Thoughts and Links for December 21, 2016

Aviation in the 21st century. I’m typing this sitting on a plane, en route to LA. The plane is a Boeing 737-800. The 737 is the best-selling commercial airliner on earth; reading its Wikipedia page should raise some serious doubts about the idea that we live in an era of accelerating technological change. I’m not sure how old the plane I’m sitting on is, but it could be 15 years; the 800-series was introduced in its present form in the late 1990s. With airplanes, unlike smartphones, a 20-year old machine is not dramatically — is not even noticeably — different from the latest version. The basic 737 model was first introduced in 1967. There have been upgrades since then, but to my far from expert eyes it’s striking how little changed tin 50 years. The original 737 carried 120 passengers, at speeds of 800 km/h on trips of up to 3,000 km, using 6 liters of fuel per kilometer; this model carries 160 passengers (it’s longer) at speeds of 840 km/h on trips of 5,500 km, using 5 liters of fuel per kilometer. Better, sure, but probably the main difference you’d actually notice from a flight 50 years ago is purely social: no smoking. In any case it’s pretty meager compared that with the change from 50 years earlier, when commercial air travel didn’t exist. The singularity is over; it happened on or about December 1910.

 

Unnatural rates. Here’s an interesting post on the New York Fed’s Liberty Street blog challenging the ideas of “natural rates” of interest and unemployment. good: These ideas, it seems to me, are among the biggest obstacles to thinking constructively about macroeconomic policy. Obviously it’s example of, well, naturalizing economic outcomes, and in particular it’s the key ideological element in presenting the planning by the central bank as simply reproducing the natural state of the economy. But more specifically, it’s one of the most important ways that economists paper over the disconnect between the the economic-theory world of rational exchange, and the real world of monetary production. Without the natural rate, it would be much hard to  pretend that the sort of models academic economists develop at their day jobs, have any connection to the real-world problems the rest of the world expects economists to solve. Good to see, then, some economists at the Fed acknowledging that the natural rate concepts (and its relatives like the natural rate of unemployment) is vacuous, for two related reasons. First, the interest rate that will bring output to potential depends on a whole range of contingent factors, including other policy choices and the current level of output; and second, that potential output itself depends on the path of demand. Neither potential output nor the natural rate reflects some deep, structural parameters. They conclude:

the risks associated with monetary easing are asymmetric. That is, excessive easing can be reversed, but excessive tightening may cause irreversible damage to the economy’s potential output.

In the research described in this blog, we focus on the effect of recessions on human capital. Recessions may affect potential output through other channels as well, such as lower capital accumulation, lower labor force participation, slow productivity growth, and so forth. Our research would suggest that to the extent that these mechanisms are operative, a monetary policy that seeks to track measured natural rates—of unemployment, interest rates, and so forth—might be insufficiently accommodative to engineer a full and quick recovery after a large recession. Such policies fall short because in a world with hysteresis, “natural” rates are endogenous. Policy should set these rates, not track them.

Also on a personal level, it’s nice to see that the phrases “potential output,” “other channels,” “lower labor force particiaption,” and “slow productivity growth” all link back to posts on this very blog. Maybe someone is listening.

 

More me being listened to: Here is a short interview I did with KCBS radio in the Bay area, on what’s wrong with economics. And here is a nice writeup by Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing of “Disgorge the Cash,” my Roosevelt paper on shareholder payouts and investment.

 

Still disgorging. Speaking of that: There were two new working papers out from the NBER last week on corporate finance, governance and investment. I’ve only glanced at them (end of semester crunch) but they both look like important steps forward for the larger disgorge the cash/short-termism argument. Here are the abstracts:

Lee, Shin and Stultz – Why Does Capital No Longer Flow More to the Industries with the Best Growth Opportunities?

With functionally efficient capital markets, we expect capital to flow more to the industries with the best growth opportunities. As a result, these industries should invest more and see their assets grow more relative to industries with the worst growth opportunities. We find that industries that receive more funds have a higher industry Tobin’s q until the mid-1990s, but not since then. Since industries with a higher funding rate grow more, there is a negative correlation not only between an industry’s funding rate and industry q but also between capital expenditures and industry q since the mid-1990s. We show that capital no longer flows more to the industries with the best growth opportunities because, since the middle of the 1990s, firms in high q industries increasingly repurchase shares rather than raise more funding from the capital markets.

And:

Gutierrez and Philippon – Investment-less Growth: An Empirical Investigation

We analyze private fixed investment in the U.S. over the past 30 years. We show that investment is weak relative to measures of profitability and valuation… We use industry-level and firm-level data to test whether under-investment relative to Q is driven by (i) financial frictions, (ii) measurement error (due to the rise of intangibles, globalization, etc), (iii) decreased competition (due to technology or regulation), or (iv) tightened governance and/or increased short-termism. We do not find support for theories based on risk premia, financial constraints, or safe asset scarcity, and only weak support for regulatory constraints. Globalization and intangibles explain some of the trends at the industry level, but their explanatory power is quantitatively limited. On the other hand, we find fairly strong support for the competition and short-termism/governance hypotheses. Industries with less entry and more concentration invest less, even after controlling for current market conditions. Within each industry-year, the investment gap is driven by firms that are owned by quasi-indexers and located in industries with less entry/more concentration. These firms spend a disproportionate amount of free cash flows buying back their shares.

I’m especially glad to see Philippon taking this question up. His Has Finance Become Less Efficient is kind of a classic, and in general he somehow seems to manages to be both a big-time mainstream finance guy and closely attuned to observable reality.  A full post on the two NBER papers soon, hopefully, once I’ve had time to read them properly.

 

 

“Sets” how, exactly? Here’s a super helpful piece  from the Bank of France on the changing mechanisms through which central banks — the Fed in particular — conduct monetary policy. It’s the first one in this collection — “Exiting low interest rates in a situation of excess liquidity: the experience of the Fed.” Textbooks tell us blandly that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” This ignores the fact that there are many interest rates in the economy, not all of which move with the central bank’s policy rate. It also ignores the concrete tools the central bank uses to set the policy rate, which are not trivial or transparent, and which periodically have to adapt to changes in the financial system. Post-2008 we’ve seen another of these adaptations. The BoF piece is one of the clearest guides I’ve seen to the new dispensation; I found it especially clarifying on the role of reverse repos. You could probably use it with advanced undergraduates.

Zoltan Pozsar’s discussion of the same issues is also very good — it adds more context but is a bit harder to follow than the BdF piece.

 

When he’s right, he’s right. I have my disagreements with Brad DeLong (doesn’t everyone?), but a lot of his recent stuff has been very good. Here are a couple of his recent posts that I’ve particularly liked. First, on “structural reform”:

The worst possible “structural reform” program is one that moves a worker from a low productivity job into unemployment, where they then lose their weak tie social network that allows them to get new jobs. … “Structural reforms” are extremely dangerous unless you have a high-pressure economy to pull resources out of low productivity into high productivity sectors.

The view in the high councils of Europe is that, when there is a high-pressure economy, politicians will not press for “structural reform”: there is no obvious need, and so why rock the boat? Politicians kick every can they can down the road, and you can only try “structural reform” when unemployment is high–and thus when it is likely to be ineffective if not destructive.

This gets both the substance and the politics right, I think. Although one might add that structural reform also often means reducing wages and worker power in high productivity sectors as well.

Second, criticizing Yellen’s opposition to more expansionary policy,which she says is no longer needed to get the economy back to full employment.

If the Federal Reserve wants to have the ammunition to fight the next recession when it happens, it needs the short-term safe nominal interest rate to be 5% or more when the recession hits. I believe that is very unlikely to happen without substantial fiscal expansion. … In the world that Janet Yellen sees, “fiscal policy is not needed to provide stimulus to get us back to full employment.” But fiscal stimulus is needed to create a situation in which full employment can be maintained…. if we do not shift to a more expansionary fiscal policy–and the higher neutral rate of interest that it brings–now, what do we envision will happen when the next recession arrives?

This is the central point of my WCEG working paper — that output is jointly determined by the interest rate and the fiscal balance, so the “natural rate” depends on the current stance of fiscal policy.  Plus the argument that, in a world where the zero lower bound is a potential constraint — or more broadly, where the expansionary effects of monetary policy are limited — what is sometimes called “crowding out” is a feature, not a bug. Totally right, but there’s one more step I wish DeLong would take. He writes a lot, and it’s quite possible I’ve missed it, but has he ever followed this argument to its next logical step and concluded that the fiscal surpluses of the 1990s were, in retrospect, a bad idea?

 

Farmer on government debt. Also on government budgets, here are some sensible observations on the UK’s, from Roger Farmer. First, the British public deficit is not especially high by historical standards; second, past reductions in debt-GDP ratios were achieved by growth raising the denominator, not surpluses reducing the numerator; and third, there is nothing particularly desirable about balanced budgets or lower debt ratios in principle. Anyone reading this blog has probably heard these arguments a thousand times, but it’s nice to get them from someone other than the usual suspects.

 

Deviation and trend. I was struck by this slide from the BIS. The content is familiar;  what’s interesting is that they take the deviation of GDP from the pre-criss trend as straightforward evidence of the costs of the crisis, and not a demographic-technological inevitability.

 

Cap and dividend. In Jacobin, James Boyce and Mark Paul make the case for carbon permits. I used to take the conventional view on carbon pricing — that taxes and permits were equivalent in principle, and that taxes were likely to work better in practice. But Boyce’s work on this has convinced me that there’s a strong case for preferring dividends. A critical part of his argument is that the permits don’t have to be tradable — short-term, non transferrable permits avoid a lot of the problems with “cap and trade” schemes.

 

 

Why teach the worst? In a post at Developing Economics, New School grad student Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven forthrightly makes the case for teaching “the worst of mainstream economics” to non-economists. As it happens, I don’t agree with her arguments here. I don’t think there’s a hard tradeoff between teaching heterodox material we think is true, and teaching orthodox material students will need in future classes or work. I think that with some effort, it is possible to teach material that is both genuinely useful and meaningful, and that will serve students well in future economics class. And except for students getting a PhD in economics themselves — and maybe not even them — I don’t think “learning to critique mainstream theories” is a very pressing need. But I like the post anyway. The important thing is that all of us — especially on the heterodox side — need to think more of teaching not as an unfortunate distraction, but as a core part of our work as economists. She takes teaching seriously, that’s the important thing.

 

 

Apple in the balance of payments. From Brad Setser, here’s a very nice example of critical reading of the national accounts. Perhaps even more than in other areas of accounts, the classification of different payments in the balance of payments is more or less arbitrary, contested, and frequently changed. It’s also shaped more directly by private interests — capital flight, tax avoidance and so on often involve moving cross-border payments from one part of the BoP to another. So we need to be even more scrupulously attentive with BoP statistics than with others to how concrete social reality gets reflected in the official numbers. The particular reality Setser is interested in is Apple’s research and development spending in the US, which ought to show up in the BoP as US service exports. But hardly any of it does, because — as he shows — Apple arranges for almost all its IP income to show up in low-tax Ireland instead. To me, the fundamental lesson here is about the relation between statistical map and economic territory. But as Setser notes, there’s also a more immediate policy implication:

Trade theory says that if the winners from globalization compensate the losers from globalization, everyone is better off. But I am not quite sure how that is supposed to happen if the winners are in some significant part able to structure their affairs so that a large share of their income is globally (almost) untaxed.

 

Links for October 6

More methodenstreit. I finally read the Romer piece on the trouble with macro. Some good stuff in there. I’m glad to see someone of his stature making the  point that the Solow residual is simply the part of output growth that is not explained by a production function. It has no business being dressed up as “total factor productivity” and treated as a real thing in the world. Probably the most interesting part of the piece was the discussion of identification, though I’m not sure how much it supports his larger argument about macro.  The impossibility of extracting causal relationships from statistical data would seem to strengthen the argument for sticking with strong theoretical priors. And I found it a bit odd that his modus ponens for reality-based macro was accepting that the Fed brought down output and (eventually) inflation in the early 1980s by reducing the money supply — the mechanisms and efficacy of conventional monetary policy are not exactly settled questions. (Funnily enough, Krugman’s companion piece makes just the opposite accusation of orthodoxy — that they assumed an increase in the money supply would raise inflation.) Unlike Brian Romanchuk, I think Romer has some real insights into the methodology of economics. There’s also of course some broadsides against the policy  views of various rightwing economists. I’m sympathetic to both parts but not sure they don’t add up to less than their sum.

David Glasner’s interesting comment on Romer makes in passing a point that’s bugged me for years — that you can’t talk about transitions from one intertemporal equilibrium to another, there’s only the one. Or equivalently, you can’t have a model with rational expectations and then talk about what happens if there’s a “shock.” To say there is a shock in one period, is just to say that expectations in the previous period were wrong. Glasner:

the Lucas Critique applies even to micro-founded models, those models being strictly valid only in equilibrium settings and being unable to predict the adjustment of economies in the transition between equilibrium states. All models are subject to the Lucas Critique.

Here’s another take on the state of macro, from the estimable Marc Lavoie. I have to admit, I don’t care for way it’s framed around “the crisis”. It’s not like DSGE models were any more useful before 2008.

Steve Keen has his own view of where macro should go. I almost gave up on reading this piece, given Forbes’ decision to ban on adblockers (Ghostery reports 48 different trackers in their “ad-light” site) and to split the article up over six pages. But I persevered and … I’m afraid I don’t see any value in what Keen proposes. Perhaps I’ll leave it at that. Roger Farmer doesn’t see the value either.

In my opinion, the way forward, certainly for people like me — or, dear reader, like you — who have zero influence on the direction of the economics profession, is to forget about finding the right model for “the economy” in the abstract, and focus more on quantitative description of concrete historical developments. I expressed this opinion in a bunch of tweets, storified here.

 

The Gosplan of capitalism. Schumpeter described banks as capitalism’s equivalent of the Soviet planning agency — a bank loan can be thought of as an order allocating part of society’s collective resources to a particular project.  This applies even more to the central banks that set the overall terms of bank lending, but this conscious direction of the economy has been hidden behind layers of ideological obfuscation about the natural rate, policy rules and so on. As DeLong says, central banks are central planners that dare not speak their name. This silence is getting harder to maintain, though. Every day there seems to be a new news story about central banks intervening in some new credit market or administering some new price. Via Ben Bernanke, here is the Bank of Japan announcing it will start targeting the yield of 10-year Japanese government bonds, instead of limiting itself to the very short end where central banks have traditionally operated. (Although as he notes, they “muddle the message somewhat” by also announcing quantities of bonds to be purchased.)  Bernanke adds:

there is a U.S. precedent for the BOJ’s new strategy: The Federal Reserve targeted long-term yields during and immediately after World War II, in an effort to hold down the costs of war finance.

And in the FT, here is the Bank of England announcing it will begin buying corporate bonds, an unambiguous step toward direct allocation of credit:

The bank will conduct three “reverse auctions” this week, each aimed at buying the bonds from particular sectors. Tuesday’s auction focuses on utilities and industries. Individual companies include automaker Rolls-Royce, oil major Royal Dutch Shell and utilities such as Thames Water.

 

Inflation or socialism. That interventions taken in the heat of a crisis to stabilize financial markets can end up being steps toward “a more or less comprehensive socialization of investment,” may be more visible to libertarians, who are inclined to see central banks as a kind of socialism already. At any rate, Scott Sumner has been making some provocative posts lately about a choice between “inflation or socialism”. Personally I don’t have much use for NGDP targeting — Sumner’s idée fixe — or the analysis that underlies it, but I do think he is onto something important here. To translate the argument into Keynes’ terms, the problem is that the minimum return acceptable to wealth owners may be, under current conditions, too high to justify the level of investment consistent with the minimum level of growth and employment acceptable to the rest of society. Bridging this gap requires the state to increasingly take responsibility for investment, either directly or via credit policy. That’s the socialism horn of the dilemma. Or you can get inflation, which, in effect, forces wealthholders to accept a lower return; or put it more positively, as Sumner does, makes it more attractive to hold wealth in forms that finance productive investment.  The only hitch is that the wealthy — or at least their political representatives — seem to hate inflation even more than they hate socialism.

 

The corporate superorganism.  One more for the “finance-as-socialism” files. Here’s an interesting working paper from Jose Azar on the rise of cross-ownership of US corporations, thanks in part to index funds and other passive investment vehicles.

The probability that two randomly selected firms in the same industry from the S&P 1500 have a common shareholder with at least 5% stakes in both firms increased from less than 20% in 1999Q4 to around 90% in 2014Q4 (Figure 1).1 Thus, while there has been some degree of overlap for many decades, and overlap started increasing around 2000, the ubiquity of common ownership of large blocks of stock is a relatively recent phenomenon. The increase in common ownership coincided with the period of fastest growth in corporate profits and the fastest decline in the labor share since the end of World War II…

A common element of theories of the firm boundaries is that … either firms are separately owned, or they combine. In stock market economies, however, the forces of portfolio diversification lead to … blurring firm boundaries… In the limit, when all shareholders hold market portfolios, the ownership of the firms becomes exactly identical. From the point of view of the shareholders, these firms should act “in unison” to maximize the same objective function… In this situation the firms have in some sense become branches of a larger corporate superorganism.

The same assumptions that generate the “efficiency” of market outcomes imply that public ownership could be just as efficient — or more so in the case of monopolies.

The present paper provides a precise efficiency rationale for … consumer and employee representation at firms… Consumer and employee representation can reduce the markdown of wages relative to the marginal product of labor and therefore bring the economy closer to a competitive outcome. Moreover, this provides an efficiency rationale for wealth inequality reduction –reducing inequality makes control, ownership, consumption, and labor supply more aligned… In the limit, when agents are homogeneous and all firms are commonly owned, … stakeholder representation leads to a Pareto efficient outcome … even though there is no competition in the economy.

As Azar notes, cross-ownership of firms was a major concern for progressives in the early 20th century, expressed through things like the Pujo committee. But cross-ownership also has been a central theme of Marxists like Hilferding and Lenin. Azar’s “corporate superorganism” is basically Hilferding’s finance capital, with index funds playing the role of big banks. The logic runs the same way today as 100 years ago. If production is already organized as a collective enterprise run by professional managers in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole, why can’t it just as easily be managed in a broader social interest?

 

Global pivot? Gavyn Davies suggests that there has been a global turn toward more expansionary fiscal policy, with the average rich country fiscal balances shifting about 1.5 points toward deficit between 2013 and 2016. As he says,

This seems an obvious path at a time when governments can finance public investment programmes at less than zero real rates of interest. Even those who believe that government programmes tend to be inefficient and wasteful would have a hard time arguing that the real returns on public transport, housing, health and education are actually negative.

I don’t know about that last bit, though — they don’t seem to find it that hard.

 

Taylor rule toy. The Atlanta Fed has a cool new gadget that lets you calculate the interest rate under various versions of the Taylor Rule. It will definitely be useful in the classroom. Besides the obvious pedagogical value, it also dramatizes a larger point — that macroeconomic variables like “inflation” aren’t objects simply existing in the world, but depend on all kinds of non-obvious choices about measurement and definition.

 

The new royalists. DeLong summarizes the current debates about monetary policy:

1. Do we accept economic performance that all of our predecessors would have characterized as grossly subpar—having assigned the Federal Reserve and other independent central banks a mission and then kept from them the policy tools they need to successfully accomplish it?

2. Do we return the task of managing the business cycle to the political branches of government—so that they don’t just occasionally joggle the elbows of the technocratic professionals but actually take on a co-leading or a leading role?

3. Or do we extend the Federal Reserve’s toolkit in a structured way to give it the tools it needs?

This is a useful framework, as is the discussion that precedes it. But what jumped out to me is how he reflexively rejects option two. When it comes to the core questions of economic policy — growth, employment, the competing claims of labor and capital — the democratically accountable, branches of government must play no role. This is all the more striking given his frank assessment of the performance of the technocrats who have been running the show for the past 30 years: “they—or, rather, we, for I am certainly one of the mainstream economists in the roughly consensus—were very, tragically, dismally and grossly wrong.”

I think the idea that monetary policy is a matter of neutral, technical expertise was always a dodge, a cover for class interests. The cover has gotten threadbare in the past decade, as the range and visibility of central bank interventions has grown. But it’s striking how many people still seem to believe in a kind of constitutional monarchy when it comes to central banks. They can see people who call for epistocracy — rule by knowers — rather than democracy as slightly sinister clowns (which they are). And they can simultaneously see central bank independence as essential to good government, without feeling any cognitive dissonance.

 

Did extending unemployment insurance reduce employment? Arin Dube, Ethan Kaplan, Chris Boone and Lucas Goodman have a new paper on “Unemployment Insurance Generosity and Aggregate Employment.” From the abstract:

We estimate the impact of unemployment insurance (UI) extensions on aggregate employment during the Great Recession. Using a border discontinuity design, we compare employment dynamics in border counties of states with longer maximum UI benefit duration to contiguous counties in states with shorter durations between 2007 and 2014. … We find no statistically significant impact of increasing unemployment insurance generosity on aggregate employment. … Our point estimates vary in sign, but are uniformly small in magnitude and most are estimated with sufficient precision to rule out substantial impacts of the policy…. We can reject negative impacts on the employment-to-population ratio … in excess of 0.5 percentage points from the policy expansion.

Media advisory with synopsis is here.

 

On other blogs, other wonders

Larry Summers: Low laborforce participation is mainly about weak demand, not demographics or other supply-side factors.

Nancy Folbre on Greg Mankiw’s claims that the one percent deserves whatever it gets.

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin makes some familiar — but correct and important! — points about privatization of public services.

In the Baffler, Sam Kriss has some fun with the new atheists. I hadn’t encountered Kierkegaard’s parable of the madman who tells everyone who will listen “the world is round!” but it fits perfectly.

A valuable article in the Washington Post on cobalt mining in Africa. Tracing out commodity chains is something we really need more of.

Buzzfeed on Blue Apron. The reality of the robot future is often, as here, just that production has been reorganized to make workers less visible.

At Vox, Rachelle Sampson has a piece on corporate short-termism. Supports my sense that this is an area where there may be space to move left in a Clinton administration.

Sven Beckert has edited a new collection of essays on the relationship between slavery and the development of American capitalism. Should be worth looking at — his Empire of Cotton is magnificent.

At Dissent, here’s an interesting review of Jefferson Cowie’s and Robert Gordon’s very different but complementary books on the decline of American growth.

Links for April 12

Maybe I should aspire to do a links post like this once a week. Today is Tuesday; is Tuesday a good day? Or would it be better to break a post like this into half a dozen short ones, and put them up one at a time?

Anyway, some links and thoughts:

 

Public debt in the 21st century. Here is a very nice piece by DeLong, arguing that over the next 50 years, rich countries should see a higher level of public expenditure, and a higher level of public debt, and that even much higher debt ratios don’t have any important economic costs. There’s no shortage of people making this general case, but this is one of the better versions I’ve seen.

The point that the “sustainability” of a given deficit depends on the relation between interest rates and growth rates has of course been made plenty of times, by people like Jamie Galbraith and Scott Fullwiler. But there’s another important point in the DeLong piece, which is that technological developments — the prevalence of increasing returns, the importance of information and other non-rival goods, and in general the development of what Marx called the “cooperative form of the labour process” — makes the commodity form  less and less suitable for organizing productive activity. DeLong sees this as an argument for a secular shift toward government as opposed to markets as our central “societal coordinating mechanism” (and he says “Smithian market” rather than commodity form). But fundamentally this is the same argument that Marx makes for the ultimate supercession of capitalism in the penultimate chapter of Capital.

 

Short-termism at the BIS. Via Enno Schroeder, here’s a speech by Hyun Song Shin of the BIS, on the importance of bank capital. The most interesting thing for my purposes is how he describes the short-termism problem for banks:

Let me now come back to the question as to why banks have been so reluctant to plough back their profits into their own funds. … we may ask whether there are possible tensions between the private interests of some bank stakeholders versus the wider public interest of maintaining a soundly functioning banking system… shareholders may feel they can unlock some value from their shareholding by paying themselves a cash dividend, even at the expense of eroding the bank’s lending base.

As many of the shareholders are asset managers who place great weight on short-term relative performance in competition against their peers, the temptation to raid the bank’s seed corn may become too strong to resist. … These private motives are reasonable and readily understandable, but if the outcome is to erode capital that serves as the bank’s foundation for lending for the real economy, then a gap may open up between the private interests of some bank stakeholders and the broader public interest.

Obviously, this is very similar to the argument I’ve been making for the corporate sector in general. I especially like the focus on asset managers — this is an aspect of the short-termism story that hasn’t gotten enough attention so far. People talk about principal-agent problems here in terms of management as agents and shareholders as principals; but only a trivial fraction of shares are directly controlled by the ultimate owners, so there are plenty of principal-agent problems in the financial sector itself. When asset managers’ performance is evaluated every year or two — not to mention the performance of the individual employees — the effective investment horizon is going to be short, and the discount rate correspondingly high, regardless of the preferences of the ultimate owners.

I also like his diplomatic rejection of a loanable-funds framework as a useful way of thinking about bank lending, and his suggestion that the monetary-policy and supervisory functions of a central bank are not really distinct in practice. (I touched on this idea here.) The obligatory editorializing against negative rates not so much, but I guess it comes with the territory.

 

Market failure and government failure in the euro crisis. This piece by Peter Bofinger gets at some of the contradictions in mainstream debates around the euro crisis, and in particular in the idea that financial markets can or should “discipline” national governments. My favorite bit is this quote from the German Council of Economic Experts:

Since flows of capital as well as goods and services are market outcomes, we would not implicate the ‘intra-Eurozone capital flows that emerged in the decade before the crisis’ as the ‘real culprits’ …Hence, it is the government failures and the failures in regulation … that should take centre-stage in the Crisis narrative.

Well ok then!

 

Visualizing the yield curve. This is a very nice visualization of the yield curve for Treasury bonds since 1999. Two key Keynesian points come through clearly: First, that the short-term rate set by policy has quite limited purchase on the longer term market rates. This is especially striking in the 2000s as the 20- and 30-year rates barely budget from 5% even as the short end swings wildly. But second, that if policy rates are held low enough long enough, they can eventually pull down market rates. The key Keynes texts are here and here; I have some thoughts here, developed further here.

 

Trade myths. Jim Tankersley has a useful rundown in the Washington Post on myths about trade and tariffs. I’m basically on board with it: You don’t have to buy into the idolatry of “free trade” to think that the economic benefits of tariffs for the US today would be minimal, especially compared with the costs they would impose elsewhere. But I wish he had not bought into another myth, that China is “manipulating” its exchange rate. Pegged exchange rates are in general accepted by orthodoxy; for much of modern history they were the norm. And even where exchange rates are not officially pegged or targeted, they are still influenced by all kinds of macroeconomic policy choices. It’s not controversial, for instance, to say that low interest rates in the US tend to reduce the value of the dollar, and thereby boost US net exports. Why isn’t that a form of currency manipulation? (To be fair, people occasionally suggest that it is.) I heard Joe Stiglitz put it well, at an event a year or two ago: There is no such thing as a free-market exchange rate, it’s just a question of whether our central bank sets it, or theirs does. And in any case, the Bank of China’s purchase of dollars has to be considered alongside China’s capital controls, which — given the demand of wealthy Chinese for dollar assets — tend to raise the value of the renminbi. On net, the effect of Chinese government interventions has probably been to keep the renminbi “artificially” high, not low. (As I’ve been saying for years.)

 

The politics of the minimum wage. Here is a nice piece by Stephanie Luce on the significance of New York’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15. Also in Jacobin, here’s Ted Fertik on why our horrible governor signed onto this and the arguably even more radical paid family leave bill.

It would be a great project for some journalist — I don’t think it’s been done — to explore how, concretely, this was won — the way the target was decided, what the strategy was, who was mobilized, and how. In mainstream press accounts these kinds of reforms seem to spring fully formed from the desks of executives and legislators, midwifed by some suitably credentialed experts. But when you dig beneath the surface there’s almost always been years of grassroots organizing before something like this bears fruit. The groups that do that work tend to avoid the press, I think for good reasons; but at some point it’s important to share with a wider public how the sausage got made. My impression in this case is that the key organizing work was done by Make the Road, but I’d love to see the story told properly. I haven’t yet read my friend Mark Engler’s new book, This Is an Uprising, but I think it has some good analysis of other similar campaigns.

Links for March 25

Some links, on short-termism, trade, the Fed and other things.

Senators Tammy Baldwin and Jeff Merkley have introduced a bill to limit activist investors’ ability to push for higher payouts. The bill, which is cosponsored by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, would strengthen the 13D disclosure requirements for hedge funds and others acquiring large positions in a corporation. This is obviously just one piece of a larger agenda, but it’s good to see the “short-termism’ conversation leading to concrete proposals.

I’m pleased to be listed as one of the supporters of the bill, but I think the strongest endorsement is this furious reaction from a couple of hedge fund dudes. It’s funny how they take it for granted that shareholder democracy is on the same plane as democracy democracy, but my favorite bit is, “Shareholders do not cause bad management, just as voters do not cause bad politicians.” This sounds to me like an admission that shareholders are functionless parasites — if they aren’t responsible for the quality of management, what are we paying them all those dividends for?

I wrote a twitter essay on why the US shouldn’t seek a more favorable trade balance.

Jordan Weissman thinks I was “a bit ungenerous” to Trump.

My Roosevelt Institute colleague Carola Blinder testified recently on reform of the Fed, making the critical point that we need to take monetary policy seriously as a political question. “Contrary to conventional thinking, the rules of central banking are not neutral: Both monetary policy and financial supervision have profound effects on income and wealth inequality … [and] are the product of political contestation and compromise.” Relatedly, Mark Thoma suggests that the Fed “cares more about the interests of the rich and powerful than it does the working class”; his solution, as far as I can tell, is to hope that it doesn’t.

Matt Bruenig has a useful post on employment by age group in the US v the Nordic countries. As he shows, the fraction of people 25-60 working there is much higher than the fraction here (though workers here put in more hours). This has obvious relevance for the arguments of the No We Can’t caucus that there’s no room for more stimulus, because demographics.

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 10.14.36 AM

A reminder: “Ricardian equivalence” (debt and tax finance of government spending have identical effects on private behavior) was explicitly denied by David Ricardo, and the “Fisher effect” (persistent changes in inflation lead to equal movements of nominal interest rates, leaving real rates unchanged) was explicitly denied by Irving Fisher. One nice thing about this piece is it looks at how textbooks describe the relationship between the idea and its namesake. Interesting, Mankiw gets Fisher right, while Delong and Olney get him wrong: They falsely attribute to him the orthodox view that nominal interest rates track inflation one for one, when in fact he argued that even persistent changes in inflation are mostly not passed on to nominal rates.

Here is a fascinating review of some recent books on the Cold War conflicts in Angola. One thing the review brings out was how critical the support of Cuba was to South Africa’s defeat there, and how critical that defeat in turn was to the end of apartheid. We tend to take it for granted that history had to turn out as it did, but it’s worth asking if, in the absence of Castro’s commitment to Angola, white rule in South Africa might have ended much later, or not at all.

 

“Brazil in Drag”: Hyman Minsky on Donald Trump

Via Nathan Cedric Tankus, here is a recent JPKE article by Kevin Capehart on a 1990 lecture by Minsky that uses Trump as a case study of asset market bubbles in the 1980s. The lecture is fascinating, and not just as an odd historical artifact.

Here is what Minsky says about Trump:

One of the puzzles of the 1980s was the rapid rise in the financial wealth of Donald Trump, author of The Art of the Deal… Trump’s fortune was made in real estate. Many large fortunes have been made in real estate, since real estate is highly leveraged. Two factors made Trump somewhat unique — one was the he developed a fortune in the period of high real interest rates, and the second was that the cash flows on most of Trump’s properties were negative.

Trump’s wealth surged because the market value of his properties — or at least the appraised value — was increasing faster than the interest rate. Trump obtained the funds to pay the interest on his outstanding loans by increasing the draw under what in effect was a home equity credit line. The efficiency with which Trump managed these properties was more or less irrelevant — hence Trump could acquire the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City without much concern about the impacts on the profits of the two casinos he already owned. Trump was golden — he had a magic touch — as long as property prices were increasing at a more rapid rate than the interest rate on the borrowed funds.

The puzzle is that the lenders failed to recognize that the arithmetic of his cash flows was virtually identical with that of the developing countries [discussed earlier in the lecture]; in effect Trump was Brazil in drag. In the short run Trump could make his interest payments with funds from new loans — but when the increase in property prices declined to a value below the interest rate, Trump would become short of the cash necessary to pay the interest on the outstanding loans.

The increase in U.S. real estate prices in the 1980s was regional, and concentrated in the Northeast and in coastal California. … Real estate prices dipped in the oil patch, climbed modestly in the rust belt, and surged in those areas that benefitted from the rapid increases in incomes in banking and financial services — sort of a derived demand from the financial success of Drexel Burnham. In effect, those individuals with high incomes in financial services — and with the prospect of sharp increase in incomes — set the pace for increases in real estate prices.

Trump’s cousins were alive and well and flourishing in Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul especially in the second half of the 1980s. The prices of equities and real estate were increasing because they were increasing…

In any market economy the price of real estate will tend to reflect both its rental return and the rate of return on the riskless bond. … The price of land rises and the price of land sometimes falls — the relevant question is whether the anticipated increase in the price of land is sufficiently higher than the interest rate on bonds to justify a riskier investment.

….

The key question is why so many varied bubbles developed in the last several decades. The most general answer is that sharp changes in inflation rates and interest rates led to extremely volatile movement in asset prices. And once these price movements begin, then on occasion momentum may develop and feed on itself — at least for a while.

So in Minsky’s version of The Art of the Deal, there are three things you need to get rich like Trump. First, be an investor in NYC and New Jersey real estate in a period when land prices are rising rapidly there relative to the rest of the country. Second, be highly leveraged. And third — and this is critical — convert your equity to cash as quickly as possible to protect yourself from the post-bubble fall in prices. Picking the right individual properties doesn’t matter so much, and managing the properties well doesn’t matter at all.

In this analysis, the repeated bankruptcies of Trump-controlled properties don’t undermine his claims of business success, nor are they just an incidental footnote to it; they are an integral part of how he got so rich. Because the flipside of extracting cash from his properties through “what was in effect a home equity credit line” is that there was less equity left for the entity that actually owned them.

The trick to making money in an asset bubble is to cash out before it pops. Doing this by selling at the peak is hard; you have to time it just right. It’s easier and much more reliable to cash out the capital gains as they accrue; that just requires some way of moving them to a different legal entity. The precedent for Trump, in this reading, would be the utility holding companies that played such a big part in the stock market boom of the 1920s and were such a big target for regulation in the 1930s. Another parallel would be today’s private equity funds. To the extent that the funds cash out via so-called “dividend recapitalization” (special dividends paid by the acquired company to the PE fund) rather than eventual resale, an acquired company that doesn’t end in bankruptcy is money left on the table. It’s interesting, in this context, to think about Romney and Trump as successive Republican nominees: They may embody different cultural stereotypes (prissy Mormon patriarch vs womanizing New York vulgarian) but fundamentally they are in the same business of financial value extraction.

Links for March 14

A few things elsewhere on the web, relevant to recent conversations here.

1. Michael Reich and his colleagues at the Berkeley Center for Labor Research have a new report out on the impacts of a $15 minimum wage in New York. It does something I wish all studies of the minimum wage and employment would do: It explicitly decomposes the employment impact into labor productivity, price, demand and labor share effects. Besides being useful for policy, this links nicely to the macro discussion of alternative Phillips curves.

2. I like Susan Schroeder’s idea of creating a public credit-rating agency. It’s always interesting how the need to deal with immediate crises and dysfunctions creates pressure to socialize various aspects of the financial system. The most dramatic recent example was back in the fall of 2008, when the Fed began lending directly to anyone who needed to roll over commercial paper; but you can think of lots of examples, including QE itself, which involves the central bank taking over part of banks’ core function of maturity transformation.

3. On the subject of big business’s tendency to socialize itself, I should have linked earlier to Noah Smith’s discussion of “new industrialism” (including my work for the Roosevelt Institute) as the next big thing in economic policy. Eric Ries’ proposal for creating a new, nontransferable form of stock ownership reminded me of this bit from Keynes: “The spectacle of modern investment markets has sometimes moved me towards the conclusion that  the purchase of an investment [should be] permanent and indissoluble, like marriage, except by reason of death or other grave cause… For this would force the investor to direct his mind to the long-term prospects and to those only.”

4. In comments to my recent post on the balance of payments, Ramanan points to a post of his, making the same point, more clearly than I managed to. Also worth reading is the old BIS report he links to, which explicitly distinguishes between autonomous and accommodative financial flows. Kostas Kalaveras also had a very nice post on this topic a while ago, noting that in Europe TARGET2 balances function as a buffer allowing private financial flows and current account balances to move independently from each other.

5. I’m teaching intermediate macroeconomics here at John Jay, as I do most semesters, and I’ve put some new notes I’m using up on the teaching page of this website. It’s probably mostly of interest to people who teach this stuff themselves, but I did want to call attention to the varieties of business cycles handout, which is somewhat relevant to current debates. It’s also an example of how I try to teach macro — focus on causal relationships between observable aggregates, rather than formal models based on equilibrium conditions.

New Papers at the Roosevelt Institute

There are two new papers up at the Roosevelt Institute, building on my Disgorge the Cash paper from last spring. The first, analytic, paper, written by me, attempts to respond to some of the most common criticisms of the idea that shareholders’ lust for payouts is holding back business investment — that investment is doing just fine actually; that payouts are just reallocating capital to its most socially valuable uses; and that  there’s no legitimate grounds to challenge shareholder rule over corporations. The second paper, written by Mike Konczal, me, and my former student Amanda Page-Hongrajook, lays out a policy agenda, in the canonical ten points, for rolling back the shareholder revolution.

We released the reports at an event in DC last week with Mike, me, Lynn Stout, and Heather Slavkin of the AFL-CIO, headlined by Senator Tammy Baldwin. Based on my brief conversation with her, Senator Baldwin seems genuinely interested in this stuff. So hopefully, if nothing else, we’ll be able to continue pestering the SEC about shareholder payouts.

There was a nice writeup of the analytic paper by Jeff Spross at The Week; there were also pieces in the Huffington Post and at Bloomberg View. I was on NPR’s Marketplace, very briefly, off this stuff this morning; I’ll be on Bloomberg TV Wednesday afternoon, hopefully for longer.

“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.

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.

all_broad

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.

tech_broad

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.

oil_broad

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.

all_narrowtech_narrowoil_narrow

 

 

 

 

Is Capital Being Reallocated to High-Tech Industries?

Readers of this blog are familiar with the “short-termism” position: Because of the rise in shareholder power, the marginal use of funds for many corporations is no longer fixed investment, but increased payouts in the form of dividends and sharebuybacks. We’re already seeing some backlash against this view; I expect we’ll be seeing lots more.

The claim on the other side is that increased payouts from established corporations are nothing to worry about, because they increase the funds available to newer firms and sectors. We are trying to explore the evidence on this empirically. In a previous post, I asked if the shareholder revolution had been followed by an increase in the share of smaller, newer firms. I concluded that it didn’t look like it. Now, in this post and the following one, we’ll look at things by industry.

In that earlier post, I focused on publicly traded corporations. I know some people don’t like this — new companies, after all, aren’t going to be publicly traded. Of course in an ideal world we would not limit this kind of analysis to public traded firms. But for the moment, this is where the data is; by their nature, publicly traded corporations are much more transparent than other kinds of businesses, so for a lot of questions that’s where you have to go. (Maybe one day I’ll get funding to purchase access to firm-level financial data for nontraded firms; but even then I doubt it would be possible to do the sort of historical analysis I’m interested in.) Anyway, it seems unlikely that the behavior of privately held corporations is radically different from publicly traded one; I have a hard time imagining a set of institutions that reliably channel funds to smaller, newer firms but stop working entirely as soon as they are listed on a stock market. And I’m getting a bit impatient with people who seem to use the possibility that things might look totally different in the part of the economy that’s hard to see, as an excuse for ignoring what’s happening in the parts we do see.

Besides, the magnitudes don’t work. Publicly traded corporations continue to account for the bulk of economic activity in the US. For example, we can compare the total assets of the nonfinancial corporate sector, including closely held corporations, with the total assets of publicly traded firms listed in the Compustat database. Over the past decade, the latter number is consistently around 90 percent of the former. Other comparisons will give somewhat different values, but no matter how you measure, the majority of corporations in the US are going to be publicly traded. Anyway, for better or worse, I’m again looking at publicly-traded firms here.

In the simplest version of the capital-reallocation story, payouts from old, declining industries are, thanks to the magic of the capital markets, used to fund investment in new, technology-intensive industries. So the obvious question is, has there in fact been a shift in investment from the old smokestack industries to the newer high-tech ones?

One problem is defining investment. The accounting rules followed by American businesses generally allow an expense to be capitalized only when it is associated with a tangible asset. R&D spending, in particular, must be treated as a current cost. The BEA, however, has since 2013 treated R&D spending, along with other forms of intellectual property production, as a form of investment. R&D does have investment-like properties; arguably it’s the most relevant form of investment for some technology-intensive sectors. But the problem with redefining investment this way is that it creates inconsistencies with the data reported by individual companies, and with other aggregate data. For one thing, if R&D is capitalized rather than expensed, then profits have to be increased by the same amount. And then some assumptions have to be made about the depreciation rate of intellectual property, resulting in a pseudo asset in the aggregate statistics that is not reported on any company’s books. I’m not sure what the best solution is. [1]

Fortunately, companies do report R&D as a separate component of expenses, so it is possible to use either definition of investment with firm-level data from Compustat. The following figure shows the share of total corporate investment, under each definition, of a group of six high-tech industries: drugs; computers; communications equipment; medical equipment; scientific equipment other electronic goods; and software and data processing. [2]

hitech

As you can see, R&D spending is very important for these industries; for the past 20 years, it has consistently exceed investment spending as traditionally defined. Using the older, narrow definition, these industries account for no greater share of investment in the US than they did 50 years ago; with R&D included, their share of total investment has more than doubled. But both measures show the high-tech share of investment peaking in the late 1990s; for the past 15 years, it has steadily declined.

Obviously, this doesn’t tell us anything about why investment has stalled in these industries since the end of the tech boom. But it does at least suggest some problems with a simple story in which financial markets reallocate capital from old industries to newer ones.

The next figure breaks out the industries within the high-tech group. Here we’re looking at the broad measure of investment, which incudes R&D.

techsectors

As you can see, the decline in high-tech investment is consistent across the high-tech sectors. While the exact timing varies, in the 1980s and 1990s all of these sectors saw a rising share of investment; in the past 15 years, none have. [3]  So we can safely say: In the universe of publicly traded corporations, the sectors we think would benefit from reallocation of capital were indeed investing heavily in the decades before 2000; but since then, they have not been. The decline in investment spending in the pharmaceutical industry — which, again, includes R&D spending on new drugs — is especially striking.

Where has investment been growing, then? Here:

hitech_oil

The red lines show broad and narrow investment for oil and gas and related industries — SICs 101-138, 291-299, and 492. Either way you measure investment, the increase over the past 15 years has dwarfed that in any other industry. Note that oil and gas, unlike the high-tech industries, is less R&D-intensive than the corporate sector as a whole. Looking only at plant and equipment, fossil fuels account for 40 percent of total corporate investment; by this measure, in some recent years, investment here has exceeded that of all manufacturing together. With R&D included, by contrast, fossil fuels account for “only” a third of US investment.

In the next post, I’ll look at the other key financial flows — cashflow from operations, shareholder payouts, and borrowing — for the tech industries, compared with corporations in general. As we’ll see, while at one point payouts were lower in these industries than elsewhere, over the past 15 years they have increased even faster than for publicly traded corporations as a whole. In the meantime:

Very few of the people talking about the dynamic way American financial markets reallocate capital have, I suspect, a clear idea of the actual reallocation that is taking place. Save for another time the question of whether this huge growth in fossil fuel extraction is a good thing for the United States or the world. (Spoiler: It’s very bad.) I think it’s hard to argue with a straight face that shareholder payouts at Apple or GE are what’s funding fracking in North Dakota.

 

[1] This seems to be part of a larger phenomenon of the official statistical agencies being pulled into the orbit of economic theory and away from business accounting practices. It seems to me that allowing the official statistics to drift away from the statistics actually used by households and businesses creates all kinds of problems.

[2] Specifically, it is SICs 83, 357, 366, 367, 382, 384, and 737. I took this specific definition from Brown, Fazzari and Petersen. It seems to be standard in the literature.

[3] Since you are probably wondering: About two-thirds of that spike in software investment around 1970 is IBM, with Xerox and Unisys accounting for most of the rest.