Earlier this month, Tim Worstall explained why the huffing and puffing over the increased share of corporate profits in the US GDP figures is misdirected:
There’s all sorts of Very Serious People running around shouting about how the capitalist plutocrats are taking ever greater shares of the US economy. This might even be true but one of the pieces of evidence that is relied upon is not actually telling us what people seem to be concluding it is. The reason is that we’re in an age of increased globalisation. This means that large American companies (we mostly think of the tech companies here, Apple, Google, Microsoft) are making large profits outside America. However, when we measure the profit share of the US economy we are measuring those offshore profits as being part of the US economy. But we’re not also measuring the labour income that goes along with the generation of those profits. It’s thus very misleading indeed to be using this profit share as an indication of the capitalist plutocrats rooking us all.
It’s possible that that rise in the profit share is actually nothing at all to do with the US domestic economy. If American corporations are now making much larger foreign profits than they used to then that could be the explanation. No, it makes no difference about whether they repatriate those profits, nor whether they pay tax on them: those foreign profits will be included in GNP either way. Note also that measuring the profit share this way is rather misleading. Yes, it does, obviously because this is the way we calculate it, mean that the profit share of GNP is rising. But we’re not including the labour income that goes along with the generation of those profits. That’s all off in the GNP (or GDP) of the countries where the sales and manufacturing are taking place. The only part of this economic activity that we’re including in US GNP is that profit margin.
Now to backpeddle a little bit. I do not in fact insist that this is the entire explanation of the increased profit share. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was but I don’t insist that it’s the entire explanation. I do however insist that it is part of the explanation. The sums being earned offshore by large American companies are large enough to show up as multiple percentage points of the US economy. So some of that change in the profit share is just because American companies are doing well elsewhere in the world. It’s got very little to almost no relevance to the American economy itself that they are. At least, not in the sense that it’s being used here, to talk about the declining labour share. Because these profits simply aren’t coming from the domestic American economy therefore they can’t have any influence upon the percentage of that American economy that labour gets.
This does, of course, have public policy implications. If the above is the whole and total reason for the fall in the labour share of GNP then obviously we can raise the labour share of GNP just by telling American companies not to make profits in foreign countries. Which would be a completely ridiculous thing to do of course. But given that that would indeed solve this perceived problem, and also that it’s a ridiculous thing to do, means that the worries over the problem itself are also ridiculous. So, we don’t actually need a public policy response to it.