Corporations still won’t circulate ‘dead money’

Posted on April 9, 2013 in Delivery System – opinion/commentary – Despite Mark Carney’s scolding and Jim Flaherty’s tax breaks, corporations continue to sit on massive stockpiles of cash.
Apr 08 2013. By: Carol Goar

Eight weeks from now Mark Carney, the boldest and least stuffy governor the Bank of Canada has ever had, will be gone. It looks as if he’s going to lose one of his last battles.

Last August Carney appealed to corporate Canada to put the “dead money” sitting in its coffers to work creating jobs, investing in new products and updating its technology. Business executives reared up angrily at his presumption and kept socking away their earnings.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty chimed in. “There’s a lot of capital sitting out there that needs to get engaged,” he said, urging business to help him prod Canada’s sputtering economy back to life.

At the time, corporate Canada was sitting on $526 billion in inert cash.

After its initial burst of indignation, Big Business offered a more rational defence; it was bulking up to withstand economic turbulence, waiting until investment conditions were better, acting in the best interests of shareholders.

Then it went back to business-as-usual.

Seven months later, nothing has changed. Carney still believes corporate reserves (now up to $600 billion) are holding back the Canadian economy. Business leaders are still biding their time.

That is what they intend to keep doing. According to Deloitte Canada’s 2013 outlook, “defensive balance sheet strategies are the order of the day.” Its survey of chief financial officers showed their companies’ top priorities were cutting costs and bolstering cash flow. Capital spending ranked a distant fourth. “By and large, big companies have the power to invest,” the consultancy said. “The missing ingredient — and one which holds the key to corporate behaviour — is confidence about future growth.”

Until someone breaks this vicious cycle — uncertain growth, weak business confidence, delayed investment and hiring — the economy will limp along.

That has implications for both the government and the public.

It casts doubt on the centrepiece of Flaherty’s March budget, a $53.5-billion Canada Job Grant program designed to train Canadians to meet the demands of employers. It is a shared-cost initiative requiring the provinces and employers to match Ottawa’s contribution. If business doesn’t participate, the scheme will be stillborn. Federal job-training funding could actually go down. And the minister’s projection of 130,000 newly trained workers a year will be a pipe dream.

It raises questions about the value of the $1.4 billion in investment tax credits he offered the corporate sector to do more research, open new markets and modernize their factories and equipment. They all require capital spending, which doesn’t appear to be on the corporate sector’s agenda.

And it leaves taxpayers wondering what the nation is getting for the $60 billion in corporate tax cuts the Conservatives have doled out since they took office. The recipients of this largesse aren’t using it to spur economic growth. They aren’t creating jobs. And they aren’t turning scientific discoveries into commercially viable products.

Eventually, Flaherty or his successor will have to recognize Ottawa isn’t getting much bang for its buck. Corporations keep taking federal tax cuts — even demanding them — without providing any payback.

Eventually the prime minister will have to rethink the wisdom of dispensing no-strings-attached tax relief to businesses that ignore the will of government and the needs of the nation.

But it won’t happen on Carney’s watch. Although he won respect around the world, he could not persuade Canada’s captains of industry to dip into their massive cash reserves to get the economy moving.

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