Since profits are high while borrowing costs are low, why aren’t we seeing a boom in business investment? And, no, investment isn’t depressed because President Obama has hurt the feelings of business leaders or because they’re terrified by the prospect of universal health insurance.
Well, there’s no puzzle here if rising profits reflect rents, not returns on investment. A monopolist can, after all, be highly profitable yet see no good reason to expand its productive capacity. And Apple again provides a case in point: It is hugely profitable, yet it’s sitting on a giant pile of cash, which it evidently sees no need to reinvest in its business.
Or to put it differently, rising monopoly rents can and arguably have had the effect of simultaneously depressing both wages and the perceived return on investment.
You might suspect that this can’t be good for the broader economy, and you’d be right. If household income and hence household spending is held down because labor gets an ever-smaller share of national income, while corporations, despite soaring profits, have little incentive to invest, you have a recipe for persistently depressed demand. I don’t think this is the only reason our recovery has been so weak — weak recoveries are normal after financial crises — but it’s probably a contributory factor.
UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a great follow up post on exactly this issue. He emphasizes the possibility of monopoly rents. Note that this isn’t the only model of production that can yield monopoly rents – you could also get rising rents if there are fixed factors in production (e.g. land, managerial talent, etc.).
UPDATE 2: Delong has a post on this topic as well.