Are corporate profits rising too rapidly?
That question is the center of a major public controversy these days in the wake of last week's government report that profits rose 9.7 percent last quarter -- an exceptionally sharp jump.
Almost immediately after the statistics were published, organized labor cited them as evidence that business wasn't complying with the administration's new price guidelines. Political pundits clucked.
The administration's own response initially was even more frantic. First, chief Carter political aide Hamilton Jordan denounced the figures as "unnecessarily high." Later other officials began backing away from that.
At the other extreme were businessmen and conservative economists, who argued the profits figures reflected "illusory" gains from selling inventory stock that would be more costly to replace.
Adjusted for this, profits actually remained almost flat, they contended.
The fact is, however, that apart from sheer political rhetioric, it's difficult to characterize the profits figures precisely. There are numerous ways to measure profits, and economists differ on which are most accurate.
On last week's statistics, the truth is somewhere inbetween. The increase was not early as suspect as labor in arguing, nor as doleful as business -- and some conservatives -- insist.
But one thing is clear: whatever the most meaningful measure, the figure last week told little, if anything, that is relevant to the current brouhaha -- that is, whether business is complying with the guidelines.
In th first place, the sharp jump in profits does not necessarily mean that price rises are exceeding the guidelines. That suspicion stems from the performance of the producer price index in recent months -- not the profits figures.
Second, analysts argue the real concern by labor should be whether profits are rising sharply in the specific industries where unions are negotiating for pay hikes -- not in the aggregate numbers.
There are these considerations:
The profits reported last quarter represent the increase in profits levels for the fourth quarter of 1978 -- before the new wage-price guidelines were fully in effect. Prices didn't begin accelerating until December and January.
The fourth-quarter increase followed a July-September period in which profits levels remained virtually flat -- that is, they didn't increase at all. Profits figures fluctuate widely from quarter to quarter.
The numbers are for the economy as a whole, and don't accurately show the performance in specific industries. While it's suspected that company profits rose sharply in some industries where prices were soaring, no one has pinned that down.
There's nothing bad, per se, about high profit levels. Indeed, the administration has been hoping for months to spur more investment in new plants and equipment Healthy pofits numbers are one way to help.
On th other hand, analysts say the numbers aren't nearly as lackluster as some in the business community would portray them -- the argument by conservatives that socalled "real economic profits" were virtually flat.
This "poor-man" analysis stems from the fact that the 9.7 percent increase did not take account of either the higher cost of replacing depleted inventories or the cost of replacing machines and buildings that are wearing out.
So, the argument goes, the reported profits boost is "illusory."
In a press conference called the day the profits figures were published, National Association of Manufacturers President R. Heath Larry declared that after these "unreal" effects were eliminated, profits were up only modestly.
In one of the more extreme calculations based on this theory, Paine Webber chief economist Lawrence A. Kudlow contends that while "inflated pretax" profits rose substantially, actual economic profits fell 2.7 percent.
But economists say these calculations fall through on several counts:
For one thing, inventory profits aren't "illusory" unless those more-costly units going onto the shelf are going to be sold with a lower profit margin -- a prospect not likely the way prices are soaring these days.
For another, the calculations to annount for the affects of inflation include only those factors that cut into real economic profits -- not those that bolster them. So they understate the gain as well as overstate it.
For example, as inflation ises, it costs less in "real" terms to pay back debt from earlier corporate borrowing. In any truly comprehensive inflation-adjustment, those gains should be counted in.
Finally, even if the increase in real economic profit was relatively small for 1978, that comes on the heels of two pretty good years, thank you, for profits in general -- to wit, 1976 and 1977.
If taking the "longer view" of considering annual profit increases, rather than quarterly ones, is a valid perspective, then it's proper to consider 1978's profits in context with the two immediate years.
But the major point still is that, for all their emotional overtones, the profits figures simply don't say anything about whether American business is following the guidelines.
There may be plenty to complain about on that score. But it won't come from the profits report, which doesn't bolster either side's case.