Thursday, November 20, 2014

Capitalism’s Paradox: Too Much Profit, Too Little Demand

There are strange things going on in the economies of some of the most developed nations.  Corporations in these countries seem to be earning more money than they know what to do with.  An article in The Economist provides this chart:

The amount of funds that corporations are sitting on is enormous in these countries.  To put this in perspective, the US has only about 11% of GDP banked in corporate savings, about $1.9 trillion.  In the darkest hours of the Great Recession the federal government could only put up about $831 billion to save the economy from disaster.  Now, with low growth still a problem, companies are sitting on more than twice that with no apparent intention to put it to use.

The problem is actually worse because many companies use their excess profits to buy back their own shares.  There are two ways to attain growth in stock price.  One is to demonstrate a business model that projects growth and even greater profits in the future, the other is to purchase your own shares on the market and drive the price higher.  This source indicates that US corporations spent over $500 billion on these buy-backs in the past year, a near record amount.

What is peculiar about these findings is that high profits should be associated with a healthy economy that is providing incentive for expansion.  If business is so good, why are not more companies seeking to reinvest their earnings and go for greater growth?

Marx thought that capitalism carried within it the seeds of its own destruction.  Could we be witnessing capitalist economies wandering into some sort of dead end from which they cannot extract themselves?

There are two obvious explanations for a situation in which large profits are earned yet there is no incentive to reinvest the profits in growth.  In one case demand for products is low and there is no expectation that an improvement is forthcoming.  In the second case the company has essentially a monopoly and does not anticipate any potential growth in customers.

It is an interesting exercise to consider whether or not we have true competition in our major industries, or whether we have allowed a few large corporations to dominate in each arena and pretend to compete while tacitly agreeing that a huge market can be shared two or three ways and all can be wealthy.  Much is said about the high tech competition between Apple and Samsung, and between Microsoft and Google, but is any one of these in danger of being seriously injured by competition from the other?  They all have healthy market shares and enough money on hand to purchase any upstart who might choose to disturb the game.  In a situation where no one is particularly interested in competing on price, how does profit get limited?

The situation where no expectation of growth in demand exists does have a distinct Marxian flavor.  Most corporation executives will claim that low demand is the reason why they are not investing more in their businesses.  Lack of demand usually means there are too few consumers with money to spend.  Coupled with healthy profits, this suggests that consumers lack money not interest, and would purchase more if they could. 

The article in The Economist focuses on the Asian countries where the cash holdings are incredibly large.

“Japanese firms hold ¥229 trillion ($2.1 trillion) in cash, a massive 44% of GDP. Their South Korean counterparts hold 459 trillion won ($440 billion) or 34% of GDP. That compares with cash holdings of 11% of GDP, or $1.9 trillion, in American firms. If East Asia’s firms spent even half of their huge cash hoards, they could boost global GDP by some 2%.”

Consider the correlation between corporate earnings and wages for workers.

“In South Korea, company earnings have grown faster than wages for more than a decade. In Japan wages fell 3.5% between 1990 and 2012, while prices rose by 5.5%.”

“And East Asia’s economies have also suffered. If they had been paid more, Japanese consumers might have spent more. Korean households, struggling with rapidly-growing debt-burdens, have also been squeezed.”

The situation in the US is similar.

The cash available for spending by most consumers comes from earned wages.  However, earned wages have not been keeping up with prices of things they feel a need to purchase, and this has been going on for a very long time.  Clearly this cannot go on indefinitely and consumption must inevitably plummet.  Would corporations be in a healthier state if they had recycled more of their profits back into the economy?

Are we approaching a Marxian moment when corporate greed will be its own undoing?

Stay tuned.

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