How Strong Is Business Investment, Really?

DeLong rises to defend Ben Bernanke, against claims that unconventional monetary policy in recent years has discouraged businesses from investing. Business investment is doing just fine, he says:

As I see it, the Fed’s open-market operations have produced more spending–hence higher capacity utilization–and lower interest rates–has more advantageous costs of finance–and we are supposed to believe that its policies “have hurt business investment”?!?! … As I have said before and say again, weakness in overall investment is 100% due to weakness in housing investment. Is there an argument here that QE has reduced housing investment? No. Is nonresidential fixed investment below where one would expect it to be given that the overall recovery has been disappointing and capacity utilization is not high?

As evidence, DeLong points to the fact that nonresidential investment as a share of GDP is back where it was at the last two business cycle peaks.

As it happens, I agree with DeLong that it’s hard to make a convincing case that unconventional monetary policy is holding back business investment. Arguments about the awfulness of low interest rates seem more political or ideological, based on the real or imagined interests of interest-receivers than any identifiable economic analysis. But there’s a danger of overselling the opposite case.

It is certainly true that, as a share of potential GDP, nonresidential investment is not low by historical standards. But is this the right measure to be looking at? I think not, for a couple of reasons, one relatively minor and one major. The minor reason is that the recent redefinition of investment by the BEA to include various IP spending makes historical comparisons problematic. If we define investment as the BEA did until 2013, and as businesses still do under GAAP accounting standards, the investment share of GDP remains quite low compared to previous expansions. The major reason is that it’s misleading to evaluate investment relative to (actual or potential GDP), since weak investment will itself lead to slower GDP growth. [1]

On the first point: In 2013, the BEA redefined investment to include a variety of IP-related spending, including the commercial development of movies, books, music, etc. as well as research and development. We can debate whether, conceptually, Sony making Steve Jobs is the same kind of thing as Steve Jobs and his crew making the iPhone. But it’s important to realize that the apparent strength of investment spending in recent expansions is more about the former kind of activity than the latter.  [2] More relevant for present purposes, since this kind of spending was not counted as investment — or even broken out separately, in many cases — prior to 2013, the older data are contemporary imputations. We should be skeptical of comparing today’s investment-cum-IP-and-R&D to the levels of 10 or 20 years ago, since 10 or 20 years ago it wasn’t even being measured. This means that historical comparisons are considerably more treacherous than usual. And if you count just traditional (GAAP) investment, or even traditional investment plus R&D, then investment has not, in fact, returned to its 2007 share of GDP, and remains well below long-run average levels. [3]


More importantly, using potential GDP as the yardstick is misleading because potential GDP is calculated simply as a trend of actual GDP, with a heavier weight on more recent observations. By construction, it is impossible for actual GDP to remain below potential for an extended period. So the fact that the current recovery is weak by historical standards automatically pulls down potential GDP, and makes the relative performance of investment look good.

We usually think that investment spending the single most important factor in business-cycle fluctuations. If weak investment growth results in a lower overall level of economic activity, investment as a share of GDP will look higher. Conversely, an investment boom that leads to rapid growth of the economy may not show up as an especially high investment share of GDP. So to get a clear sense of the performance of business investment, its better to look at the real growth of investment spending over a full business cycle, measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, not in percent of GDP. And when we do this, we see that the investment performance of the most recent cycle is the weakest on record — even using the BEA’s newer, more generous definition of investment.

Real investment growth, BEA definition

The figure above shows the cumulative change in real investment spending since the previous business-cycle peak, using the current (broad) BEA definition. The next figure shows the same thing, but for the older, narrower GAAP definition. Data for both figures is taken from the aggregates published by the BEA, so it includes closely held corporations as well as publicly-traded ones. As the figures show, the most recent cycle is a clear outlier, both for the depth and duration of the fall in investment during the downturn itself, and even more for the slowness of the subsequent recovery.

Real investment growth, plant and equipment only

Even using the BEA’s more generous definition, it took over 5 years for inflation-adjusted investment spending to recover its previous peak. (By the narrower GAAP definition, it took six years.) Five years after the average postwar business cycle peak, BEA investment spending had already risen 20 percent in real terms. As of the second quarter of 2015 — seven-and-a-half years after the most recent peak, and six years into the recovery — broad investment spending was up only 10 percent from its previous peak. (GAAP investment spending was up just 8.5 percent.) In the four previous postwar recoveries that lasted this long, real investment spending was up 63, 24, 56, and 21 percent respectively. So the current cycle has had less than half the investment growth of the weakest previous cycle. And it’s worth noting that the next two weakest investment performances of the ten postwar cycles came in the 1980s and the 2000s. In recent years, only the tech-boom period of the 1990s has matched the consistent investment growth of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

So I don’t think it’s time to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner up on Maiden Lane quite yet.

As DeLong says, it’s not surprising that business investment is weak given how far output is below trend. But the whole point of monetary policy is to stabilize output. For monetary policy to work, it needs to able to reliably offset lower than normal spending in other areas with stronger than normal investment spending. If after six years of extraordinarily stimulative monetary policy (and extraordinarily high corporate profits), business investment is just “where one would expect given that the overall recovery has been disappointing,” that’s a sign of failure, not success.


[1] Another minor issue, which I can’t discuss now, is DeLong’s choice to compare “real” (inflation-adjusted) spending to “real” GDP, rather than the more usual ratio of nominal values. Since the price index for investment goods consistent rises more slowly than the index for GDP as a whole, this makes current investment spending look higher relative to past investment spending.

[2] This IP spending is not generally counted as investment in the GAAP accounting rules followed by private businesses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s problematic that national accounts diverge from private accounts this way. It seems to be part of a troubling trend of national accounts being colonized by economic theory.

[3] R&D spending is at least reported in financial statements, though I’m not sure how consistently. But with the other new types of IP investment — which account for the majority of it — the BEA has invented a category that doesn’t exist in business accounts at all. So the historical numbers must involve more than usual amount degree of guesswork.

“The Money Has to Go Somewhere” – 1

A common response to concerns about high payouts and the short-term orientation of financial markets is that money paid out to shareholders will just be reinvested elsewhere.

Some defenders of the current American financial system claim this as one of its major virtues — investment decisions are made by participants in financial markets, rather than managers at existing firms. In the words of Michael Jensen, an important early theorist of the shareholder revolution,

Wall Street can allocate capital among competing businesses and monitor and discipline management more effectively than the CEO and headquarters staff of the typical diversified company. [Private equity fund] KKR’s New York offices … are direct substitutes for corporate headquarters in Akron or Peoria.

But while private equity funds do indeed replace exiting management at corporations they buy shares in, this form of active investment is very much the minority. The vast majority of “investment” by private shareholders does not directly contribute any funding to the companies being invested in. Rather, it involves the purchase of existing assets from other owners of financial assets.

Suppose a wealthy investor receives $1 million from increased dividends on shares they own. Now ask: what do they do? Their liquidity has increased. So has their net wealth, since the higher dividends are unlikely to reduce the market value of the shares and may well increase them. The natural use of this additional liquidity and wealth is to purchase more shares. (If the shares are owned indirectly, through a mutual fund or similar entity, this reinvestment happens automatically). But this purchases of additional shares does not provide any funding for the companies “invested” in, it simply bids up the prices of existing shares and increases the liquidity of the sellers. Those sellers in turn may purchase more shares or other financial assets, bidding up their prices and passing the liquidity to their sellers; and so on.

Of course, this process does not continue indefinitely; at each stage people may respond to their increased wealth by increasing their cash holdings, or by increasing their consumption; and each transaction involves some payments to the financial industry. Eventually, the full payout will leak out through these three channels, and share prices will stop rising. In the end, the full $1 million will be absorbed by the higher consumption and cash holdings induced by the higher share prices, and by the financial-sector incomes generated by the transactions.

Now, not every share purchase involves an existing share. But the vast majority do. In 2014, there were $90 billion of new shares issued through IPOs on American markets — an exceptionally high number.  By comparison, daily transactions on the main US stock markets average around $300 billion. Given around 260 trading days in a year, this implies that only one trade in a thousand on an American stock exchange involves the purchase of a newly issued share. And that is not counting the many “stock market” transactions other than outright share purchases (closed-end mutual funds, derivative contracts, etc.) all of which allow income from shareholder payouts to be reinvested and none of which provide any new funding for businesses.

External financing for businesses is much more likely to take the form of debt than new shares. But here, again, we can’t assume that there is any direct link between shareholder payouts and funding for other firms. Corporate bonds are issue by the same established corporations that are making the payouts. Meanwhile, smaller and younger firms, both listed and unlisted, are dependent on bank loans. And the fundamental fact about modern banks is that their lending is in no way dependent on prior saving. There is no way for higher payouts to increase the volume of bank lending. Banks’ funding costs are closely tied to the short-term interest rate set by the Federal Reserve, while their willingness to lend depends on the expected riskiness of the loan; there is no way for increased payouts to increase the availability of bank loans.

New bonds, on the other hand, do need to be purchase by wealthowners, and it is possible that the market liquidity created by high payouts has helped hold down longer interest rates. But many other factors — especially the beliefs of market participants about the future path of interest rates — also affect these rates, so is hard to see any direct link between payouts by some corporations and increased bond financing for others. Nor do new bonds necessarily finance investment. Indeed, since the mid-1980s corporate borrowing has been more tightly correlated with shareholder payouts than with investment. So if payouts do spill over into the bond market, to a large extent they are simply financing themselves.

Defenders of the financial status quo suggest that it’s wrong to accuse the markets as a whole of short-termism, since for every established company being pressured to increase payouts, there is a startup getting funded despite even when any profits are years away. I certainly wouldn’t deny that financial markets do often fund startups and other small- financially-constrained firms; and these firms do sometimes undertake socially useful investment that established corporations for whatever reason do not. And in principle, shareholder payouts can support this kind of funding both directly, as shareowners put money into venture capital funds, IPOs, etc.; and indirectly, as higher share prices make it easier to raise funds through new offerings. But the optimistic view of shareholder payouts not sustainable once we look at the magnitudes involved. It is mathematically impossible for the additional funds directed to new firms, to offset what they drain from established ones.

Again, IPOs in 2014 raised a record $90 billion for newly listed firms. (Over the past ten years, the average annual funds raised by IPOs was $45 billion.) Secondary offerings by listed firms totaled $180 billion, but some large fraction of these involved stock-option exercise by executives rather than new funding for the corporation. Prior to an IPO, the most important non-bank source of external funding for new companies is venture capital funds. In 2014, VC funds invested approximately $50 billion, but only $30 billion of this represented new commitments by investors; the remaining $20 billion came from the funds’ own retained profits. (And there is some double-counting between VC commitments and IPOs, since one of the main functions of IPOs today is to cash out earlier investors.) Net commitments to private equity funds might come to another $200 billion, but very little of this represents funding for the businesses they invest in — private equity specializes, rather, in buying control of corporations from existing shareholders. All told, flows of money from investors to businesses through these channels was probably less than $100 billion.

Meanwhile, total shareholder payouts in 2014 were over $1.2 trillion. So at best less than one dollar in ten flowing out of publicly-traded corporations went to fund some startup. And this assumes that shareholder payouts are the only source of funds for IPOs and venture capital; but of course people also invest in these out of labor income (salaries are a significant fraction of even the highest incomes in the US) and other sources. So the real fraction of payouts flowing to startups must be much less. There simply isn’t enough room in the limited financial pipelines flowing into new businesses, to accommodate the immense gusher of cash coming from established ones. Apple alone paid out $56 billion to shareholders last year, or nearly twice total commitments to VC funds. Intel, Oracle, IBM, Cisco and AT&T together paid out another $70 billion. [1] It’s hard to understand why, if finance is able to identify such wonderful investment opportunities for its cash, the management at these successful technology companies is unable to. You would have to have a profound faith in the unicorn hunters at Andreesen Horowitz to believe that the $1 billion they invested last year will produce more social value than $10 or $20 or $50 billion invested by established companies — or an equally profound pessimism about the abilities of professional managers. If this is what people like James Surowiecki really believe, they should not be writing about the dynamism of American financial markets, but about whatever pathology they believe has crippled the ability of mangers at existing corporations to identify viable investment projects.


[1] These numbers are taken from the Compustat database of filings by publicly traded corporations.