One common narrative attached to the murky term financialization is that nonfinancial corporations have, in effect, turned themselves into banks or hedge funds — they have replaced investment in means of production with ownership of financial assets. Financial profits, in this story, have increasingly substituted for profits from making and selling stuff. I’m not sure where this idea originates — the epidemiology points toward my own homeland of UMass-Amherst — but it’s become almost accepted wisdom in left economics.
I’ve been skeptical of this story for a while, partly because it conflicts with my own vision of financialization as something done to nonfinancial corporations rather than by them — a point I’ll return to at the end of the post — and partly because I’ve never seen good evidence for it. On the cashflow side, it’s true there is a rise in interest income from the 1960s through the 1980s. But, as discussed in the previous post, this is outweighed by a rise in interest payments; it reflects a general rise in interest rates rather than a reorientation of corporate activity; and has subsequently been reversed. On the balance sheet side, there is indeed a secular rise in “financial” assets, but this is all in what the financial accounts call “unidentified” assets, which I’ve always suspected is mostly goodwill and equity in subsidiaries rather than anything we would normally think of as financial assets.
Now courtesy of Nathan Tankus, here is an excellent paper by Joel Rabinovitch that makes this case much more thoroughly than I’d been able to.
The paper starts by distinguishing two broad stories of financialization: shareholder value orientation and acquisition of financial assets. In the first story, financialization means that corporations are increasingly oriented toward the wishes or interests of shareholders and other financial claimants. The second story is the one we are interested in here. Rabinovitch’s paper doesn’t directly engage with the shareholder-value story, but it implicitly strengthens it by criticizing the financial-assets one.
The targets of the paper include some of my smartest friends. So I’ll be interested to see what they say in response to it.
The critical questions are: Have nonfinancial corporations’ holdings of financial assets really increased, relative to total assets? And, has their financial income risen relative to total income?
The answers in turn depend on two subsidiary issues. On the first question, we need to decide what is represented by the “other unidentified assets” category in the Financial Accounts, which is responsible for essentially all of the apparent rise in financial assets. And on the income side, we need to consistently compare the full set of financial flows to their nonfinancial equivalents. Rabinovitch argues, convincingly in my view, that looking at financial income in isolation is not give a meaningful picture.
On the face of it, the asset and income pictures look quite different. In the official accounts, financial assets of nonfinancial corporations have increased from 40% of nonfinancial assets to 120% between 1946 and 2015. Financial income, on the other hand, is only 2.5% of total income and shows no long-term increase. This should already make us skeptical that the increase in “financial” assets represents income-generating assets in the usual sense.
Rabinovitch then explores this is detail by combining the financial accounts with the IRS statistics of income (SOI) and the Compustat database. Each of these has strengths and weaknesses — Compustat provides firm-level data, but is limited to large, publicly-traded corporations and consolidates domestic and overseas operations; SOI gives detailed breakdowns of income sources for all forms of legal organization broken down by size, but it doesn’t include any balance-sheet variables, so it can’t be used to answer the asset questions.
iI the financial accounts, the majority of the increase in identified financial assets is FDI stock. As Rabinovitch notes, “it’s dubious to directly consider FDI as a financial asset if we take into account that it implies lasting interest with the intention to exercise control over the enterprise.” The largest part of the overall increase in financial assets, however, is in the residual “other unidentified assets” line of the financial accounts. The fact that there is no increase in income associated with these assets is already a reason to doubt that they are financial assets in the usual sense. Compustat data, while not strictly comparable, suggests that the majority of this is intangibles. The most important intangible is goodwill, which is simply the accounting term of the excess of an acquisition price over the book value of the acquired company. Importantly, goodwill is not depreciated but only written off through impairment. Another large portion is equity in unconsolidated subsidiaries; this accounts for a disproportionate share of the increase thanks to a change in accounting rules that required corporations to begin accounting for it explicitly. Other important intangibles include patents, copyrights, licenses, etc. These are not financial assets; rather they are assets or pseudo-assets acquired, like real investment, in order to carry out a company’s productive activities on an extended scale.
These are all aggregate numbers; perhaps the financialization story holds up better for the biggest firms? Rabinovich discusses this too. Both Compustat and SOI allow us to separate firms by size. As it turns out, the largest firms do have a greater proportion of financial income than the smaller ones. But even for the largest 0.05% of corporations, financial income is still only 3.5% or total income, and net financial income is still negative. As he reasonably concludes, “even for the biggest nonfinancial corporations, financialization must not be understood as mimicking financial corporations.”
What do we make of all this?
First, the view of financialization as nonfinancial businesses acquiring financial assets for income in placer of real investment, is widely held on the left. After my Jacobin interview came out, for example, several people promptly informed me that I was missing this important fact. So if the evidence does not in fact support it, that is worth knowing. Or at least, future statements of the hypothesis will be stronger if they respond to the points made here.
Second, the fact that “financial” assets in fact mostly consist of goodwill, interest in unconsolidated subsidiaries, and foreign investment is interesting in its own right, not just as negative criticism of the financialization story. It a sign of the importance of ownership claims as a means of control over production— both as the substantive content of balance sheet positions and as a core part of corporate activity.
Third, the larger importance of the story is to the question of whether nonfinancial corporations and their managers should be seen mainly as participants in, or victims of, financialization. Conversely, is finance itself a distinct social actor? In a world in which the largest nonfinancial corporations have effectively turned themselves into hedge funds, it would not make much sense to talk about a conflict between productive capital and financial capital, or to imagine them as two distinct sets of people. But in a world like the one described here, or in my previous post, where the main nexus between nonfinancial corporations and finance is payments from the former to the latter, it may indeed make sense to think of them as distinct actors, of conflicts between them, and of intervening politically on one side or the other.
Finally, to me, this paper is a model of how to do empirical work in economics. Through some historical process I’d like to understand better, economists have become obsessed with regression, to the point that in academic economics it’s become synonymous with empirics. Regression analysis starts from the idea that the data we observe is a random draw from some underlying data generating process in which a variable of interest is a function of one or more other variables. The goal of the regression is to recover the parameters of that function by observing independent or exogenous variation in the variables. But for most macroeconomic questions, we are dealing with historical processes where our goal is to understand what actually happened, and where the hypothesis of some underlying data-generating process from which historical data is drawn randomly, is neither realistic nor useful. On the other hand, the economy is not a black box; we always have some idea of the mechanism linking macroeconomic variables. So we don’t need to evaluate our hypotheses by asking how probable the it would be to draw the distribution we observe from some hypothetical random process; we can, and generally should, ask instead whether the historical pattern is consistent with the mechanism. Furthermore, regression analysis is generally focused on the qualitative question of whether variation in one variable can be said to cause variation in a second one; but in historical macroeconomics we are generally interested in how much of the variation in some outcome is due to various causes. So a regression approach, it seems to me, is basically unsuited to the questions addressed here. This paper, it seems to me, is a model of what one should do instead.