THE American economy is in a befuddling state. Firms are on a six-year hiring spree that shows little sign of abating; payrolls swelled by an average of 190,000 a month between May and July. Competition for workers is pushing up wages. The median pay rise in the year to July was 3.4%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Americans are spending that cash; in the second quarter, consumption per person grew at an annual pace of 5.5%, equalling its fastest growth in a decade. Yet real GDP is expanding by only 1.2% a year. The culprit seems to be business investment, which has fallen for three consecutive quarters. It is now 1.3% lower than a year ago—the biggest annual decline since early 2010 when the country was staggering out of the financial crisis. If firms are hiring and consumers are spending, why is investment weak?

Initially, the decoupling was caused by the prolonged fall in oil prices. Cheaper petrol benefited Americans by about $1,300 per household, boosting consumption. Simultaneously, it caused investment in the oil industry to fall by more than half in 2015, as shale oil and gas firms stopped drilling. Investment...Continue reading