Private Business Net Investment Remains in a Deep Ditch

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If any one thing estimated in the Commerce Department’s National Income and Product Accounts may be described as the engine of economic growth, private domestic business net investment is that thing. This variable has such tremendous importance because, if accurately gauged, it tells us better than any other measure how many resources are being devoted to building up the private business capital stock and improving it by innovation. An economy that has anemic private business net investment almost certainly will falter soon, if it is not doing so already.

Notice that every aspect of this awkwardly named variable is critical.

  • First, it has to do with private investment, not so-called government investment. The latter, which looms fairly large in the official accounts, ought never to have been labeled as investment, because it comes about not as a result of wealth-seeking motives and rational economic calculation, but as a result of political motives, calculations, and actions that often clash with the creation of real wealth, rather than contributing to it.
  • Second, we are looking here at business investment, excluding what the Bureau of Economic Analysis calls private “household and institutions” investment, which has somewhat murky underlying objectives, determinants, and consequences.
  • Third, we are examining net, rather than gross, investment. The latter includes a large element of expenditure aimed merely at compensating for the wear and tear and obsolescence of the existing stock of private business capital. For example, even at the most recent peak for gross private domestic business investment, in the third quarter of 2007, it was running at $1,661 billion (annual rate), whereas net private domestic business investment was only $463 billion (annual rate), or about 28 percent of the total. (The investment data cited in this article are taken from Table 5.1, Saving and Investment by Sector, in the National Income and Product Accounts, accessed 02/16/11.)

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It is obviously important that businesses compensate for ongoing depreciation of their existing stock of capital goods, which includes structures, tools and equipment, software, and inventories. But unless firms do more than make up for depreciation, they do not expand their productive capacity except to the extent that they can embed improved technology in their replacements for worn-out or obsolete capital goods. In general, economic growth requires net investment, and more rapid economic growth requires a greater rate of net investment.

With that essential idea in mind, let us examine what has happened recently to private domestic business net investment, which I will henceforth call simply net private investment. Such investment reached its recent cyclical peak in the third quarter of 2007, at $463 billion (annual rate). It then fell steadily for the next four quarters, reaching $336 billion in the third quarter of 2008. At that point, it plunged steeply, falling to only $159 billion, or by 53 percent, in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Although the financial-market panic that had flared up in late September 2008 began to subside early in 2009, net private investment continued to fall, becoming negative (–$53 billion, annual rate) in the first quarter of 2009 and even more negative in the second quarter (–$119 billion). Although some improvement began in the third quarter of 2009, net private investment remained negative during the third and fourth quarters. For the entire year 2009, the amount of net private investment amounted to a large negative amount (–$69 billion). So, in other words, the value of the private business capital stock fell by that amount. Hardly by coincidence, real GDP also fell substantially in 2009, by 2.6 percent.

In 2010, net private investment increased smartly for three quarters, reaching an annual rate of $270 billion in the third quarter, then contracted sharply – by almost 47 percent – to $144 billion in the fourth quarter. For the entire year, the amount of private net investment was $177 billion. Whether the collapse in the final quarter of 2010 will turn out to have been a fluke or the beginning of a longer-term decline, we shall have to wait to see.

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According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the most recent business-cycle peak occurred in December 2007, and the trough was reached in June 2009. As we have seen, net private investment peaked slightly sooner, in the third quarter of 2007. So, we are now more than three years past the economy’s overall peak and some 20 months past its trough, yet net private investment in the most recent quarter was running at only 31 percent of the annual rate at its previous peak.

Private net investment is currently running far below the rate required to sustain a rapid rate of economic growth. Real consumer spending, in contrast, peaked in the fourth quarter of 2007, fell only slightly (about 2.5 percent) to the second quarter of 2009, and by the fourth quarter of 2010 exceeded its previous quarterly peak (by almost 1 percent). Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth among Keynesian economists and politicians with regard to allegedly inadequate consumption, a collapse of consumption is not to blame for the economy’s anemic recovery to date. However, looking elsewhere for the cause, we find that the economy’s true engine of growth – private business net investment – continues to sputter, running in the most recent quarter at less than a third of its previous peak rate and, for the entire year 2010, at only 40 percent of its rate for the entire year 2007.

Unless net private investment recovers more rapidly, the overall economy’s recovery is sure to remain slow, at best, certainly too slow to bring down significantly the high unemployment rate that has been stuck for a long time between 9 percent and 10 percent (and would be substantially greater if we took into account the millions who have left the labor force recently because they did not believe they could find a job even if they searched for one). As matters now stand, real stagnation is a likely prospect and, given the Fed’s massive ongoing purchases of Treasury debt and the stupendous amount of excess reserves in the commercial banks’ accounts at the Fed, stagflation also seems to be a credible expectation.

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Investors continue to view the future with major misgivings, owing to the unsettled condition of the government’s future actions with regard to health care, financial regulations, energy regulations, taxation, and other matters that have serious implications for business costs and the security of private property rights in business capital and its returns. Although ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank bill have already been enacted, these massive statutes leave scores of important details awaiting determination by administrative agencies and courts whose actions will be fiercely contested at every step. Future tax rates also remain up for grabs in Congress.

Nor are the investment-paralyzing uncertainties confined to the United States. Europe in particular continues to wrestle with the aftermath of the malinvestments and other distortions wrought in its asset markets and financial institutions during the boom of 2002–2006, and several countries teeter on the brink of sovereign default. Given the close linkages of national markets in today’s world, U.S. companies will feel a great impact from any new crises in Europe – something else to worry about as they contemplate the desirability of increasing their investment spending.

Of course, the major trading countries and their governments may ultimately find a way to muddle through. They have eventually weathered major storms in the past. Yet, however the world’s economy moves in the longer term, the immediate prospect for investors in the U.S. economy remains troubled, at best. A substantial, rapid recovery of private business net investment must await the clearing of these clouds. Until such a recovery does occur, however, overall economic prospects must remain rather gloomy for the near and medium terms.

Reprinted from the Independent Institute.

February 21, 2010