In early October, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released a report titled “Restoring America’s Lagging Investment in Capital Goods,” by Luke A. Steward and Robert D. Atkinson. The report analyzes trends in private sector investment in capital goods over the last three decades, investigates the causes of the current decline, and proposes policy reforms designed to spur increased investment growth. The authors warn that this serious decline in capital investment over the last decade is a key threat to economic growth.
The authors state, “Private capital investment is the primary means through which innovation, the key driver of economic growth, diffuses throughout the economy.” Business investment in equipment, software and structures grew by only 0.5 percent from 2000 and 2011 compared to an average of 2.7 percent between 1980 and 1989 and 5.2 percent per year between 1990 and 1999.
The authors make a strong case about why capital investment matters in developed, knowledge-based economies like the United States. While innovation powers long-run economic growth, the mere act of innovating is not sufficient to grow an economy. Innovation must diffuse through the economy by being adopted by other companies that seek to improve productivity or the quality of products or services. It is the purchase of machinery, equipment, and software by companies that is capital investment that spreads the innovation throughout the economy.
“Capital investment acts as a diffuser of innovation because innovation is embedded in new investment” Industrial equipment such as engines, metalworking machinery, and materials handling equipment; transportation equipment like trucks and aircraft; construction machinery, agricultural or mining equipment are now “infused with highly advanced technologies, and each new generation is better than the last.”
After a comparison of neoclassical economies and neo-Keynesian economies with innovation economies such as the United States, they conclude that innovation economies require high rates of capital investment in order to be utilized. This innovation economy is also referred to as “the new growth theory, in which investment in new machinery, equipment and software spreads innovation. By high rates of investment, they do not mean a high amount of equipment, software and structures. They “mean that the capital stock is refreshed and replaced with newer and more productive machinery, equipment and software.” They write, “The value of investment is not in acquiring more machinery and equipment; it is in acquiring newer and more productive equipment… A high rate of investment enables innovations to swiftly spread through the economy, bestowing their economic benefits upon their users.”
The authors show that a second reason why “capital investment matters is that it has substantial ‘spillover’ benefits—that is, benefits not just for the firm making the investment, but also for the rest of society…Many economists acknowledge that investments in the production of innovation (such as R&D) have spillovers, and that this is why policies like the R&D tax credit are important. But fewer recognize that investments in new machines, equipment and software also have spillovers.”
The report continues with an analysis of capital investment trends, focusing on information processing equipment and software (IPES). While IPES assets grew at the very rapid rate of 681 percent compared to the next highest, transportation, at 69 percent from 1980 to 2011, the growth rate of even IPES stagnated in the decade of the 2000s.
The authors conclude: “This stagnation means that business investment rates are actually falling relative to the size of the economy…As a share of GDP, fixed investment was higher in the early 1980s—around 13 percent of GDP—than in any subsequent year. In 2011, fixed investment accounted for less than 10 percent of GDP. Given that it is investment that drives productivity growth, these statistics are sobering. Out of all the fundamental components of GDP—consumption, investment, government, and net exports—a fall in the relative magnitude of investment is the most worrying in terms of future economic performance.”
While equipment investment is far more important than investment in structures (buildings), in 2011, “the number of new manufacturing structures is no longer keeping pace with the depreciation of existing manufacturing structures, which, in turn, means that the real quantity of manufacturing facilities in the United States is shrinking…Between 2001 and 2011, the net stock of manufacturing structures fell by more than nine percent, a fall which, given investment’s continued decline, will also undoubtedly continue.”
A decline in value of manufacturing structures in the United States is only a symptom, not a driver, of a decline in the international competitiveness of the U.S. manufacturing sector. The decline of “investment equipment and software investment is more of a driver of competitiveness, and thus its decline is far more ominous.”
Total business investment in equipment and software grew in the 1980s, boomed in the 1990s, and then stagnated in the 2000s. Between 1980 and 1991, equipment and software investment increased by 37 percent compared to just 2 percent between 2000 and 2011. This means that investment in equipment and software is falling relative to the size of the economy just like total investment.
The picture looks even worse when the IPES assets are removed from total equipment assets, leaving only assets such as industrial machinery and transportation equipment. “Instead of merely stagnant growth, non-IPES investment has declined over eight percent since 2000.”
The next section of the report compares investment in equipment and software by industry, showing that “the composition of investment went from being spread over a broad base of sectors, especially in the 1990s, to being concentrated in a few select sectors in the 2000s.” Industries such as trade and transportation, health, and management and professional services expanded slightly. “Manufacturing led in the 1980s and 1990s but was displaced in the 2000s by finance and real estate, much of that made in the ramp up to the financial collapse of 2008.”
Not only did business investment stagnate in the 2000s, but investment is “now much more concentrated in a few select domestic-serving services industries, and industries that once powered U.S. investment growth and global competitiveness are now falling behind,” such as computers and chemical products.
The investment trends in the computer and electronic products industry are even worse than other manufacturing sectors: “a 36 percent decline in equipment and software investment since 2000.”
The authors propose two possible reasons for the causes of investment stagnation:
- Decline in the competiveness of U.S. traded-sector businesses on the global market that has been occurring, particularly over at least the past decade
- “Short-termism”—the obsession with the upcoming financial report rather than long-range planning—that pervades publicly traded businesses facing stockholder pressures
Numerous other reports have described the U.S. competitive decline over the past decade so this report just summarizes a few of the key points that have been made in other reports and previous articles I have written. The end result is that the United States has lost its attractiveness as a production location for manufacturing, and when those businesses move offshore to other countries, they take their investment along with them. In addition, fewer foreign firms are making investments here in the United States. Thus, investment declines in one industry sector after another.
With regard to “short-termism,” the authors mean “the pressure on companies by Wall Street to achieve short-term profits has all too often come at the expense of long-term investment.” In other words, executives are willing to “delay new investment projects in order to meet short-term earnings targets, even if it meant sacrifices in value creation.”
Atkinson and Steward urge policymakers to put in place new policies to encourage the private sector to restore investment rates and stem the decline and stimulate new investment and productivity growth. They recognize that the first step to addressing market short-termism is for Congress and the Obama administration to acknowledge and take the problem seriously, and the next step is to begin a detailed analysis of the problem. They recommend the following actions:
Establish a Task Force to Study Market Short-Termism and Recommend Policies to Ameliorate It ? The White House should establish a task force, led by the National Economic Council, bringing together members of the Council of Economic Advisers and the Treasury Department, to study the causes and nature of short-termism and draft a set of recommendations to ameliorate it. “The task force should analyze all potential options for reigning in market short-termism, ranging from changes to tax law to corporate governance solutions to encouraging changes in the U.S. corporate cultures within business schools, corporate boardrooms and ‘Wall Street.’”
Establish a Tax Credit for Investing in Equipment and Software ? Congress should enact an investment tax credit (ITC) to provide a 35 percent credit on all capital expenditures made above 75 percent of a base amount. The ITC would be modeled on the Alternative Simplified Research and Experimentation Tax Credit (ASC).
This report proves that as investment declines, economic growth declines, and as economic growth declines, the capital available for investment and demand for new investment declines. If this trend continues, innovation will slow, competitiveness will continue to decline, and productivity growth will weaken. I agree with the authors that “it is essential that policymakers make challenging this problem a top priority. The authors’ policy recommendations may not be the only solutions to the problem, but “many countries have similar policies in place already—they will at least put the United States on a more equal f