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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

A truly bizarre trend is having an impact on the economy — wealthy people and corporations have so much money they literally don't know what to do with it.

Why it matters: At a time when growing income inequality is fueling voter discontent and underpinning an array of social movements, the top 1% of earners and big companies are holding record levels of unused cash.

The big picture: U.S. companies raked in a record $2.3 trillion in corporate profits last year, while the country's total wealth increased by $6 trillion to $98.2 trillion (40% of which went to those with wealth over $100,000).

So, where is all the money going? The IMF notes large companies around the world are overwhelmingly and uniformly choosing not to reinvest much of it into their businesses. They're hoarding it in cash and buying back stock.

"There are only 2 things that money can do — sit on a balance sheet unused, where it's just earned income earning an interest rate of zero," ICI chief economist Sean Collins points out. "Or it makes sense to release it to share buybacks or dividends."

  • Companies could pay their workers more, but "that would be terrible for the stock market," says Neil Shearing, chief economist at Capital Economics — half-jokingly.
  • Companies made a record $1.1 trillion in stock buybacks in 2018 and are on track to surpass that number this year. But they still have record cash holdings of close to $3 trillion.

Wealthy households and individuals are pouring money into asset managers, betting on companies that lose $1 billion a year, bonds from little-known Middle Eastern republics, and giving hot Silicon Valley start-ups more venture capital than they can handle.

But even that hasn't been enough to account for all the new money. The top 1% of U.S. households are holding a record $303.9 billion of cash, a quantum leap from the under $15 billion they held just before the financial crisis.

How we got here:

  • The Fed's quantitative easing program pushed the cost of borrowing money to next to nothing for nearly a decade, allowing companies to splurge on debt for mergers and acquisitions and to boost revenue.
  • At the same time, globalization allowed them to reduce labor costs, meaning that gains effectively were returned as profit and used by public companies to boost stock prices.

Between the lines: These factors, combined with legislative policies that have consistently favored business owners over workers, eroded unions and reduced employees ability to demand higher wages.

  • The Tax Cut and Jobs Act i.e., the Trump tax cut exacerbated these issues, slashing the share of U.S. taxes that companies paid to its lowest level in at least half a century and provided companies even more capital for buybacks, dividends and executive compensation.
  • "Perhaps the fallacy of the tax plan to begin with was companies were not starved for capital coming into this," Mark Hackett, chief of investment research at Nationwide, tells Axios. "They were starved for growth opportunities."

The end result is money that would previously have been split between businesses, workers and the government for projects like schools, health care and infrastructure is instead sitting in corporate accounts earning little to no return.

Go deeper: How depreciating money could save the global economy

Go deeper

42 mins ago - Health

First known U.S. case of the Omicron variant identified in California

PhotoL Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The first known U.S. case of the Omicron variant was detected in California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Wednesday.

Driving the news: The confirmed case was detected in a traveler returning from South Africa who was fully vaccinated and has mild symptoms, according to the CDC.

Supreme Court appears likely to roll back abortion rights

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 1. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed likely to weaken abortion rights and perhaps to let states ban the procedure altogether.

The intrigue: The court seemed likely to throw out the framework established in Roe v. Wade, but it wasn't clear whether a majority of the justices were inclined to overturn the court's precedents entirely.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
Updated 2 hours ago - Economy & Business

How to meme a painting

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

How can a physical artwork become an NFT? One new company has just spent $12.9 million on a Banksy in an attempt to try out a new way of converting the real into the virtual.

Why it matters: The art market globally sees volume of about $60 billion per year, almost all of which is trade in physical objects. Art-world insiders including former Christie's c0-chair Loïc Gouzer are on the lookout for ways to monetize physical paintings without necessarily giving up physical ownership of them.