One narrative going around is that corporations are hoarding cash — basically, to be mean to Obama and make sure he loses in 2012:
Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's "Hardball," asked Politico's Charles Mahtesian, "You think business can sit on those billions and trillions of dollars for two more years after they screw Obama this time?
Here’s a plot of the relevant data:
Yep, that’s right. They’re blaming a 30 year upward trend on contemporary Republican-oriented corporate meanness towards Obama.
Alan Reynolds points out that this is the sort of nonsense that can only be purveyed by or to people who don’t understand accounting. I’ll be quoting pretty much the whole thing in full [emphasis added]:
Consider four basic points:
1) There are two sides to a balance sheet: assets and liabilities.
2) Liquid assets serve as a vital safety cushion to minimize the impact (on workers and suppliers) of unanticipated business difficulties.
3) A corporate balance sheet is not an income statement.
4) Corporations commonly use both internal and external sources of funds to acquire both real and financial assets at the same time. Larger investments in money-market funds and bank CDs do not mean smaller investment in plant and equipment, as many seem to imagine.
Point No. 1, about two-sided balance sheets, reminds us that single-entry bookkeeping will not do. The financial health of corporations is not measured by the form in which assets are held (liquid or not), but by net worth.
From 2007 to September 2010, the value of nonfinancial corporate real estate fell by more than 30%—a loss of more than $2.8 trillion. The ratio of cash to total assets rose largely because the value of total assets collapsed. Meanwhile, liabilities topped $13.6 trillion last fall, up from $12.9 trillion at the last cyclical peak. With real estate falling and debts rising, the net worth of nonfinancial corporations was only $12.6 trillion at last count—down from $15.9 trillion in 2007.
Point No. 2, about safety cushions, alerts us to the fact that $1.93 trillion of liquid assets would not begin to cover $3.67 trillion of short-term debts, let alone ongoing expenses such as payroll. To describe the liquid assets as "hoarding" (regardless of debts) is witless. The recession in 2008-09 would have been far less painful if nonfinancial corporations in 2007 had been "hoarding" more liquid assets (they had $1.53 trillion).
Point No. 3, about the difference between a balance sheet (what a company owns and owes) and an income statement (money received and spent) is basic accounting. Outraged proclamations about the $1.93 trillion figure show zero understanding of this difference.
Firms hire out of income, not by liquidating assets or adding to debt. No sensible employer plans on meeting routine payroll expenses by drawing down assets, liquid or not.
Decisions to increase or reduce hiring are unrelated to decisions to increase or reduce any assets on the balance sheet. Companies add workers if the expected addition to after-tax revenues is likely to exceed the addition to costs (including taxes and mandated benefits).
Point No. 4 is related to Point No. 3. Consider that in the balance-sheet section of the Federal Reserve flow-of-funds accounts, where the now-famous $1.93 trillion appears, investments in liquid assets are a use of funds, not a source of funds.
I couldn’t have said this better in my finance classes, and I probably will have to say it in macro classes in the fall:
The widely repeated notion that prudent corporate investments in liquid assets have somehow reduced real investments or hiring is unqualified nonsense based on inexcusable ignorance of elementary economics and accounting.