8/6/21: This Recession Is Different: Corporate Profits Boom

 

Corporate profits guidance is booming. Which, one might think, is a good signal of recovery. But the recession that passed (or still passing, officially) has been abnormal by historical standards, shifting expectations for the recovery to a different level of ‘bizarre’.

Consider non-financial corporate profits through prior cycles: 

Chart 1 above shows non-financial corporate profits per 1 USD of official gross value added in the economy. In all past recessions, save for three, going into recession, corporate profit margins fell below pre-recession average. Three exceptions to the rule are: 1949 recession, 1981 recession and, you guessed it, the Covid19 recession. In other words, all three abnormal recessions were associated with significant rises in market power of producers over consumers. And prior abnormal recessions led to subsequent need for monetary tightening to stem inflationary pressures. Not yet the case in the most recent one.

The second chart plots increases in corporate profit margins in the recoveries relative to prior recessions. Data is through 1Q 2021, so we do not yet have an official ‘recovery’ quarter to plot. If we are to treat 1Q 2021 as ‘recovery’ first quarter, profits in this recovery are below pre-recovery recession period average by 2 percentage points. Again, the case of two other recessions compares: the post-1949 recession recovery and post-1980s recovery are both associated with negative reaction of profits to economic cycle shift from recession to recovery.

Which means two things:

  1. Market power of producers is rising from the end of 2019 through today, if we assume that 1Q 2021 was not, yet, a recovery quarter (officially, this is the case, as NBER still times 1Q 2021 as part of the recession); and
  2. Non-financial corporate profits boom we are seeing reported to-date for 2Q 2021 is a sign not of a healthier economy, but of the first point made above.
In effect, some evidence that Covid19 pandemic was a transfer of wealth from people to companies that managed to trade through the crisis. 


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