WASHINGTON – Companies in the United States are beginning to empty their deep pockets and boost capital spending as they look past the specter of sequestration and global growth risks.
Orders for capital goods excluding aircraft and military equipment — an indicator of future business investment — increased 1.5 percent in May, a third consecutive advance and the longest streak since October 2011. Chief executives are more optimistic about the economy, based on the Business Roundtable's quarterly outlook index, which rose to 84.3 in the second quarter, the highest in a year.
Spending on information technology is up 4 percent this year compared with 2 percent last year, according to the median in a survey of 203 businesses by Computer Economics, a research company in Irvine, Calif. — helping businesses such as Microsoft Corp.
"Investment will pick up in the second half of the year," driven by strength in housing and the automobile industry, said Yelena Shulyatyeva, a U.S. economist in New York at BNP Paribas. "For companies to start really benefiting, to be profitable in the future, they need to invest."
Discount retailer Family Dollar Stores Inc., which operates solely in the United States, is opening 500 new outlets this year, and Rite Aid Corp., a U.S. pharmacy chain, is remodeling 400 locations in fiscal 2014. Pier 1 Imports Inc. plans $75 million in capital expenditures, including on stores and technology, Chief Financial Officer Charles Turner said last month.
"We've got to start investing in now, so we can be ready for what traffic we're expecting" in fiscal 2016, Alan Graf, chief financial officer of Memphis-based FedEx Corp., said last month. The world's largest cargo airline plans to spend about $4 billion on capital goods in fiscal 2014, including for facilities and aircraft, while investments for its ground-shipping subsidiary also will climb for the "next several years" to meet growing demand, Graf said.
Such increases are set to bolster the U.S. expansion between now and year-end as companies unleash cash from their record-high balance sheets amid a brighter economic outlook. Job gains that beat expectations in June have helped solidify market projections of a September start for the Federal Reserve to begin reducing its unprecedented $85 billion in monthly asset purchases, indicating confidence that growth is sustainable without record levels of monetary stimulus.
Shulyatyeva projects that capital expenditures will accelerate at a 6.9 percent annualized pace in the third quarter and 7.6 percent in the fourth after growing 4.4 percent in the three months ended June 30. The increase was only 0.1 percent in the first quarter, as federal budget cuts and tax increases weighed on the private sector.
Gross domestic product rose 1.8 percent in January-March. BNP economists estimate it will reach 2.4 percent in the final three months of the year after 2.2 percent in the third quarter and 1 percent in the second.
Technology stocks are starting to reflect the optimism. The Guggenheim Standard & Poor's 500 Equal-Weight Technology Exchange-Traded Fund is up 23 percent this year compared with a 21 percent rise for the Guggenheim S&P 500 Equal-Weight ETF. The strong housing outlook has helped push the S&P 500 Homebuilding Index up 37 percent in the past year as the broader S&P gained 24 percent.
Increased spending on technology equipment probably will prove a boon for Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, navigation device-maker Garmin of Switzerland and Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., which reap the majority of their revenue in North America.
Microsoft boosted investment by 24 percent and Garmin by 102 percent during the past year. Cognizant, a provider of technology-consulting services based in Teaneck, N.J., increased spending by 19 percent in the same period.
The San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank's Tech Pulse Index, which tracks the health of the U.S. IT industry, is showing an improvement in investment, consumption, employment, industrial production and shipments, rising to 98.96 in May, the highest since August 2008.
"A lot of these companies are sitting on lots of cash and trying to figure out what to do with it," said Richard Gordon, a researcher of global IT-market forecasting for Gartner UK in London.
Businesses have been hoarding funds in the aftermath of the recession, with nonfinancial liquid assets reaching a record $1.78 trillion in the first quarter.