What Happened to Link Between Profits and Productivity?

Popular Economics Weekly

What’s the link between profits and productivity, on which economic growth is based? It has broken down of late, so that profits of many businesses and whole business sectors are no longer used to enhance productivity. And without higher productivity, we see the standard of living for most of US no longer rising.

Labor productivity has to do with the amount of output per worker, which in turn depends on the amount of capital expenditures (capex spending) on plants and equipment. The current tepid economic recovery that has averaged slightly above 2 percent GDP growth has been attributed in large part to lower labor productivity.

So why, with corporations making record profits over the past 2 years as a percentage of GDP (accompanied by today’s comparatively low tax rates and large tax loopholes) aren’t corporations investing more in productivity that would enhance their profits as well?

In fact, such record profits seem to have created a different investment environment, one that is conducive to what Nobelist Robert Stiglitz calls monopolistic behavior last seen during the Gilded Age of the early 1900s.

Monopolistic behavior means that businesses and even whole industries prefer to keep themselves in power by amassing more wealth for their shareholders and executives, rather than invest those profits to also benefit their employees and the public domain.

The result is lower investments in productivity, made mostly via investments in capital, or capex spending. And studies show increased capex spending does boost productivity, as historically higher profits have in the past boosted capex spending.

A 1964 NBER working paper by economist Robert Eisner highlighted that fact. “The historical correlations are indeed indisputable; periods of high capital expenditures have been periods of high profits and periods of low capital expenditures have been periods of low profits.”

(Therefore)“…I would suggest that capital expenditures are undertaken in the pursuit of profits, or perhaps in order to reduce the risk associated with expectations of profits…I would view the rate of investment demand as related to the expected profitability of investment, something which is quite different from past or current profits.”


So during this period of the highest corporate profits as a percentage of GDP and GDI in history, corporations have been hoarding their profits. This has to change; firstly, because so many working-age adults are still out of work some 7 years after the end of the Great Recession.

And secondly, a return to another Gilded Age, also warned by economist Thomas Piketty in his epochal Capital In the Twenty-First Century, means another era of high income inequality, and so a period with greater economic instability. This happened during the Great Recession, due in large part to a record income inequality last seen in the run up to the Great Depression.

Both private industry and governments have to invest more in R&D research, for starters. An early reading of the April service-sector PMI Flash Index showed growth in new orders, hit by weakness in investment spending, continues to slow and is among the weakest readings in the 7-year history of this series. Respondents in the sample say clients are unwilling to commit to new projects. 

And though the April Durable Goods orders just out were strong (i.e., goods that generally last more than 3 years), a negative in the report is a sizable 0.8 percent decline in core capital goods orders which ominously is the third straight decline for this reading and the fifth out of the last seven reports. Year-on-year, orders are noticeably in the negative column at minus 5.0 percent. These readings point squarely to stubborn weakness in business investment and uncertainty in the general business outlook, said Econoday.

How does this explain today’s actions of those corporations with huge profits that aren’t investing in their future growth? Actually, it can. For, if businesses find more ways to line their pockets, such as using financial engineering by speculating in markets—i.e., either by hedging commodities or stock buybacks—then they will neglect to make money the old fashioned way by creating new products and services.

A recent Reuters Special Report entitled, The Cannabilized Company, said that in the most recent reporting year, share purchases reached a record $520 billion. Throw in the most recent year’s $365 billion in dividends, and the total amount returned to shareholders reaches $885 billion, more than the companies’ combined net income of $847 billion.

And it confirms the cost; reduced innovation spending in new products that would boost future productivity. “…among the approximately 1,000 firms that buy back shares and report R&D spending,” said Reuters, “the proportion of net income spent on innovation has averaged less than 50 percent since 2009, increasing to 56 percent only in the most recent year as net income fell. It had been over 60 percent during the 1990s.”

Thus, maximizing shareholder value with stock buybacks has “concentrated income at the top and has led to the disappearance of middle-class jobs. The U.S. economy is now twice as rich in real terms as it was 40 years ago, but most people feel poorer,” said Reuters

A good example of this practice is tech icon IBM. CEO Sam Palmisano left in 2011, having received more than $87 million in compensation in his last three years at the company. Meanwhile, revenue declined for the past three years, and earnings have fallen for the past two. The stock is down a third from its 2013 peak, while the S&P 500 has risen 34 percent. To rein in costs, IBM has cut jobs. It now employs 55,000 fewer workers than it did in 2012.

Thus it turns out maximizing stock prices is neither maximizing shareholder value nor longer term profits—since it only benefits the few. Should this be the sad fate of American business? No one likes to give up power—not our major corporations, certainly—power that was built up over the past 40 years of consolidation and reduced regulation.

But such record income and opportunity inequality cannot continue indefinitely. This is what revolutions are made of.

Harlan Green © 2016

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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