Martin Wolf in the FT the other day:
The third challenge is over the longer-term sources of demand. I look at this issue in terms of the sectoral financial balances – the balances between income and spending – in the household, business, external and government sectors. The question, then, is where expansion will come from. In the first quarter of this year the principal offset to fiscal contraction was the declining household surplus.
What is needed, as well, is a big swing towards surplus in the US current account or a jump in corporate investment, relative to retained profits. Neither seems imminent, though the second seems more likely than the first. The worry is that the only way to balance the economy will be via big new bubbles. If so, this is not the fault of the Fed. It is the fault of structural features of the domestic and global economies…
This is a good point, which should be made more. If we compare aggregate expenditure today to expenditure just before the recession, it is clear that the lower level of demand today is all about lower consumption. But maybe that’s not the best comparison, because during the housing boom period, consumption was historically high. If we take a somewhat longer view, what’s unusually low today is not household consumption, but business investment. Weak demand is about I, not C.
This is especially clear when we compare investment by businesses to what they are receiving in the form of profits, or, better cashflow from operations — after-tax profits plus depreciation.  Here is the relationship over the past 40 years:
|Corporate Investment and Cashflow from Operations as Fraction of Total Assets, 1970-2012|
The graph shows annualized corporate investment and cashflow, normalized by total assets. Each dot is data from one quarter; to keep the thing legible, I’ve only labeled the fourth quarter of each year. As you can see, there used to be a clear relationship between corporate profitability and corporate investment. For every additional $150, more or less, that a corporation took in from operations, it would increase capital expenditures by $100. This relationship held consistently through the 1960s (not shown), the 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s.
But now look at the past ten years, the period after 2001Q4. Corporate investment rates are substantially lower throughout this period than at any earlier time (averaging around 3.5% of total assets, compared with 5% of assets for 1960-2001). And the relationship between aggregate profit and investment rates has simply disappeared.
Some people might say that the problem is in the financial system, that even profitable businesses can’t borrow because of a breakdown in intermediation, a shortage of liquidity, an unwillingness of risk-averse investors to hold their debt, etc. I don’t buy this story for a number of reasons, some of which I’ve laid out in recent posts here. But it at least has some certain prima facie plausibility for the period following the great financial crisis. Not for for the whole decade-plus since 2001. Saying that investment is low today because businesses can’t find anyone to buy their bonds is merely wrong. Saying that’s why investment was low in 2005 is absurd.
(And remember, these are aggregates, so they mainly reflect the largest corporations, the ones that should have the least problems borrowing.)
So what’s a better story?
I am going to save my full answer for another post. But regular readers will not be surprised that I think the key is a shift in the relationship between corporations and shareholders. I think there’s a sense in which the binding constraint on investment has changed from the terms on which management can get funds into the corporation, from profits or borrowing, to the terms are on which they can keep them from going out, to investors. But the specific story doesn’t matter so much here. You can certainly imagine other explanations. Like, “the China price” — even additional capacity that would be profitable today won’t be added if it there’s a danger of lower-cost imports entering that market.
The point of this post is just that corporate investment is historically low, both in absolute terms and relative to profitability. And because this has been true for a decade, it is hard to attribute this weakness to credit constraints, or believe that it will be responsive to monetary policy. (This is even more true when you recall that the link between corporate borrowing and investment has also essentially disappeared.) By contrast, household consumption remains high. I have the highest respect for Steve Fazzari, and agree that high income inequality is a key metric of the fucked-upness of our economy. But I don’t think it makes sense to think of the current situation in terms of a story where high inequality reduces demand by holding down consumption.
|Consumption is red, on the right scale; investment is blue, on the left. Both as shares of GDP.|
As I say, I’ll come back in a future post to my on preferred explanation for why a comparably profitable firm, facing comparable credit conditions, will invest less today than 20 or 30 years ago.
In the meantime, one other thing. That first graph is a nice tool for showing how a Marxist thinks about business cycles.
If you look at the graph carefully, you’ll see the points follow counterclockwise loops. It’s natural to see this as cycles. Like this:
Start from the bottom of a cycle, at a point like 1992. A rise in profits from whatever source leads to higher investment, mainly as a source of funds and but also because it raises expectations of future profitability. That’s the lower right segment of the cycle. High investment eventually runs into supply constraints, typically in the form of a rising wage share. At that point profits begin to fall. Investment, however, continues high for a while, as the credit system allows firms to bridge a growing financing gap. That’s the upper right segment of the cycle. Eventually, though, if profits don’t recover, investment will follow them downward. This turning point often involves a financial crisis and/or abrupt fall in asset values, like the collapse of tech stocks in 2000. This is the upper left segment of the cycle. Finally, in the lower left, both profits and investment are low. But after some time the conditions for profitability are restored, and we move toward the right and begin a new cycle. This last step is less reliable than the others. It’s quite possible for the economy to come to rest at the lower left and wobble there for a while without any sustained change in either profits or investment. We see this in 2002-2003 and in 1988-1991.
(I think the investment boom of the late 70s and the persistent slump of the early 1990s are two of the more neglected episodes in recent economic history. The period around 1990, in particular, seems to have all the features that are supposed to be distinctive to the current macroeconomic conjuncture. At the time, people even called it a balance-sheet recession!)
For now, though, we’re not interested in the general properties of cycles. We’re interested in how flat and low the most recent two are, compared with earlier ones. That is the structural feature that Martin Wolf is pointing to. And it’s not a new feature of the post financial crisis period, it’s been the case for a dozen years at least, only temporarily obscured by the housing bubble.
UPDATE: In comments, Seth Ackerman asks if maybe using total assets to normalize investment and profits is distorting the picture. It’s a good question, but the answer is no. Here’s the same thing, with trend GDP in the denominator instead:
As you can see, the picture is basically the same. Investment in the 200s is still visibly depressed compared with earlier decades, and the relationship between profits and investment is much weaker. Of course, it’s always possible that current high profits will lead an investment boom in the next few years…
 Cash from operations is better than profits for at least two reasons. First, from the point of view of aggregate demand, we are interested in gross not net investment. A dollar of investment stimulates demand just as much whether it’s replacing old equipment or adding new. So our measure of income should also be gross of depreciation. Second, there are major practical and conceptual issues with measuring depreciation. Changes in accounting standards may result in very different official depreciation numbers in economically identical situations. By combining depreciation and profits, we avoid the problem of the fuzzy and shifting line between them, making it more likely that we are comparing equivalent quantities.
 A rising wage share need not, and often does not, take the form of rising real wages. In recent cycles especially, it’s more likely to combine flat real wages with a rising relative cost of wage goods.