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Wednesday, May 29, 2019
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Wednesday, May 15, 2019
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Earlier this month, a corporate client asked us if we knew where firms were spending their projected benefits from last years TCJA. He told us what their firm did. So, we set out to help our client answer the question. Here’s the story.

We examined the 2017 and 2018 spending among more than 2,600 publicly traded firms that all reported more than $1 billion in assets. That is, many more firms than those in the S&P 500, but substantial firms with real operations and assets nonetheless.

First we have Figure 1, below. 2017 spending is in blue, 2018 spending in orange. We totaled up corporate spending in four categories, R&D, capital expenditures, pension plan contributions and share buybacks.

As you can see — spending is lower across the board, except for share buybacks. Spending there rose from $660.4 billion in 2017 to $803.3 billion last year.

One important caveat: we have not seen all companies submit their 2018 filings yet. In our study here, we have 2,400 filers in our 2017 pool, but only about 1,900 in our 2018 pool.

So as more 2018 filings arrive, might our exact totals and percentages change? Yes. But we already have all the largest filers included for both years, so our basic conclusion should remain the same: lots more spent on share buyback programs, less spent on everything else.

You can also see the spending shift in our two pie charts, below. 2017 spending is on top, 2018 spending below. These charts are looking at what the average firm spent on each of these four categories in each of the last two years. In the R&D case, only 567 firm observations exist in 2018, so the average spent per firm is relatively high as a percent of total spending.

Yellow and orange are the most important slices. The yellow (share buybacks) expanded from 30.8 percent of all spending in 2017, to 35.2 percent in 2018. That may not sound like much, but do the math: that’s an increase of 440 basis points, or a 14.3 percent increase from 2017 totals.

Meanwhile, capex spending (the orange slice) shrank by 402 basis points, while R&D (blue) and pension contributions (green) stayed essentially flat.

We will revisit and update these numbers later this spring, and of course, the conclusions we draw here today are about collective corporate spending — spending among individual companies may differ quite sharply from the broad tale told here.

You can always use our Company-in-Detail and Multi-Company pages to research these questions yourself, but that’s how the big picture looks at this juncture.

By the way, if you have any financial data questions you want answered, we’re always happy to help. Email us at and tell us what’s on your mind. We’ll get cracking on an answer.

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