Economist Dean Baker of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research has just performed a valuable service. He’s looked under the hood of U.S. economic data and found a major, under-reported feature of the economy’s business spending performance under President Trump so far: A lot of the improvement has come in the energy sector, and therefore stems from energy price increases that have little to do with Washington policy decisions.
And if the story ended there, Baker would be justified in dousing “Trump capex (capital expenditures) rebound” claims with lots of cold water. But it doesn’t.
As Baker points out, energy-related capital spending accounted for more than 40 percent of the total increase in all capital spending recorded in the official government data since last year. That is indeed big-time out-performance, and there’s no doubt that (like the energy-related business investment bust that began in late 2014) it’s largely due to energy price changes. When the price of oil and natural gas goes up, businesses (understandably) conclude that demand is rising, drill more, and need more drilling equipment and the like. When energy prices fall, this spending just as understandably tends to sink.
Even so, if you look at the policy landscape, there’s a case for giving the administration some credit for the energy investment recovery. Specifically, it’s rolled back some important regulations in the industry, and has spoken repeatedly of eliminating more. And interestingly, this latest increase in energy-related business spending has taken place much faster than the previous surge, under former President Barack Obama – who was not exactly a fossil fuels booster.
Yet developments outside the energy sector indicate even more powerfully that the economy could be seeing a Trump effect on capex. The key is examining spending on equipment. Whatever the effect of energy-related spending on the business investment totals, equipment’s is much bigger. Even after the latest spurt in energy, it still represents less than four percent of the business spending total (officially called non-residential private fixed investment). The latest figures show the equipment share is more than ten times larger – nearly 48 percent.
So although equipment spending has increased by only 5.93 percent during the Trump era, that rise amounts to just over $62 billion – much more than the energy-related spending increase. And more telling, this advance follows a 3.38 percent yearly drop in this spending category in 2016. In fact, equipment capex was down on net from the third quarter of 2014 through the fourth quarter of last year. The last time it fell for that long a stretch was during the last (historically terrible) recession (when the plummet was much greater and lasted considerably longer).
All the same, let’s not forget that the Trump administration is still only one year old. So a wait-and-see attitude is probably best for both sides of the Trump effect capex debate. And to the extent that any patterns can be discerned, not surprisingly, the truth so far seems to lie somewhere in between.