Tax reform gave Apple more cash than it knows what to do with

Tax reform gave Apple more cash than it knows what to do with
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While being interviewed by Fox News at the recent Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, Steve Mnuchin referred to share buybacks as representing “excess capital.” Excess is defined as an amount of something that is more than necessary, permitted or desirable.

A clear example of these excesses was on display when Apple announced it would buy back $100 billion of its stock on top of its first quarter $23.5 billion in buybacks. To put this excess of capital in perspective, consider how much Apple announced it would be investing after passage of the recent tax bill: $30 billion in U.S. facilities.

This is less than one-third of the recently announced buybacks. Clearly, Apple has more cash than it knows what to do with. It is not alone. Five companies including Apple have $673 billion in cash, that is one-third of the estimated $1.9 trillion in company cash holdings.

What adds insult to the injury of spending three times more on share buybacks than investment is that some of the investments would have been made without the tax cuts.

When asked about how much of the investment in the U.S. was because of tax cuts Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook said, “There’s large parts of this that are results of tax reform, and there are large parts we would have done in any situation.”

Why are large corporations flush with cash spending more on share buybacks than investment? For that you need to look to their customers, and their customers are struggling to keep up.

While corporations have piles of cash approaching $2 trillion and earnings growth expected to exceed 16 percent in the first quarter after passage of the tax bill, first-quarter consumer wage growth was essentially flat at 2.69 percent versus 2.65 percent in the quarter before passage of the tax bill.

In the absence of stronger wage growth, consumers have been borrowing more and saving less. In 2017, consumer debt hit a record $13.2 trillion. Meanwhile, consumer savings rates are down from 5.7 percent just two years ago to 3.1 percent, well-below the long-term average.

Yet, even with all this debt and saving less, consumers have been unable to keep up their spending pace after passage of the tax bill. The pace of consumer spending growth contracted in the first quarter to 1.1 percent, the lowest in nearly five years.

This imbalance between large corporations’ large and growing cash piles and limited consumer consumption capacity is a critical constraint on economic growth, especially when one remembers that consumption comprises approximately 70 percent of gross domestic product.

Small wonder Apple and other companies have spent more on share buybacks than investment, their consumers are struggling just to keep up. I don’t blame Apple for spending more on share buybacks than investment.

Even if Apple and other large companies did invest more and increased production, consumer spending wouldn’t be able to keep up and therein lies the real source of our uninspiring economic growth: the imbalance between large company cash piles and the limited cash consumers have available to spend.

Consumers are not the only ones who would have benefitted from even larger tax breaks instead of giving tax breaks to companies with excess cash. While five companies alone have $673 billion in cash, small businesses are constrained by limited cash and access to capital for expansion.

According to a Harvard study on small business lending, 43 percent of small businesses applying for credit were either rejected or only received a portion of the proceeds requested.

While banks and bond markets are falling over themselves to lend money to the Apple’s of the world, small business growth is constrained by capital limitations — those are the companies that needed tax cuts, not cash-rich companies like Apple that would spend more on share buybacks than hiring and investment.

Rather than giving large, cash-rich companies massive tax cuts, greater tax cuts for consumers and small businesses would have done far more to stimulate economic growth. What the economy needed from tax reform was additional money in the pockets of consumers and small businesses, not already cash-rich corporations.

But, perhaps the real cash piles that mattered when it came to tax policy were the piles of cash large companies spent on campaign donations and lobbying. I guest that is why they used to call it the political economy and not just the economy.

Chris Macke is the founder of Solutionomics, a think tank focused on developing solutions and recommendations for a more efficient, merit-based corporate tax code. He has advised the U.S. Federal Reserve by providing market updates and implications of monetary policy changes on asset valuations and market distortions, and he's a contributor to the Fed Beige Book. Find him on Twitter: @solutionomics.