Monday, April 30, 2007

Cutting the Cake Again

Paul Krugman (behind the firewall) talks about the high profits today:

Last fall Edward Lazear, the Bush administration's top economist, explained that what's good for corporations is good for America. "Profits," he declared, "provide the incentive for physical capital investment, and physical capital growth contributes to productivity growth. Thus profits are important not only for investors but also for the workers who benefit from the growth in productivity."

In other words, ask not for whom the closing bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Unfortunately, these days none of what Mr. Lazear said seems to be true. In the Bush years high profits haven't led to high investment, and rising productivity hasn't led to rising wages.

The second of those two disconnects has gotten a lot of attention because of its political consequences. The administration and its allies whine that they aren't getting credit for a great economy, but because wages have been stagnant — the median worker's earnings, adjusted for inflation, haven't gone up at all since the current economic expansion began in 2001 — the economy feels anything but great to most Americans.

Less attention, however, has been given to the first disconnect: the failure of high profits to produce an investment boom.

Since President Bush took office, the combination of rising productivity and stagnant wages — workers are producing more, but they aren't getting paid more — has led to a veritable profit gusher, with corporate profits more than doubling since 2000. Last year, profits as a share of national income were at the highest level ever recorded.

Krugman then asks what happened to these profits, the ones which were supposed to be invested to give all those workers new jobs and higher wages. It could be just lack of confidence in the economy in general, given what is happening to the housing bubble of the recent years (it is bursting). But he also suggests another theory:

But as Floyd Norris recently reported in The Times, there is a more disturbing possibility. Instead of investing in physical capital, many companies are using profits to buy back their own stock. And cynics suggest that the purpose of these buybacks is to produce a temporary rise in stock prices that increases the value of executives' stock options, even if it's against the long-term interests of investors.

It's not a far-fetched idea. Researchers at the Federal Reserve have found evidence that company decisions about stock buybacks are strongly influenced by "agency conflicts," a genteel term for self-dealing by corporate insiders. In the 1990s that kind of self-dealing often led to excessive investment, which at least left a tangible legacy behind. But today the self-interest of management may be standing in the way of productive investment.

Interesting. Then there is the possibility that the demand sides of various markets are not very strong, given the unchanging earnings of the workers who also happen to make up most of the consumers in the economy.