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The Fed Has Failed: Business Investment Efficiency Is “Worst Since The Great Depression”

Wednesday, November 9, 2016 17:26
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(Before It's News)

Submitted by Thad Beversdorf via FirstRebuttal.com,

The Summary:

  1. Economic policy objectives (monetary and fiscal) are meant to incentivize domestic private business investment, which drives incomes and the money multiplier effect, i.e. the engine of the economy.
  2. Economic policy objectives have failed because CEOs, the private capital allocators, simply cannot accommodate business investment when the demand function is as weak as we currently find it, no matter how available and how cheap the capital.
  3. The demand function is weak because we misunderstood and ignored the side effects of trade policies and their reliance on new world economies that naturally have a lower money multiplier effect than old world economies.
  4. A materially damaged demand function leads to a misallocation of resources; for the past 15 years capital has been and continues at an accelerating rate to be allocated to cash distribution (the most economically inefficient use of capital) rather than investment, further deteriorating the demand function (economic death spiral).
  5. The only question that matters now then is;  How do we get private sector capital allocators to allocate capital more efficiently?  I’ll give you a hint, it requires indications of sustainable demand improvement and neither monetary nor fiscal policy have the capacity to generate sustainable demand improvement when the demand function is damaged to the point that CEO’s refuse to invest productively.  This then requires a new economic policy framework, one that CAN generate sustainable demand improvement, which will allow capital allocators to invest productively.

We can understand the problem without villainizing any particular stakeholders by focusing on where we are today and delivering a viable solution.  Mistakes were made and judging whether they were honest or malicious in nature is irrelevant to finding the solution.  Our focus here is a solution.

The Proof:

What is the objective of Monetary and Fiscal policy expansion?

Domestic business investment.  Both policy frameworks look to incentivize capital allocators (i.e. CEO’s) to implement microeconomic strategies that achieve macroeconomic goals (economic prosperity).  In other words,  monetary and fiscal easing/expansion look to incentivize CEO’s to allocate capital to domestic business investments (fixed and/or human capital and technology).

However, CEO’s have two choices on how to allocate capital.  The economically stimulating choice is productive business investment and the financial engineering choice is cash distributions.  We know the Fed has printed roughly $13T since ’08 to incentivize CEO’s with cheap capital thus providing a lower cost structure and generating a theoretically higher return on investment (ROI) by which CEO’s should be incentivized toward business investment.  Let’s see if it worked.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-50-06-pm

The above chart depicts net domestic private business investment to GDP (blue line) and dividends to GDP (red line).  The chart  shows that the massive monetary easing that started in the mid 1990’s has failed to incentivize private business investment over cash distributions.  CEO’s are now allocating capital to cash distributions at a rate 3x higher than to private domestic business investments.  The only other time in history we’ve seen such an inefficient use of capital were the years heading into and through the great depression (note the above chart is 7 year moving avg so raw data begins in 1929; also it does not include buybacks).

Further evidence of Monetary policy failing to achieve its goal of domestic business investment.  The next chart shows annual business investment less annual additions to money stock.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-11-31-32-am

We can see from the above chart that historically business investment is a multiple of additions to money stock meaning that for every additional dollar printed we generated more than a dollar of domestic business investment.  However, since 2009 we have generated less than a dollar of productive investments for each dollar printed.  What does this mean?  It means we are printing dollars and passing those dollars through to the secondary financial markets (as depicted in the first chart above) meaning those dollars never hit the economy (i.e. 95% of secondary financial market activity is separate from the economy meaning does not expand corporate operational assets).

If we just look at straight nominal real domestic business investment, the problem again is very clear.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-1-01-37-pm

Much of the period since 2009 has seen domestic investment in real dollars at levels lower than any other time over the past 5 decades and is now moving back into those lows.

For the sake of diligence, I will mention productivity separate from productive investment because I know some of you will jump on me if I don’t.  The reality is that without productive investment productivity is doomed as well but let’s look at the evidence.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-1-21-54-pm

Clearly productivity has collapsed as well (source: St. Louis Fed).

So it is abundantly clear that the economic policy objective of stimulating domestic business investment (which we know is the engine of economic prosperity via money multiplier, I will spare you the data assuming we can all agree on that point) has failed.  The failure is despite the most extreme monetary easing in the history of this nation.

Why has it failed?

Janet Yellen recently stated “I don’t know why business investment is weak”.  Allow me to explain.  CEO’s cannot invest in operational expansion without the backdrop of sustainable demand expansion.  It’s that simple.  The fact that we cannot convince CEO’s to allocate toward business investment signals they’ve got too much standing capacity for a demand function that is damaged.  There is a plethora of evidence to back up this claim and so let’s look at just a couple.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-8-44-24-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-5-43-57-pm

The above charts shows an already under-utilization of existing capacity and an utter collapse in per capita consumption, a terribly difficult decision then to allocate capital to more capacity.  This means that growth in domestic aggregate consumption (i.e. realized demand; i.e. top line) must come from population growth or foreign customers.

Let’s look at the prospects for population growth to provide a major boost to the domestic demand function.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-2-08-42-pm

So it seems unlikely that population growth is going to provide any material pop in economic activity.

But what about foreign customers?

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-2-16-31-pm

Well currently exports are a relatively small but growing part of GDP.  And this is the argument of many pro ‘free’ trade economists.  Specifically the argument is that if we open up international trade, US companies can increase sales to foreign customers and thus begin to allocate again to domestic business investment.

The problem is it hasn’t worked.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-7-16-39-pm

The above chart shows total manufacturing plus white collar service sector breadwinner jobs here in the US as a percent of working age population.  You’ll note that the 5 decades before 2000 breadwinner jobs remained on a steady long run average around 21.5% of working age population.  However, since 2002 we’ve been below 21% and since 2009 we’ve been below 20%.  These may seem like minor percentage losses but when you’re talking about 200M people each percentage point lost represents 2 million working age people without a good paying job.  The change from the long run average represents about 5 million more people without a breadwinner job and 8.5 million more relative to the peak of 1999.

In order to get a longer view let’s look at these jobs to total population (more data available).

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-7-35-28-pm

We are back to levels not seen since the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when most households could get by on one income.  That simply is not a reality anymore.  This translates to financial stress on consumers (i.e. households).

Now the argument of the free trade agreements is that while we would ship some low skilled breadwinner jobs out of the US we would more than make up those lost jobs with new world high skilled jobs.  And while it is clear from the above charts this hasn’t happened let me explain why that didn’t happen.  It is really very simple.

When GM was at its peak it employed 500K employees and a slew of upstream suppliers and vendors.  Facebook has 12K employees and maybe a relative handful of upstream suppliers and vendors.  This is simply the result of an increasingly digital rather than molecular world.  The point being, the money multiplier of new world economies is far lower than old world economies.  The result is a concentration of wealth and a reduction of income distribution.  The result of that is a damaged or much weaker demand function as we saw above.

The key to the old world economy is it provides a natural tie between domestic consumption and domestic production.  That is why as total domestic consumption grew, the amount of breadwinner jobs grew proportionately (producing a steady 21.5% average of breadwinner jobs to working age pop over time).  However, subsequent to the initial build out of the new world infrastructure in the mid to late ’90’s the growth rate of new world jobs has not kept up with the supply of labour (i.e. population/consumers/consumption).  And this is a function of the digital world requiring far less labour than the molecular world and therefore  unable to replace the number of old world jobs lost to trade agreements.

I am not suggesting that international trade is a bad idea.  I’m suggesting that like with most medications there can be severe negative side effects that need to be acknowledged and also treated.  Most economists seem to abhor the notion that trade agreements do create severe negative side effects and argue with the idea that we just haven’t trained a modern workforce to match the new world.  Again they fail to recognize new world economies require far less labour and so the very basic math simply doesn’t work.

And so we cannot let the pro ‘free’ traders off the hook with their suggestion of a mis-trained workforce.  We are still consuming more old world products than at any other point in history.  We have just chosen to send the increased production of old world goods (requiring lots of labour) to foreign nations generating a growing imbalance between domestic consumption and domestic production.  This imbalance requires private and public debt to fill the gap.

The following chart shows PCE (domestic consumption) over GDI Wages & Salaries (a proxy for domestic production).  As the level increases it means that the imbalance of consumption to production is widening.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-9-44-07-am

Notably, this is another metric that we find ourselves today at a level only ever before seen around the great depression.  This is not an unimportant observation.  When we find a pattern of fundamental aspects of the economy mirroring only one other point in history and that point happens to be the period around the great depression we should definitely explore the phenomenon.

Remember personal consumption generally comes from wages and salaries (a function of domestic production), credit and welfare.  And so lost production means lost labour incomes meaning credit and welfare have to make up the short fall otherwise the domestic demand function will weaken.  The data is clear that credit and welfare have made up the shortfall.  But what we are finding is credit and welfare relative to income has a cap and so without real income growth for the past 2 decades, real top line growth (realized demand) has stalled and in several key sectors declined.  The now secular contraction and/or deceleration of Revenues and Earnings are a representation of the damaged demand function that is preventing domestic business investment.

The solution lies in repairing the demand function in order to drive domestic business investment.  But because this is a chicken and the egg problem meaning without investment we cannot improve demand but without demand improvement we won’t get business investment, the existing economic policy frameworks are trapped.  And so the solution necessarily requires a new economic policy framework.

*  *  *

In an effort to find such a solution, I founded a nonprofit called Institute for Sensible Economics that has developed a platform to launch a new economic policy framework, one the aligns the actors of policy setting with the objectives of policy setting.  We will be introducing the Institute and the platform post election.  Stay tuned. If anyone is interested in learning more and potentially getting involved please reach out to me: tb@thechicagoeconomist.com  We are particularly keen to expand strategic partnerships with business associations, collegiate student groups and grass roots organizations.

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