POLITICS in America may be an arena of mutual incomprehension with few settled facts, but the debate about the health of American firms’ balance-sheets is, if anything, even more bewildering. Ranged on one side are those who complain that America Inc is hoarding $2trn of idle cash and that this acts as a powerful drag on the economy. On the other are those, including the IMF, who yell that firms are bingeing on debt, with borrowing hitting an all-time high of $8.4trn last year. As a result firms are simultaneously accused of being timid wimps and reckless idiots.

In fact, the numbers show that they are by and large a sensible bunch (especially compared with the country’s bankers and politicians). What is more, the debate over debt, as framed, misses the most intriguing thing about their balance-sheets. These have been radically reshaped to adapt to three national economic sicknesses—a financial system that companies still mistrust after the crisis; a broken tax code; and monopoly...Continue reading