Business 'Investment Heroes' Bet On America

AT&T has reached a tentative agreement with two of its largest unions -- a rare example, these days, of an amicable solution between business and labor. A few days before that, AT&T achieved another unusual distinction: it was ranked the number one business investor in the U.S. economy, making $20.1 billion in capital expenditures in 2011.

Companies like AT&T have been few and far between after the 2007 economic downturn. Since then, according to the Progressive Policy Institute, which compiled the list of "Investment Heroes" that AT&T headed, businesses have invested $1.4 trillion less in the U.S. than might have been expected given pre-crash rates. Instead, they are only just now starting to spend on buildings, equipment and software again.

The lack of business investment means that all the good things that flow from it -- higher growth, higher productivity and more jobs -- still aren't happening. Some companies, however, are spending, and the PPI has put together a list of the top 25, calling them "Investment Heroes."

"What Obama should be doing, frankly, is having these companies to the White House and patting them on the back," said Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at PPI. "You can be sure that if a company's investing in the U.S. that it'll have benefits for profits, and benefits for workers."

The top heroes, according to PPI's list, may come as a surprise to some: the first two spots are taken by telecom giants AT&T and Verizon, which have been furiously expanding their high-speed phone and data networks in recent years, propelled by iPhones and Droids. Along with Sprint, they invested a whopping $39.4 billion in 2011. Rounding out the top five are Exxon Mobil ($11.7 billion), Walmart ($8.2 billion) and Intel ($7.4 billion).

Many of the top investors, Mandel readily admits, are not exactly "heroes" in other contexts. Verizon, unlike AT&T, is still in the midst of a messy labor dispute with the Communications Workers of America. Energy companies involved in fracking and other forms of drilling have pumped billions into the economy but have also caused untold environmental damage.

"We weren't saying that any of the companies on this list were necessarily angels," Mandel said. Instead, he and his colleague Diana Carew, an economist at the Progressive Policy Institute who co-authored the report, were merely trying to provide one more "dimension by which to assess their contribution to the U.S. economy."

It's not immediately clear how much all that investment translated into actual job creation -- some companies' investments, for example, may have been mostly in productivity-improving goods or services that didn't result in hiring. AT&T and Verizon did not respond to a request for comment on hiring numbers.

Another part of his motivation for compiling the list, Mandel said, was to show that the U.S.' problems today aren't a result of a lack of consumption, as is commonly believed. He noted that while investment was still 7 percent below 2007 levels, personal consumption was actually up in real terms.

If more companies followed the lead of the "heroes," he argued, more people might get back to work. "We want to make investment as hot as consumption is."