Sunday, September 19, 2010

Evaluating the "excess" in the US corporate financial balance

In a NY Times op-ed, Rob Parenteau and Yves Smith reminded us that the private sector financial balance is a function of the household financial balance and the corporate financial balance. They concluded the following regarding excess corporate saving:
So instead of pursuing budget retrenchment, policymakers need to create incentives for corporations to reinvest their profits in business operations.
In my view, it's not that simple (not that passing this type policy would be easy at all). As I illustrate below, firms, like households, are in a deleveraging cycle, where corporate excess saving is likely to persist for some time. (Note: US total corporate financial balance, excess saving if the balance is positive, is roughly undistributed profits minus gross corporate domestic investment)

In their NY Times article, Rob and Yves cite a 2005 JP Morgan study, "Corporates are driving the global saving glut". In that study, JP Morgan argues that the global saving glut has been driven largely by G6 excess corporate saving, and to a lesser extent emerging economies. In the US, positive corporate excess saving persisted through the latest print, 2010 Q2.

The illustration above plots the total corporate financial balance as a percentage of GDP. I calculate the Total Corporate Financial Balance (TCFB) as in the JP Morgan study, which is the residual of the national accounting identity of the Current Account Balance minus the Household Financial Balance minus the Government Financial Balance. According to this measure, the TCFB was roughly +3% in 2010 Q2, or about +1% above the 2008-2010Q2 average (2.1%).

About the same time as JP Morgan published their research, the IMF and the OECD were wondering why global TCFBs were rising. Several factors are attributed the upward trend in the first half of the 2000's, including (this is not a complete list of factors):
  • Repurchase of stock shares relative to dividend payouts
  • The falling relative price of capital goods dragging nominal investment spending as a share of GDP (see Table 3.2 of the OECD publication)
  • The overhang of leverage build in the 1990's
  • Rising profits via falling taxes and low interest payments (especially in other OECD economies)
Although firms likely worked out much of the debt overhang from the 1990's, the debt accumulation spanning the second half of the 2000's was precipitous.

It's very unlikely that the excess corporate saving will fall anytime soon, as non-financial business leverage is high just as household leverage is high. Total non-financial business debt peaked in 2009 Q1 at 79.5% of GDP and is now trending downward, hitting 74.9% in 2010 Q2.

If history is any guide, then the "excessive" borrowing spanning 2005-2008 will take some time to repair. Spanning 2002 to 2004, the non-financial business sector dropped leverage 2.5% to 64%. If this 2-year period of de-leveraging indicates an "equilibrium" level of leverage, then non-financial businesses are likely to run consecutive financial surpluses (excess saving) in order to reduce debt levels by another 11 percentage points of GDP for a decade more.

If firms run excess saving balances, then they're not investing in future profitability via capital expenditures nor increasing marginal costs, like wages and hiring, relative to profit growth. So while it is true that some fiscal policy should be targeted directly at investment incentives (Rob Parenteau and Yves Smith article), these measures may prove less effective since the non-financial business sector's desire to "save" and repair balance sheets is high.

I leave you with one final chart to inspire more discussion: a breakdown of the total corporate financial balance into its two parts, financial-business and non-financial business.

The financial balances in illustration 2 are computed directly from the Flow of Funds Accounts, Table F.8, rather than taking the residual as calculated in illustration 1. Thus, the total corporate financial balance will not match that in illustration 1.

The point is simple: the small drop in excess saving in total corporate financial balance in illustration 1 is stemming from the financial side. The non-financial corporate sector continues to raise excess saving by investing retained earnings into liquid financial assets relative to capital investment.

Fiscal policy should be targeted at the high desired saving by the corporate and household sectors alike. The idea is to pull forward the deleveraging process by "helping" households and firms lower debt burden via direct liquidity transfers (lower taxes or subsidies, for example). Only then will healthy private-sector growth resume.

Rebecca Wilder

1 comment:

  1. Full marks for this post. 

    The question being posed by the corporate sector is why invest in capital equipment when aggregate demand is so low.  Moreover, if there is substantial debt on the balance sheet, in a period of deleveraging which will have the net effect of increasing the purchasing power of cash, why not wait until the necessity of deleveraging has been satisfied.

    For those who want to get the economy expanding again, they would be wise to consider how deleveraging can be accelerated so that balance sheets can be improved.  This is a recession about a failed currency, and the existance of excess credit money, not a recession about a true shrinkage of demand.