Rancho Santana, Nicaragua
Watch out as sovereigns eye company cash piles
By David Bowers
Much has been written about how the developed world must tackle its structural budget deficits. But the link that remains to be properly recognised is that the counterparts to those 'unsustainable' public-sector budget deficits are equally 'unsustainable' corporate-sector surpluses.
The conventional wisdom believes that the current sovereign debt crisis is the result of governments having been too profligate. But it is not that governments have been spending 'too much' that is the problem; it is that corporates have been spending 'too little'. Moreover, because this corporate saving is the main counterpart to the government's borrowing, until companies start to spend again, the burden of fiscal adjustment will have to fall on cutbacks in public services and higher personal taxation. It is time to shift the debate away from talking about the fiscal position, and focus instead on whether it is a shift in corporate behaviour that is responsible for the fiscal mess in the developed world.
It is very unusual for the corporate sectors to run sustained financial surpluses. Look back at the UK and the US for more than half a century and the corporate sector has tended to be a net borrower, not a net saver.
What has prompted the recent move into financial surplus has been the decision by companies to step away from investment. Investment-to-gross domestic product ratios in the developed world are now close to the lowest levels seen in 60 years. Corporates appear to have decided to run themselves for cash, and not for growth. It is this profound shift in corporate behaviour that policymakers and politicians have been slow to spot. Until this behaviour changes - or is changed - it will be very hard to improve the fiscal arithmetic.
In the Reagan-Thatcher era, politicians cut taxes so that companies would come to their country, invest, create jobs ... so that those politicians could, in turn, be re-elected. It does not work like that anymore; globalisation has seen to that. The reality is that public services used by the '99 per cent' are taking the strain, while attractive corporate tax regimes are protected. Just as the trade-union barons of the 70s failed to see the writing on the wall, so the global captains of industry may suffer a similar fate unless they put their cash to work in the countries in which they are domiciled.
The Argentines are the pacesetters for all modern governments. And the Financial Times is their newspaper of reference. It's what the policy makers read. And the bankers.
Here, the Financial Times makes it clear what the policy makers should think: that corporations are to blame for current financial problems. They haven't invested their money the way they should. If they'd invested more, instead of paying dividends and bonuses to rich people, we'd have more jobs...more spending and more growth.
Surely the feds can help them find ways to "invest" their money...
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*** "I love the US...but it does seem to be going in a bad direction," said a friend in Miami.
"You look around here and everything looks good. The grass and trees are all manicured. People are prosperous. But you go inland and it's a different story. A lot of people in Florida don't have two dimes. That's why you see so many old people working. They're taking tickets at the amusement parks. They're working the cruise ships. They're parking cars. They don't have any money. They have to work to make ends meet.
"And the real estate market here is a disaster. People tell you it's bottoming out. I don't see it. What I see are few transactions...the market is very soft. People keep thinking they're going to buy at the bottom. They buy...and then the bottom sinks some more.
"This is a consumer society down here. People live in suburbs...almost the whole state is suburb. They go to work. They come home. They go out to eat. They go out to shop.
"At any hour of the day, you'll see work vans in about half the driveways. Someone's cutting a lawn or fixing a cable TV. Nobody does these things for himself. That's the way people live down here. They call someone. It's money in and money out...all the time. Nobody's got any savings...or any time. It's go...go...go...You go to work. Then you go shopping.
"And it can't stop. If it just slows down a little, the state goes into a slump. Everybody is checking his cellphone or I-phone or email all the time. He can't stop either. It's go, go, go....
"Nobody can take the time to think or even to wonder. That's why a real depression now would be much worst than the Great Depression of the '30s. Nobody can sit still. They can't wait for it to pass. They can't stop to breathe...or think...or wait for all the problems to clear up. They can't relax and wait for an uneconomic upturn. They have to work.
"They've got to have money coming in...and money going out.
"You know, I've been reading your Daily Reckoning for years. And the one lesson I take from it is that you have to have some savings...so you're not forced to run on the treadmill all the time. You need some money and some time. Otherwise, you're never going to figure out what is going on. And you're not going to have a clue of how to make any money. You just go from day to day...from job to job...from one shop to the next mall...from bill to bill...
"Scientists have done some studies on how the brain works. They found that most of what we do is reactive... Like someone throws a ball at you...you reach out and catch it. Quick response.
"But there are some things where the brain needs time. Some kinds of deep thought require, well, reflection. And nobody has time for reflection when they are on the computer or the I-phone...or rushing to get something done...
"And nobody can stop to think when they are having trouble paying their bills. That's why you need savings. That's why you need to have a garden, too. Nobody's got a garden down here in South Florida. We have to go to the supermarket to buy our food.
"Of course, that's part of the problem. If you have to work to prepare your food, you get better food...and you don't get fat. But now you have to work to not get fat. Otherwise, food is just another distraction...like the I-phone or the internet. You eat because it's easier than thinking. It saves you from having to figure things out.
"You work. You drive. You shop. You check email. You call people. You eat. Money in. Money out. There's no stopping it. No hesitating. No time to think. No time just to let things be."
Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.