The Federal Reserve recently reported that America’s 500 largest nonfinancial companies have accumulated an astonishing $1.8 trillion of cash on their balance sheets. By any calculation (for example, as a percentage of assets), this is higher than it has been in almost half a century. And yet, most corporations are not spending this money on new plants, equipment, or workers. Were they to begin loosening their purse strings, hundreds of billions of dollars would start pouring through the economy. And these investments would likely have greater effect and staying power than a government stimulus.
Now, let me be clear. I think there is a strong case for a temporary and targeted government stimulus….But government spending can only be a bridge to private-sector investment. The key to a sustainable recovery and robust economic growth is to get companies to start investing in America. So why are they reluctant, despite having mounds of cash lying around? I put this question to a series of business leaders over the past few days. They were all expansive on the topic, and all wanted to stay off the record, for fear of offending people in Washington.
Economic uncertainty was the primary cause of their caution. “We’ve just been through a tsunami, and that produces caution,” one said to me. But in addition to economics, they kept talking about politics, about the uncertainty surrounding regulations and taxes. Some have even begun to speak out publicly. Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, complained last Friday that government was not in sync with entrepreneurs. The Business Roundtable, which had supported the Obama administration, has begun to complain about the myriad new laws and regulations being cooked up in Washington.