Here's some good news: Corporate after-tax profits since 1999 have increased from $500 billion to about $1.8 trillion -- almost four times more money. I didn't make that up. It's according to figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. So what should that mean for stock prices?
The first 10 years of the new century became the so-called "Lost Decade" for stocks as the S&P 500 index earned an average annual return of zero over the period. Since May 2009, the same index has increased in value by roughly two and a half times its value at the nadir. If we look at a rolling 10-year annual average return today, it has risen "from the dead" to a now-robust annual average of almost 8 percent per year.
In the face of these positive developments viewed from 30,000 feet, it is hard to see why so many people are convinced that we're peering into some abyss -- at the bottom of which lies the element of doom. These people can be said to have voted with their feet to the tune of the $9 trillion in corporate and personal cash sitting on the sidelines waiting to invest someday -- if the day ever comes.
I tend to glom on to positive news as long as it is backed up by theories and facts that hold water. In James Surowiecki's New Yorker column recently, he cites the fact that "this time it IS different." Back during the dot-com bubble, we learned that economic and stock market history tends to repeat itself and we were stupid to think otherwise.
But Suroweiki makes some interesting points. They dovetail, in fact, with the expectations outlined by the Trends Research Institute cited in my previous columns. Those predictions include a major worldwide economic boom of historic proportions in the coming years.
For starters, corporations are more profitable today because they pay a lot less in taxes than they used to. To the extent that as much as one-third of corporate profits are from overseas sales, we know from reading about Apple's (AAPL) successful tax avoidance efforts how easy it is to pay a fraction of what is arguably owed.
Back in the '90s and earlier, the government had to incentivize companies to sell products overseas. We offered something called a DISC, or Domestic International Sales Corporation, encouraging corporations to do essentially what Apple has done. It has worked wonders. One substantial division of General Electric exists for the sole purpose of figuring out how to shuffle otherwise taxable profits to other parts of the world.
Another contributing factor to the enormous increase in corporate after-tax profits is the extent to which companies have kept the size of their workforces in check. The recession taught employees how to get more work out the door without increasing head count. This helped save the jobs of those who remained employed, and the result is a stock market that has snapped back to new highs that reflect the explosion of profit margins.
While much is written about American workers whose inflation-adjusted incomes have been stagnant, nobody has stopped to think about the extra $10,000 to $100,000 or more that many have made in their 401(k) or IRA accounts over the past four years. In 2010, the median account balance for people between the ages of 55 and 64 was $120,000. Those people, who invested in stocks and bond mutual funds, would have made more than $60,000 on their $120,000 over the past three years.
We are a nation of investors, finally, and 78 million workers have been systematically investing in a combination of 401(k) and rollover IRA accounts for as long as 30 years. While it may be depressing to live with the persistence of a so-called "jobless recovery," the glass is definitely half full. For many, those recent retirement plan investment gains may be equal to as much as 25 percent to 50 percent of an annual paycheck. Not a bad bonus.