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Is the U.S. public corporation in trouble?


  • Kathleen Kahle
  • René M. Stulz


We examine the current state of the U.S. public corporation and how it has evolved over the last 40 years. After falling by 50 percent since its peak in 1997, the number of public corporations is now smaller than 40 years ago. These corporations are now much larger and over the last twenty years have become much older; they invest differently, as the average firm invests more in R&D than it spends on capital expenditures; and compared to the 1990s, the ratio of investment to assets is lower, especially for large firms. Public firms have record high cash holdings and, in most recent years, the average firm has more cash than long-term debt. Measuring profitability by the ratio of earnings to assets, the average firm is less profitable, but that is driven by smaller firms. Earnings of public firms have become more concentrated – the top 200 firms in profits earn as much as all public firms combined. Firms’ total payouts to shareholders as a percent of earnings are at record levels. Possible explanations for the current state of the public corporation include a decrease in the net benefits of being a public company, changes in financial intermediation, technological change, globalization, and consolidation through mergers.

Suggested Citation

  • Kathleen Kahle & René M. Stulz, 2016. "Is the U.S. public corporation in trouble?," NBER Working Papers 22857, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:22857
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Robin Döttling & Enrico Perotti, 2020. "Secular Trends and Technological Progress," ECONtribute Discussion Papers Series 006, University of Bonn and University of Cologne, Germany.
    2. Fabisik, Kornelia & Fahlenbrach, Rudiger & Stulz, Rene M. & Taillard, Jerome P., 2018. "Why are Firms with More Managerial Ownership Worth Less?," Working Paper Series 2018-24, Ohio State University, Charles A. Dice Center for Research in Financial Economics.
    3. Ward, Charles & Yin, Chao & Zeng, Yeqin, 2018. "Institutional investor monitoring motivation and the marginal value of cash," Journal of Corporate Finance, Elsevier, vol. 48(C), pages 49-75.
    4. Barardehi, Yashar H. & Bernhardt, Dan & Ruchti, Thomas G. & Weidenmier, Marc, 2019. "The Night and Day of Amihud’s (2002) Liquidity Measure," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 1211, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
    5. Craig Doidge & G. Andrew Karolyi & René M. Stulz, 2020. "Is Financial Globalization in Reverse After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis? Evidence from Corporate Valuations," NBER Working Papers 27022, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Dong Lee & Han Shin & René M. Stulz, 2016. "Why Does Capital No Longer Flow More to the Industries with the Best Growth Opportunities?," NBER Working Papers 22924, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Kathleen Kahle & René M. Stulz, 2020. "Why Are Corporate Payouts So High in the 2000s?," NBER Working Papers 26958, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. Janice C. Eberly, 2019. "Comment on "From Good to Bad Concentration? U.S. Industries over the Past 30 Years"," NBER Chapters, in: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 2019, volume 34, pages 47-54, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Griffin, Paul A. & Hong, Hyun A. & Ryou, Ji Woo, 2018. "Corporate innovative efficiency: Evidence of effects on credit ratings," Journal of Corporate Finance, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 352-373.
    10. Gunther Capelle-Blancard, 2017. "À quoi servent les (centaines de milliers de milliards de) transactions boursières ?," Revue d'économie financière, Association d'économie financière, vol. 0(3), pages 37-58.
    11. Schneck, Stefan, 2018. "Times are a changin'? The emergence of new firms and rank persistence," Working Papers 01/18, Institut für Mittelstandsforschung (IfM) Bonn.
    12. Holland, Sara B., 2017. "Firm investment in human health capital," Journal of Corporate Finance, Elsevier, vol. 46(C), pages 374-390.
    13. Akerman, Anders, 2018. "The Relative Skill Demand of Superstar Firms and Aggregate Implications," Research Papers in Economics 2018:2, Stockholm University, Department of Economics.
    14. Gunther Capelle-Blancard, 2018. "What is the Point of (the Hundreds of Thousands of Billions of) Stock Transactions?," Comparative Economic Studies, Palgrave Macmillan;Association for Comparative Economic Studies, vol. 60(1), pages 15-33, March.
    15. Stefan Schneck, 2020. "Times are a Changin’? The Emergence of New Firms and Rank Reshuffling," Journal of Industry, Competition and Trade, Springer, vol. 20(1), pages 1-33, March.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D22 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Firm Behavior: Empirical Analysis
    • G24 - Financial Economics - - Financial Institutions and Services - - - Investment Banking; Venture Capital; Brokerage
    • G30 - Financial Economics - - Corporate Finance and Governance - - - General

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