We can’t predict when profits will peak, but we can predict the catalyst.
Profits are dangerously elevated by all reasonable measures. S&P 500 Index real earnings per share are far above their long-term historical trend. Industry profit margins are at or near all-time highs. Corporate profits, both as a percentage of GDP and relative to labor income, are at or near record levels. The dramatic rise in income inequality is a direct consequence of this spectacular reallocation of income to capital and away from labor.
For nearly a quarter century, we have experienced profits growing at a faster clip than GDP. Extrapolating this trend into the future is speculative at best. Equilibrium real growth in earnings per share cannot exceed real growth in per capita GDP, real growth in wages, and real productivity growth, on a long-term basis, without violating our sense of social fairness: More rapid growth in profits than GDP means a rising share of income to capital. Capital’s share cannot rise in perpetuity; social and political forces, if not economic developments, will cause it—sooner or later—to revert to a more usual level.
Many of today’s investors uncritically assume that the conditions they have known over the course of their professional careers must be normal. The idea that we may soon experience a multi-decade period of zero or negative growth in real earnings per share, taking the level of profits down to a lower share of national income, seems preposterous. Yet economic history has seen many examples of such a turn, including the 1880–1890s, the World Wars, the 1930s, and the 1970–1980s. In fact, almost every decade except the 1990s and 2000s saw a protracted profits slump. Some declines in profitability lasted most of a decade; others, longer!
The profits bubble of 2007, likely to be just barely exceeded in 2013 in real EPS terms, is above trend by a wider margin than all previous profits booms except the one that ended in 1916 (see Figure 1). While it would be foolish to draw too much attention to the 39-year span before that peak was exceeded in 1955, or the two World Wars and the Great Depression that intervened, it would be equally unwise to lightly brush aside the aftermath of the 1916 crest.
The macroeconomic cause of today’s profits bubble can be understood as a quarter century of politically facilitated globalization. During the 50 years following WWII, we lived in an open global developed economy containing less than one billion people in Europe, North America, Australia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and a handful of others. Some countries were growing faster, some slower, but the technological level and population growth rates were not very different across the predominant countries within this relatively open global economy. The shares of income to labor and capital varied cyclically but tended to revert toward long-term averages.