Disgorge the Cash: The Disconnect Between Corporate Borrowing and Investment

By J.W. Mason |

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This paper provides evidence that the strong empirical relationship of corporate cash flow and borrowing to productive corporate investment has disappeared in the last 30 years and has been replaced with corporate funds and shareholder payouts. Whereas firms once borrowed to invest and improve their long-term performance, they now borrow to enrich their investors in the short-run. This is the result of legal, managerial, and structural changes that resulted from the shareholder revolution of the 1980s. Under the older, managerial, model, more money coming into a firm – from sales or from borrowing – typically meant more money spent on fixed investment. In the new rentier-dominated model, more money coming in means more money flowing out to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks.

These results have important implications for macroeconomic policy. The shareholder revolution – and its implications for corporate financing decisions – may help explain why higher corporate profits in recent business cycles have generally failed to lead to high levels of investment. And under this new system, cheaper money from lower interest rates will fail to stimulate investment, growth, and wages because, as we show here, additional funds are funneled to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.

Key Findings

  • In the 1960s and 1970s, an additional dollar of earnings or borrowing was associated with about a 40-cent increase in investment. Since the 1980s, less than 10 cents of each borrowed dollar is invested.
  • Since the 1980s, shareholder payouts have nearly doubled; in the second half of 2007, aggregate payouts actually exceeded aggregate investment. Today, there is a strong correlation between shareholder payouts and borrowing that did not exist before the mid-1980s.
  • This change in corporate finance, associated with the “shareholder revolution”, means there is good reason to believe that the real economy benefits less from the easier credit provided by macroeconomic policy than it once did.

J.W. Mason is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on the Financialization Project, and an assistant professor of economics at John Jay College, CUNY. He blogs on economics and politics at The Slack Wire. Follow him on Twitter @jwmason1.