Why the US Economy Just Keeps Growing

Corporate behaviour has played a major role in keeping the US economy expanding longer says John Rekenthaler

John Rekenthaler 19 October, 2018 | 7:05AM
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The National Bureau of Economic Research measures the current US economic expansion at 111 months and counting. The current period is the second-longest expansion of NBER's 160-year history, behind only the 1991-2001 boom. That both events are recent is no accident. Of the 34 expansions chronicled by NBER, the past four are each among the six lengthiest.

Some would say this comes from better governance. Corporate executives, as with the rest of us, are products of their times. Their decisions are affected by how other executives behave, what Wall Street advocates, and counsel from the leading business schools. As those influences shift, so do their habits. And those influences have definitely shifted.

Shareholder Value

A major catalyst was the doctrine of maximising shareholder value, traditionally credited to Milton Friedman, in 1970. Friedman was concerned with a company’s social responsibilities, which, he maintained, should not exist. Its sole duty was to boost the value of its shareholders’ equity investments.

The approach has become mainstream for U.S. businesses. In doing so, it has expanded beyond its original boundaries. Friedman advocated that corporations pursue the highest possible profits, but he did not specify in his shareholder-value doctrine how that would be accomplished. Those items came later, from other parties, who wrapped their recommendations with the name of Friedman.

Chief among these has been the admonition against "empire-building."

All things being equal, CEOs would prefer to run large companies rather than small ones. They would rather hire employees than fire them; purchase rival firms rather than sell to them; offer more products rather than fewer.

The principle of shareholder value strives to make those all things not equal. By attaching executive compensation to share prices, it rewards executive decisions that raise stock-market prices. And, critically, punishes those who do not.

Sticks and Stones

The key lies in the follow-through. Professional investors aren’t disinterested parties; they have money to wield. When they follow their criticism by selling the shares of the companies that strike them as having been extravagant, the threat becomes real. That company's stock price declines, the CEO is chastened, and the example has been set for others.

Thus have corporate managements been trained. The process has been gradual, but persistent, and has gained strength with each new economic cycle. By 2009, the distrust of overspending was applied to all aspects of a company's business. In this cycle, acquisitions, internal development, and new-share issuance have all been sceptically met. Conversely, firms that cut their payrolls and/or repurchased their stock have been praised.

Slow but Steady

This collective corporate caution has depressed employment growth. Traditionally, companies hired first when the economy burst out of recession, then asked questions later. Managements were horrified at the possibility of losing market share, because they weren't staffed to service the business. Not anymore. Better to play catch-up than to overstaff.

Slower employment growth means slower wage growth. Workers who know that a firm can readily replace them have little bargaining power. Their demands will be modest, as will be their raises. Slower wage growth permits corporate managements to keep tight control of their cost structures, such that even a moderate increase in orders can lead to sharply rising profits.

This situation, clearly, is more sustainable than with earlier business cycles, which were marked by frenetic hiring, rapidly developing wage pressures, inflationary upticks, spiking interest rates, and a sudden return to economic Earth, as higher interest rates choked off business activity, and sent the boom back to bust. Gradual economic recoveries disappoint labour – but they benefit capital.

Economic Forces

I should not overstate the case. The doctrine of shareholder value is far from the only innovation to lengthen the business cycle. That the U.S. economy has evolved from manufacturing to services matters, as has the invention of just-in-time supply chains. Managing customer demand has become easier – or, at least, different – and the tools for doing so have become stronger.

Also important is that American industry has become more concentrated, and therefore less competitive. How much this owes to technological changes, as opposed to government forces, is an open debate.

Those who argue the former point out that Amazon.com's (AMZN) business is easier to protect than, say, that of a commodity steel provider, while those who argue the latter fault the Department of Justice for failing to enforce antitrust statutes. But there is no quarrel about the fact.

None of this means that the business cycle has been repealed. Eventually, as has recently occurred, full employment is reached, and wage pressures begin in earnest. In addition, companies assume more risk, just when less risk is required. After a long economic expansion, their cautious leaders have been chased out, replaced by the aggressors. That pro-cyclical tendency can be managed, perhaps, but not eliminated.

I do think it likely, however, that after the next economic trough is reached, that the ensuing expansion will once again be lengthy. The current cycle's behaviour is no fluke. It owes to deep underlying forces that took many decades to develop, and which will require many to unwind.

John Rekenthaler has been researching the fund industry since 1988. He is now a columnist for Morningstar.com and a member of Morningstar's investment research department. John is quick to point out that while Morningstar typically agrees with the views of the Rekenthaler Report, his views are his own.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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John Rekenthaler

John Rekenthaler  John Rekenthaler is vice president of research for Morningstar.