One of the ongoing puzzles of this joyless recovery (to give it the benefit of the doubt) has been the huge accumulation of cash by corporations. The puzzle is that the huge cash hoards that companies are sitting on are being generated by high earnings, high earning reflected in – or, perhaps more accurately, anticipated by — rising stock prices since the stock market bottomed out in March 2009. So one would think that the high earnings would have encouraged these highly profitable companies to expand output, building new capacity and hiring new workers, rather than accumulate all that cash. But the growth in cash holdings by companies has dwarfed the growth in new capital spending and employment. So what gives?
Corporations, obviously, are not all the same, so that any simple broad generalizations about what they are doing and why are very questionable. A disproportionate share of the newly accumulated cash is in the hands of large companies, especially in the telecommunications sector, the most notorious case being Apple, whose hoard is reportedly close to 200 billion dollars. Let me also observe that the increase in cash holding by corporations has been increasing for a long time, especially since the mid-1990s, tapering off in the mid-2000s before dipping during the financial crisis. But the upward trend resumed and accelerated after the crisis.
Here are some of the reasons that I have seen mentioned or have thought of myself for all this corporate cash hoarding.
A basic proposition of the theory of the demand for money is that an increase in uncertainty increases the demand for money. It is certain that the financial crisis was associated with increased uncertainty, raising the demand for money during and, owing to residual effects of the crisis, after the crisis. One might wonder why, if the demand for money increased during the crisis, corporate cash holdings decreased. The answer is that cash flows during the crisis were drastically reduced, requiring companies to expend cash even though they would have preferred to squirrel it away. The crisis was a period of extreme disequilibrium, and corporations (like many other economic agents) were forced way off their demand curves. So some part of the increase in corporate cash holdings can probably be attributed to a general increase in overall macroeconomic uncertainty. However, macroeconomic conditions has been fairly stable now for the last two or three years, at least in the US. So, although one could argue that the general macroeconomic environment is more uncertain than it was before the crisis, it would be hard to argue that uncertainty has not been gradually diminishing over the past few years, even as corporate cash hoards have continued to grow rapidly.
Some people – I don’t have to name them, you know who they are – like to say that the increase in uncertainty is all, or perhaps only mostly, due to the policies of the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve, especially, but not only, Obamacare and quantitative easing. But Obamacare was enacted in 2010, and it has been implemented gradually since then, coming more or less fully into effect this year. So the uncertainty associated with Obamacare should have been decreasing over time. Quantitative easing has been in effect in one form or another for most of the past four years, so people have gotten used to it. There is now uncertainty about when and how it will come to an end, but there is no sign that concerns about its gradual termination are causing any major market disturbances. So one can’t easily attribute the continuing increase in corporate cash-holding to uncertainty caused by Obamacare or quantitative-easing.
There are also microeconomic sources of uncertainty that are specific to particular sectors or industries, accounting for faster rates of increase in cash-holding by particular types of corporations, but the increase in cash-holding has not been confined to any single group of corporations, though large multi-national corporations, especially technology, media, and telecommunications companies have shown the largest increases in cash holdings. A study by economists at the St. Louis Fed suggested that R&D intensive corporations, being subject to high uncertainty owing to the unpredictable outcomes of their R&D activities, have been increasing their cash holdings more rapidly than less R&D intensive corporations. As R&D expenditures increase as a share of total investment, total cash holding by corporations would be expected to increase. But, again, this explanation can account for a long-term trend towards increased corporate cash holding, but not for the surge in corporate cash holding since 2009.
Let’s think again about why a profitable company is holding a lot of cash. So what can a profitable company do with all that cash gushing into its coffers? Well, 1) it can just hold on to the cash, 2) it could invest in new plant and equipment, (we’ll come back to this in a moment), 3) it could go out and buy other companies, 4) it could pay bonuses to some or all of the employees (guess which ones) of the company, or 5) it could return the cash to the owners of the company by paying dividends or by repurchasing stock.
As promised, let’s now think a bit more about option 2). There are broadly speaking three categories of capital investment. First, there is capital investment that replaces old and depreciating equipment with new and possibly improved equipment, but does not alter the firm’s structure or methods of production. It simply allows the company to keep doing what it has been doing, but perhaps a little bit more efficiently. Second, there is capital investment that aims to alter the structure of production, by adopting a new method or technique of production. Third, there is capital investment intended to increase the total productive capacity of the firm, enabling the firm to expand its output and increase its sales.
Notice that the first category is necessary for any firm unless it is about to go out of business. A firm may postpone such investment if it is not currently profitable, but it can’t postpone it for long without compromising the viability of the firm. Capital replacement is important, but to a large extent it is automatic, not being sensitive to relatively small changes in economic incentives.
The second category does depend importantly on the relative profitability of different techniques, and these decisions require pretty careful and detailed assessments by corporate management to decide which ones will be profitable and should be undertaken and which ones are unlikely to be profitable or involve too much risk to be undertaken. I note parenthetically that it is only a subset (probably a small subset) of this category that is sensitive to the interest-rate mechanism that looms so large in Austrian business-cycle theory. To presume that this probably small sub-category of interest-sensitive investment is what drives the business cycle involves a huge, and empirically unsupported, assumption.
The third – and undoubtedly the largest — category depends primarily not on calculations about the relative cost and profitability of different techniques, but on expectations about future demand for the firm’s output. If firms believe that they can increase sales at current prices, they will expand capacity to produce more output. If they don’t invest in increased capacity, they will probably lose market share to their competitors.
So, if corporations have been accumulating cash rather than investing in new plant and equipment to expand output – the sort of investment that would involve major expenditures and a significant drawdown of cash hoards — the most obvious explanation seems to be that firms don’t expect future demand at current prices to increase enough to justify such investments. A surge in corporate cash holding is an indication that corporate expectations about future demand are not very optimistic. Mildly pessimistic expectations about future demand are not inconsistent with high current profitability and rising stock prices.
I will not comment about why companies are not using their cash to buy other companies or to pay more and bigger bonuses to employees, but I do want to say something about why companies aren’t paying higher dividends to stockholders or buying back stock. One reason that they are not increasing dividend payments is that dividends are not tax-deductible. The non-deductibility of dividends is a terrible flaw in our corporate tax code. (See this post about Hyman Minsky’s opinion of the corporate income tax.) It penalizes giving the owners of companies the ability to decide how to allocate their capital, locking up capital in existing corporations because capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than dividends.
Now it would still be possible for corporations with excess cash to repurchase stock, allowing stockholders to be taxed at the lower rate on capital gains instead of the higher rate on dividends. But for multinational corporations, there is another obstacle to returning cash to stockholders either by paying dividends or by stock repurchase: cash now held overseas would be subject to the 35% corporate tax rate on either dividends or stock repurchases, imposing a huge penalty on returning idle cash to stockholders. So, instead of the cash being made available to millions of stockholders to spend or invest as they wish, creating new demand for output or providing capital to firms seeking new financing, the money is now effectively embargoed in corporate treasuries. What a waste.