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September-October 2016

Businesses can put “dead money” to use fighting climate change

Canadian businesses held almost $500 billion in dead money at the start of 2016.

Ellen Russell

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!


In our increasingly unequal society, the wealthy and corporations control an ever greater piece of the economic pie. Businesses are under no obligation to use these profits for the social good. Many are too nervous to invest in anything at all, so they sit on their cash. As this “dead money” lies idle, our collective creativity goes untapped, Canadians are starved for good jobs, and the urgent necessity of addressing climate change dissipates into flowery rhetoric.

Statistics Canada indicates that businesses in Canada held over $490 billion in dead money at the beginning of 2016.

That total represents only the most obvious form of “dead money”—cash and deposits. There are many more insidious ways of concealing stashed cash, as revelations from this year’s Panama Papers illustrate.

This dead money is an economic problem for all of us. When companies lack the confidence to invest, there are fewer good jobs and inequality tends to rise. Worse still, weak business investment creates a downward cycle: as lacklustre investment puts downward pressure on the economy, this bad economic news makes business expectations even more pessimistic, so business investment gets weaker still. This downward cycle cannot be reversed until confidence is regained.

The dead money problem in Canada has raised alarm bells. As a 2014 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report indicates, cash as a share of assets held by Canadian non-financial corporations almost doubled between 1990–2012. Even the IMF worries Canada is missing out on productive investing possibilities as companies sit on this cash stash.

This dead money problem could be a golden opportunity. If we freed up this cash to fund environmentally sustainable initiatives, we could create good jobs—ones that build infrastructure and products that shrink our carbon footprint. This green investment would stimulate economic growth and create better overall economic conditions. Instead, this dead money operates like an economic straightjacket.

We could do so much better. If companies cannot invest their idle cash for progressive purposes, we should either make them do it or do it for them.

Beyond some reasonable minimum cash balance required to run a corporation, companies that continue to sit on large idle balances should be compelled to invest them in green technology and green jobs. If they don’t, the government should tax the cash and direct that revenue to government-sponsored enterprises or community initiatives that get the job done.

Sure, corporations will scream that this violation of their private property rights will undermine competitiveness and destroy jobs. They will try to hide their cash. They will threaten to move their operations offshore. They will claim that their dubious investments are green and progressive.

Do not be alarmed. Business will always object if society encroaches on its ability to do whatever it wants, regardless of the social and environmental cost. Our environment and our society are in the crosshairs, and we can’t sustain any more “do-nothingism” for fear of offending business. If business was stepping up to solve the carbon emissions problem, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But it is not. And if it won’t do it, we must.

Business did so very much to make this mess, and it cannot be allowed to sit on its hands now that the mess must be cleaned up. Nor should it be allowed to use the immense resources at its fingertips to sabotage the efforts of the rest of us who are more than ready to do the right thing.

Ellen Russell enjoys translating the newspaper's business section from economic gibberish. She has decoded economics at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and is currently an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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