Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Profits, Interest, and Inflation

US corporate profits set a record in the third quarter. As Matthew Yglesias points out, that’s not as impressive as it sounds: profits are measured in nominal dollars, and they normally rise during times of economic expansion, so there’s nothing at all unusual about seeing them make new highs. After taking a closer look at the data, Justin Fox is even less impressed: as a fraction of the national income, domestic nonfinancial corporate profits are nowhere near a new high; the big numbers are coming from financial corporations (which are bouncing back strongly from the losses they had a few years ago) and from foreign earnings of US corporations. Kevin Drum is not quite so unimpressed, though: he looks at the data and sees domestic nonfinancial corporate profits recovering nicely in any case.

Count me with the unimpressed, but for different reasons. It’s really not appropriate, in my view, to look at profits in isolation from the rest of the national income. Profits are a form of capital income. Capital income can be roughly divided into profits and interest, depending on how the capital was financed. If we’re interested in the general profitability of business activities, rather than the narrow question of whether current stockholders are getting rich, we should be looking at total capital income. You might have noticed that interest rates are way down from where they were a few years ago, which probably means that there has been a substantial decline in the interest portion of capital income. So total capital income from domestic nonfinancial operations is almost certainly lower than it was before the recession.

It’s true that, even if capital returns are not very high, they can still be conducive to a recovery if the required return on capital has fallen. Indeed, the lowness of interest rates partly reflects attempts by the Fed to reduce the required return on capital. To that extent, we can be impressed by rising profits.

But the lowness of interest rates also reflects a decline in the expected inflation rate. This factor is not reflected in the raw profit statistics, and it does make them less impressive. In nominal terms, before the recession, corporations were expecting to see rising product prices, so, for any given nominal rate of profit, they were more likely to invest in new projects and more likely to hire. Today, product prices are not expected to rise very much, so today’s nominal profit has to “stand on its own,” as it were, as an indicator of how profitable any new project will be. So, by comparison, things are not going as well today as they might appear. As Justin Fox says, members of the domestic business community “have every right to be cranky.”

I do, however, concur with Matthew Yglesias’ conclusion that the trends are in the right direction. An increasing number of indicators suggest that things are improving, but I don’t expect the improvement to be rapid.

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management. This article should not be construed as investment advice, and is not an offer to participate in any investment strategy or product.