Reallocation Continued: Profits, Payouts, Investment and Borrowing

In a previous post, I pointed out that if capital means real investment, then the place where capital is going these days is fossil fuels, not the industries we usually think of as high tech. I want to build on that now by looking at some other financial flows across these same sectors.

As I discussed in the previous post, any analysis of investment and profits has to deal with the problem of R&D, and IP-related spending in general. If we want to be consistent with the national accounts and, arguably, economic theory, we should add R&D to investment, and therefore also to cashflow from operations. (It’s obvious why you have to do this, right?) But if we want to be consistent with the accounting principles followed by individual businesses, we must treat R&D as a current expense. For many purposes, it doesn’t end up making a big difference, but sometimes it does.

Below, I show the four major sources and uses of funds for three subsets of corporations. The flows are: cashflow from operations — that is, profits plus depreciation, plus R&D if that is counted in investment; profits; investment, possibly including R&D; and net borrowing. The  universes are publicly traded corporations: first all of them; second the high tech sector, defined as in the previous post, and third fossil fuels, also as defined previously. Here I am using the broad measure of investment, including R&D, and the corresponding measure of cashflow from operations. At the end of the post, I show the same figures using the narrow measure of investment, and with profits as well as cashflow.


For the corporate sector as a whole, we have the familiar story. Over the past twenty-five years annual shareholder payouts (dividends plus share repurchases) have approximately  doubled, rising from around 3 percent of sales in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to around 6 percent today. Payouts have also become more variable, with periods of high and low payouts corresponding with high and low borrowing. (This correlation between payouts and borrowing is also clearly visible across firms since the 1990s, but not previously, as discussed here.) There’s also a strong upward trend in cashflow from operations, especially in the last two expansions, rising from about 10 percent of sales in the 1970s to 15 percent today. Investment spending, however, shows no trend; since 1960, it’s stayed around 10 percent of sales. The result is an unprecedented gap between corporate earnings and and investment.

Here’s one way of looking at this. Recall that, if these were the only cashflows into and out of the corporate sector, then cash from operations plus net borrowing (the two sources) would have to equal investment plus payouts (the two uses). In the real world, of course, there are other important flows, including mergers and acquisitions, net acquisition of financial assets, and foreign investment flows. But there’s still a sense in which the upper gap in the figure is the mirror image or complement of the lower gap. The excess of cash from operations over investment shows that corporate sector’s real activities are a net source of cash, while the excess of payouts over borrowing suggests that its financial activities are a net use of cash.

Focusing on the relationship between cashflow and investment suggests a story with three periods rather than two. Between roughly 1950 and 1970, the corporate sector generated significantly more cash than it required for expansion, leaving a surplus to be paid out through the financial system in one form or another. (While payouts were low compared with today, borrowing was also quite low, leaving a substantial net flow to owners of financial assets.) Between 1970 and 1985 or so, the combination of higher investment and weaker cashflow meant that, in the aggregate all the funds generated within the corporate sector were being used there, with no net surplus available for financial claimants. This is the situation that provoked the “revolt of the rentiers.” Finally, from the 1990s and especially after 2000, we see the successful outcome of the revolt.

This is obviously a simplified and speculative story. It’s important to look at what’s going on across firms and not just at aggregates. It’s also important to look at various flows I’ve ignored here;  cashflow ideally should be gross, rather than net, of interest and taxes, and those two flows along with net foreign investment, net acquisition of financial assets, and cash M&A spending, should be explicitly included. But this is a start.

Now, let’s see how things look in the tech sector. Compared with publicly-traded corporations as a whole, these are high-profit and high-invewtment industries. (At least when R&D is included in investment — without it, things look different.) It’s not surprising that high levels of these two flows would go together — firms with higher fixed costs will only be viable if they generate larger cashflows to cover them.


But what stands out in this picture is how the trends in the corporate sector as a whole are even more visible in the tech industries. The gap between cashflow and investment is always positive here, and it grows dramatically larger after 1990. In 2014, cashflow from operations averaged 30 percent of sales in these industries, and reported profits averaged 12 percent of sales — more than double the figures for publicly traded corporations as a whole. So to an even greater extent than corporations in general, the tech industries have increasingly been net sources of funds to the financial system, not net users of funds from it. Payouts in the tech industries have also increased even faster than for publicly traded corporations in general. Before 1985, shareholder payouts in the tech industries averaged 3.5 percent of sales, very close to the average for all corporations. But over the past decade, tech payouts have averaged  full 10 percent of annual sales, compared with just a bit over 5 percent for publicly-traded corporations as a whole.

In 2014, there were 15 corporations listed on US stock markets with total shareholder payouts of $10 billion or more, as shown in the table below. Ten of the 15 were tech companies, by the definition used here. Computer hardware and software are often held out as industries in which US capitalism, with its garish inequality and fierce protections of property rights, is especially successful at fostering innovation. So it’s striking that the leading firms in these industries are not recipients of funds from financial markets, but instead pay the biggest tributes to the lords of finance.

Dividends Repurchases Total Payouts
APPLE INC 11,215 45,000 56,215
EXXON MOBIL CORP 11,568 13,183 24,751
IBM 4,265 13,679 17,944
INTEL CORP 4,409 10,792 15,201
ROYAL DUTCH SHELL PLC 11,843 3,328 15,171
JOHNSON & JOHNSON 7,768 7,124 14,892
NOVARTIS AG 6,810 6,915 13,725
CISCO SYSTEMS INC 3,758 9,843 13,601
MERCK & CO 5,156 7,703 12,859
CHEVRON CORP 7,928 4,412 12,340
PFIZER INC 6,691 5,000 11,691
AT&T INC 9,629 1,617 11,246
BP PLC 5,852 4,589 10,441
ORACLE CORP 2,255 8,087 10,342
GENERAL ELECTRIC CO 8,949 1,218 10,167

2014. Values in millions of dollars. Tech firms in bold.

It’s hard to argue that Apple and Merck represent mature industries without significant growth prospects. And note that, apart from GE  (which is not listed in the  the high-tech sector as defined here, but perhaps should be), all the other members of the $10 billion club are in the fast-growing oil industry. It’s hard to shake the feeling that what distinguishes high-payout corporations is not the absence of investment opportunities, but rather the presence of large monopoly rents.

Finally, let’s quickly look at the fossil-fuel industries. Up through the 1980s, the picture here is not too different from publicly-traded corporations in general, though with more variability — the collapse in fossil-fuel earnings and dividends in the 1970s is especially striking. But it’s interesting that, despite very high payouts in several big oil companies, there has been no increase in payouts for the sector in general. And in the most recent oil and gas boom, new investment has been running ahead of internal cashflow, making the sector a net recipient of funds from financial markets. (This trend seems to have intensified recently, as falling profits in the sector have not (yet) been accompanied with falling investment.)  So the capital-reallocation story has some prima facie plausibility as applied to the oil and gas boom.


In the next, and final, post in this series, I’ll try to explain why I don’t think it makes sense to think of shareholder payouts as a form of capital reallocation. My argument has two parts. First, I think these claims often rest on an implicit loanable-funds framework that is logically flawed. There is not a fixed stock of savings available for investment; rather, changes in investment result in changes in income that necessarily produce the required (dis)saving. So if payouts in one company boost investment in another, it cannot be by releasing real resources, but only by relieving liquidity constraints. And that’s the second part of my argument: While it is possible for higher payouts to result in greater liquidity, it is hard to see any plausible liquidity channel by which more than a small fraction of today’s payouts could be translated into higher investment elsewhere.

Finally, here are the same graphs as above but with investment counted as it is businesses’ own financial statements, with R&D spending counted as current costs. The most notable difference is the strong downward trend in tech-sector investment when R&D is excluded.