job in a slow-growth economy is a good job -- meaning those that have work are quick to take on more responsibilities so they can keep their job, and even earn more. Thus, companies have little incentive to start hiring again in large numbers. They are merely driving more productivity out of what they have, or shifting how they've done it before by relying upon more technology to drive revenues forward.
Companies are still hiring, sure. But they are filling positions that are clearly needed, perpetually delaying what's not clearly needed.
Back in the day, in the years before the recession, many large companies routinely shuffled in large numbers of new employees, to keep an ever-flowing stream of talent to train and cultivate. Now, though, lean is the operative mode when it comes to payroll, meaning the interests of Wall Street and Main Street are traveling along divergent paths.
Corporations are finding lower-priced alternatives in many instances by looking globally and outsourcing high-skilled labor jobs, and they have used technology to streamline other operations, reducing personnel needs.
For investors, this is good news. Those with capital to invest during and after the recession have gained wealth. But they have also gained advantage over working class Americans who live paycheck to paycheck.
Sensitivities are growing nationally over the issue, particularly since the U.S. government invested heavily during the recession with taxpayer dollars to keep many companies and industries afloat. The argument made at the time was that companies must be strong so job growth can resume.
That argument did not take into account the shift that most corporations made in light of the difficult new economy, where growth domestically doesn't come easy and growth abroad can easily be fueled by workers who earn in some instances of fraction of what U.S. workers earn. Technology investment also comes at a fraction of what it used to.
Now, both policy makers and Americans trying to make household ends meet on Main Street are facing the reality that the divergent path between Wall Street and Main Street isn't an aberration in the recovery years following recession. It's the new normal everybody talked about, but didn't really know what it meant.
We know today, though, that jobs in the numbers needed to get Main Street back on its feet will not come from corporate hiring as it was. This is no longer a function of the recession, but a shift in business practices.
Simply, less people are needed to do the work today than were needed yesterday. The pattern will only improve for Main Street when both a shift in training and needs converge. In other words, not until there's new demand for workers in the U.S. through another sort of evolutionary workplace shift will Main Street get in accord with Wall Street.
Most observers suggest, and I must agree, that it may take a while. Perhaps a very long while. Until then, Wall Street will continue taking one road, while Main Street will continue on another.
Call it the new, new normal.