Cautious corporates sitting on hoards of cash are to blame for our slow recovery

Paul Ormerod
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Capitalism must be seen to be delivering the goods, and many of our major companies are simply not doing this (Source: Getty)

The slow recovery since the financial crisis has remained a dominant issue in both political and economic debate.

The economy has definitely revived since 2009 – the depth of the recession – in both Britain and America. The average annual growth in both countries in real GDP has been very similar, at around two per cent.

This is much better than in the Mediterranean economies, where growth over the 2009-2016 period is still negative. Even so, the Anglo-Saxon countries have not expanded as rapidly as they have done in previous recoveries.

Read more: Ignore the cranks: Orthodox economics can account for the 2008 financial crash

A key reason for this is the lack of vision being shown by the corporate sector. True, highly innovative companies like Facebook have emerged over the past decade, and startups continue to proliferate.

But the longer standing major firms in both the UK and the US have become real stick-in-the-muds. Caution, a culture of “safety first”, and an increasingly stultifying bureaucracy envelop them.

The contrast in the behaviour of the corporate sector in the two major financial crises of the 1930s and late 2000s makes this clear. The US national accounts only have data going back to 1929, the year before the Great Recession. But in that year, the net savings of non-financial companies was 3.5 per cent of GDP.

When the recession struck, firms ran down their accumulated cash. Between 1930 and 1934, their net savings were negative, averaging minus 2.4 per cent of GDP. That amounts to a shift during the recession from a surplus of $650bn in 1929 to an annual overspend of $450bn in today’s prices.

In the US, during the decade prior to the 2007 crash, companies on average had net savings of 2.6 per cent of GDP each year. Since 2009, this has averaged four per cent. So instead of spending their assets, as they did in the 1930s, companies this time round have simply saved more.

To be fair, American firms are gradually moving back towards their savings patterns prior to the crisis. From 5.4 per cent of GDP in 2010, net savings in 2016 were back down to 3.1 per cent. They are gradually getting their confidence back – their “animal spirits” as Keynes called it.

There are signs of this happening in Britain as well. Between 1998 and 2007, net savings by non-financial companies averaged 1.3 per cent of GDP. From the trough of the recession to now, the annual average has been 2.7 per cent. As in the US, the figure has come down from 2009-2011, when it averaged 3.8 per cent. But firms remain cautious.

In both the UK and the US, companies are sitting on piles of cash and lack the entrepreneurial spirit to spend it. Boards obsess about fashionable concepts such as lean and agile processes and management. At the same time, they set up procurement systems more suited to the old Soviet Union in terms of the tick box mentality which prevails.

Capitalism must be seen to be delivering the goods, and many of our major companies are simply not doing this.

Read more: Capitalism must work for the many, not the few

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