Column: Wallets wide shut

Mar 04 2014, 05:14 IST
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SummaryFor advanced economies to prosper, it is necessary that the corporate sector’s willingness to invest match its funds

Some economists, like Larry Summers, call it “secular stagnation.” Others refer to it as “Japanization.” But all agree that after too many years of inadequate growth in advanced economies, substantial longer-term risks have emerged, not only for the wellbeing of these countries’ citizens but also for the health and stability of the global economy.

Those looking for ways to reduce the risks of inadequate growth agree that, of all possible solutions, increased business investment can make the biggest difference. And many medium-size and large companies, having recovered impressively from the huge shock of the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent recession, now have the wherewithal to invest in new plants, equipment, and hiring.

Indeed, with profitability at or near record levels, cash holdings by the corporate sector in the United States have piled up quarter after quarter, reaching all-time highs—and earning very little at today’s near-zero interest rates. Moreover, because companies have significantly improved their operating efficiency and lengthened the maturities on their debt, they need a lot less precautionary savings than they did in the past.

However one looks at it, the corporate sector in advanced economies in general, and in the US in particular, is as strong as it has been in many years. Non-financial firms have achieved a mix of resilience and agility that contrasts sharply with prevailing conditions for some households and governments around the world that have yet to confront adequately a legacy of over-leverage.

But, rather than deploy their abundant cash in new investments to expand capacity and tap new markets—which they have been very hesitant to do since the global financial crisis erupted—many companies have so far preferred (or have been pressured by activist investors) to give it back to shareholders.

Last year alone, US companies authorized more than $600 billion of share buybacks—an impressive amount by any measure, and a record high. Moreover, many companies boosted their quarterly dividend payouts to shareholders. Such activity continued in the first two months of 2014.

But, while shareholders have clearly benefited from companies’ unwillingness to invest their ample cash, the bulk of the injected money has been circulating only in the financial sector. Little of it has directly benefited economies that are struggling to boost their growth rates, expand employment, avoid creating a lost generation of workers, and address excessive income inequality.

If advanced economies are to prosper, it is necessary (though not sufficient) that the corporate sector’s willingness to invest match its considerable wallet.

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