Hero Worship

Calling a company a “hero” for doing what it should be doing—investing for the future—seems odd. But after another quarter of declining productivity and business investment we know many companies aren’t spending for future growth.

Those companies that do reinvest are being called “U.S. investment heroes” by many economists and investment analysts. This small group of companies and sectors has consistently been reinvesting in their businesses for long-term productivity and growth. This is the only defense against stagnating economic growth, which has plagued the global economy since the 2008 global financial crisis.

And based on recent data, that seems to be getting worse.

Non-farm business productivity—the goods and services produced each hour by American workers—decreased at a 0.5% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the second quarter as hours worked increased faster than output, the Labor Department reported earlier this week. It was the third consecutive quarter of falling productivity, the longest streak since 1979.

An economic think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), has for some years published its own report on U.S. investment heroes, which we review below. And we also look at our own measures to identify those companies.

In this economy, we basically must choose among companies that are not reinvesting and sitting on a pile of cash; those that use that for unproductive means such as stock buybacks; and firms that continue to invest in new services and products. We think only that last category makes sense for long-term investors.

Spend Money to Make Money

So, who are America’s investment heroes? According to PPI’s report released last year, cable companies represented the largest share of domestic capital spent, reflecting the rapid pace of innovation in the industry and the need to meet growing demand for high-speed broadband.

Well-known companies such as AT&T (NYSE: T), Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) increased their domestic investments by 5.5% in 2014 versus 2013.

As far as the top 25 investment heroes, these firms invested nearly $172 billion in the United States in their most recent fiscal year. That’s up from $152 billion from last year’s top 25, a 12.7% increase compared to the 7% gain for nonresidential business investment as a whole.

AT&T was once again at the top of PPI’s list, as it has been in all four years the think tank has been tracking domestic business investment. Verizon and Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM) came in second and third place, respectively. Number 4 was Google (NYSE: GOOG), with Chevron (NYSE: CVX) rounding out the top five.

Meanwhile, in our own analysis, which looks at net income growth per employee and capital investment, we found various sectors that reinvest in their business at a higher level, And these sectors were also picked up by the PPI report. Beyond telecom, utilities, healthcare, IT and chemicals companies have been reinvesting in their business at higher levels.   

So keep these sectors and companies in mind when you invest for long term sales growth, and dividend growth. Productivity may be sagging overall and global growth slowing, but there will always be heroes—if you know where to look and are brave enough to pick them