One thing is clear in the current conjuncture: corporate investment in capital equipment is declining, and it’s dragging overall economic growth and labor productivity down with it.
In the second quarter of 2016, the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of only 1.2 percent, which caught business commentators and Wall Street analysts by surprise. They expected something closer to 2.6 percent. And while consumer spending continued to increase (at at rate of 4.2 percent in the second quarter), business investment fell (at a 2.2 percent pace), and companies ran down inventories for the fifth consecutive quarter.
So, what’s going on?
Given the centrality of business investment to capitalist growth, you’d think the business press would have a cogent, carefully elaborated analysis of why it’s declining during the current recovery.
Well, they don’t. All they can do is invoke their usual hand-waving gesture, “political uncertainty,” as the underlying cause. Political uncertainty is blamed for the slowdown in mergers and acquisitions and for sputtering business investment.
Most CEOs will be risk-averse and conservative with their balance sheets until they see signs of a growth rebound, even though they’re sitting atop piles of cash and the cost of capital is at all-time lows. They will also hold off investing until they have a better sense of the future tax and regulatory burdens they are likely to face next year.
Yes, there is a high degree of political uncertainty (in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere). But that doesn’t explain corporate behavior, especially their investment decisions.
One can just as easily reverse the argument: Political realities have to respond to corporate decisions (especially when growth is slowing). And the slowing of economic growth itself is a consequence of the corporate decisions to curtail private nonresidential fixed investment.
The alternative explanation is that corporations are responding quite certainly to their own market signals. First, they’re choosing to substitute labor for capital, given depressed wage growth around the globe.
“Instead of buying an expensive piece of machinery, businesses are hiring really cheap workers they can fire whenever they want,” said Megan Greene, chief economist at Manulife Asset Management.
And they’re reacting to the decline in their own index of success and failure, the corporate profit rate (which, as one can see in the chart of the top of the post, has been falling during the last two years).
It’s not that corporations are doing nothing: they are engaged in massive mergers and acquisitions (just not at the same pace of 2015) and they’re using the profits they’ve accumulated since the recovery began to increase dividends, buy back stock, and reward their top managers.
So, is capital on strike? The Wall Street Journal suggests it is: “The investment plunge is a signal that business is on strike.”
And, given the way the economy is currently organized, the rest of us are forced to endure the consequences of capital’s decision to do whatever is necessary to restore its profitability.