Financing intangible capital

Stephen Cecchetti, Kim Schoenholtz 22 February 2018



Because the financier risks losing his money to uncertainty, adverse selection, or moral hazard, he hesitates to lend when the financial infrastructure is not adequate to resolve these problems. But he can still protect himself by requiring collateral-valuable assets that the financier can keep in case the borrower defaults.”
Rajan and Zingales (2003).

When most people think of investment, what comes to mind is the purchase of new equipment and structures. A restaurant might start with construction, and then fill its new building with tables, chairs, stoves, and the like. This is the world of tangible capital.

We still need buildings and machines (and restaurants). But, over the past few decades, the nature of business capital has changed. Much of what firms invest in today – especially the biggest and fastest growing ones – is intangible. This includes software, data, market analysis, scientific research and development (R&D), employee training, organisational design, development of intellectual and entertainment products, mineral exploration, and the like.

In this column, we discuss the implications of this shift for the structure of finance. Tangible capital can serve as collateral, providing lenders with some protection against default (see the quote above). As a result, firms with an abundance of physical assets can finance themselves readily by issuing debt. In contrast, a company that focuses on software development, employee training, or improving the efficiency of its organisation will find it more difficult and costly to borrow, because the resulting assets cannot easily be re-sold. As a result, these businesses rely more on retained earnings or the issuance of equity.

The changing composition of investment

Figure 1 reveals the scale of the shift from tangible to intangible investment in the US over the past four decades. The blue and black lines plot capital expenditure as a fraction of private-sector gross value added (GVA). The two lines move in opposite directions. Tangible investment has declined from roughly 14% of GVA to less than 10%, while intangible investment has done almost exactly the reverse, rising from 10% to 14%. This means that when we measure total investment properly, it has remained a reasonably stable share of GVA over the long run.

Figure 1 Tangible and intangible investment as a share of US private-sector gross value added, 1977-2014

Source: Bransetter and Sichel (2017).

The shift from tangible to intangible investment is hardly surprising. Consider, for example, the relative prices of computer hardware and software, and the related expenditure to purchase the two. The first IBM PC, built in 1981, cost the equivalent of $8,000 today. While it came with a Microsoft operating system, most of the expenditure was for a very expensive machine – a tangible asset. Today, you could acquire hardware that runs at least 10,000 faster for barely one quarter of the price. But, if you want that machine to do anything useful, you will likely spend a substantial amount for software and then spend time learning how to use it. When it comes to expenditure on computing and information technology, intangibles have gradually substituted for tangibles.

This evolution creates accounting headaches, both for private firms and for government statisticians measuring GDP and its components. For example, US GAAP requires firms to expense most intangibles. That is, it treats the purchase of data, employee training, and reorganisations as current expenditures. But if these activities make a firm more productive, then its book value will understate its true economic value.

Following a similar practice, the national income and product accounts (NIPA) treat the bulk of intangible investment as a production cost, thereby understating both total investment (gross and net) and GDP. To see the magnitude of this second problem, compare the red line in Figure 1 – the NIPA version of investment – with  the black line that includes a more comprehensive treatment of intangibles. Not only is the NIPA number substantially smaller, but the gap between the two lines has widened over time. That is, the measurement problem has been getting progressively worse.1

The economics of intangibles and the evolution of finance

What are the intrinsic economic characteristics of intangible capital? In their recent book, Haskel and Westlake (2017) enumerate four distinctive properties. Intangible assets:

  • are often non-rival, so one person’s use does not impede someone else from using it simultaneously;
  • have little market value, so the cost of producing them is almost entirely sunk;
  • generate positive spillovers that benefit people other than the producer; and
  • exhibit synergies, so they work more effectively when combined.  

As a result, intangible assets tend to be difficult to value and can be impossible to resell, but offer potentially very large benefits to society as a whole.

Given these properties, the financing of intangible investment requires overcoming the ‘tyranny of collateral’. That is, while industries with tangible assets are able to borrow at relatively low cost, others are not. As a result, US software firms – especially those developing internet applications – have debt that is only about 10% of book equity. By contrast, the debt-to-book value of restaurants is nearly 95%. Scientific research and development expenditure fits this pattern as well – software and pharmaceutical firms invest heavily in R&D, while restaurants and car dealers do almost none. For similar reasons, sectors with intangible assets are involved more in merger-and-acquisition activity than those with tangible assets.2

All of this leads to the conclusion that the traditional system based on bank lending and marketable bonds is ill-suited to financing the increased share of economic activity that requires intangible investment.

Fortunately, finance evolves. And, once we focus on the increased importance of business activities that are non-rival, have little market value, carry spillovers, and exhibit synergies, it becomes easier to understand some important trends. In particular, we can explain the ongoing shift from public to private equity markets.

As we discussed in Cecchetti and Schoenholtz (2017), and is further emphasised in a recent paper by Doidge et al. (2017), the number of publicly traded firms in the US has declined in nearly every year since 1997, when there were 7,500, to roughly 3,600 now. At the same time, the number of initial public offerings (IPOs) has fallen from more than 300 to just over 100 per year.3

Meanwhile, private equity (PE) has flourished. The value of assets under management by PE firms has risen by a factor of more than four since 2000, so that the total now stands at $2.5 trillion (Hammoud et al. 2017). In addition, the number of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) remains strong. For example, the Institute for Mergers, Acquisitions and Alliances reports that M&A transactions averaged 12,000 per year since 2010, roughly double the average rate prior to 1995. To put the PE boom into perspective, US PE finance has risen from 60% to 120% of commercial and industrial (C&I) loans (Federal Reserve 2018a).  

The increasing importance of intangible assets helps us to explain this. Small and medium-sized firms have an easier time protecting intellectual property when they are privately held. And big firms (like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft), with their economies of scale and scope, can capture spillovers and exploit synergies more effectively, making it attractive for them to acquire private firms before they go public. The result is more equity finance, more M&A, and fewer public companies.

Aggregate data are consistent with the view that mature firms laden with tangible assets find debt finance relatively attractive. For example, according to the Financial Accounts of the US, net equity issuance has been well below zero since late 2009 (Federal Reserve 2018b). Importantly, S&P500 stock buybacks and dividends account for far more than this entire net decline (see Figure 7 in Yardeni et al. 2018). The result is an increase in the ratios of debt to the book value of equity.

Implications of the increase in intangible investment

The shifting composition of investment poses a number of important challenges. For policymakers, one question is how to ensure that there is sufficient intangible investment. This raises a whole host of difficult issues about the government’s role in subsidising and protecting the production of intangible assets. Here we have little to say.

On the structure of finance, however, we are guardedly optimistic. We view the increased reliance on private equity (relative to public equity and to C&I loans) as a natural consequence of the changing composition of the capital stock. Rather than signaling over-regulation of the public markets, it likely reflects a healthy evolution of the financial system in response to the changing needs of the economy. And, with venture capital and private equity firms taking over the screening and monitoring functions of banks, there is no reason to believe that capital allocation is less efficient.

That said, we do have one concern, namely, the behaviour of banks. In a recent paper, Dell’Ariccia et al. (2017) document that as the stock of intangible assets has increased, US banks have shifted the composition of their loan portfolios. Specifically, they are substituting a combination of residential real estate loans (with tangible collateral) and safe assets for commercial loans.  Without proper monitoring and sufficient capital buffers, these common exposures (combined with a decline in diversification) can reduce the resilience of the entire financial system.

Finally, it is important to ensure that healthy firms can finance projects that bring both private and social benefits. But, this need not mean either more debt or more public equity issuance. Indeed, just as we welcome the golden age of private equity, we are wary of proposals to increase the ‘access’ of small and medium-sized business to debt finance. Greater reliance on debt typically makes the financial system more vulnerable.


Bransetter, L and D Sichel (2017), “The Case for an American Productivity Revival,” PIII Policy Brief 17-26.

Cecchetti, S G and K L Schoenholtz (2017), “Treasury Round II: The Capital Markets Report,”, 23 October.

Corrado, C, J Haskel, M Iommi, and C Jona-Lasinio (2012), “Intangible Capital and Growth in Advanced Economies: Measurement and Comparative Results", CEPR Discussion Paper No. 9061.

Corrado, C, C R Hulten, and D E Sichel (2006), “Intangible Capital and Economic Growth,” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, Finance and Economics Discussion Series, 2006-24.

Dell’Ariccia, G, D Kadyrzhanova, C Minoui, and L Ratnovski (2017), “Bank Lending in the Knowledge Economy,” IMF Working Paper 17/234.

Doidge, C, K M Kahle, G A Karolyi, and R M Stulz (2018), “Eclipse of the Public Corporation or Eclipse of the Public Markets?” NBER Working Paper No. 24265.

Federal Reserve (2018), “Commercial and Industrial Loans, All Commercial Banks”, Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Federal Reserve (2018), “Nonfinancial corporate business; corporate equities; liability, Flow”, Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Haskel, J and S Westlake (2017), Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, Princeton University Press.

Hammound, T, M Brigl, J Öberg, D Bronstein, and C Carter (2017), “Capitalizing on the New Golden Age of Private Equity,” bcg.perspectives.

Rajan, R and L Zingales (2003), Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Spread Opportunity, Crown Business.

Yardeni, E, J Abbott and M Quintana (2018), “Stock Market Indicators: S&P 500 Buybacks and Dividends,” Yardeni Research, 14 February.


[1] An enormous amount of work and effort goes into improving GDP statistics. For US efforts, see Corrado et al. (2006). For work on the EU, see Carrado et al. (2012).

[2] A wealth of sectoral finance data is available on the website of NYU Stern Professor Aswath Damodaran.

[3] See Jay Ritter’s website on IPO data.



Topics:  Financial regulation and banking Productivity and Innovation

Tags:  innovation, intangible assets, private equity, banks

Rosen Family Chair in International Finance, Brandeis International Business School

Henry Kaufman Professor of the History of Financial Institutions and Markets, NYU Stern School of Business


CEPR Policy Research