A business makes a capital investment for two reasons: one is to expand production to meet rising consumer demand, and another is to increase efficiency or reduce cost. The first reason is common during a growing economy and such investment can lead to increased employment.
Reducing costs is often ‘code’ for reducing labor. The cost of the equipment is weighed against the cost of labor. The higher the cost of labor and the lower the cost of equipment the greater is the incentive to replace labor with capital.
The cost of labor includes not just the wages and benefits but other friction costs ranging from compliance regulations, legal liability, unions, and administrative costs.
If a $50,000 a year employee can be replaced with a $500,000 capital investment, then this investment delivers a 10% return. In an investment climate ruled by very low interest rates a 10% return can be alluring. At the same time that low interest rates reduce the cap rate it also reduces the cost of the capital acquisition.
Such stimulation of capital investment is the stated intention of a low interest rate policy, but the combination of the low interest rates with high labor friction costs and a slow growth economy means that it will have less of an impact on employment and wages.
Anecdotally I still hear that employers are both reluctant to expand and that they have a very difficult time finding motivated quality workers, especially in the trades. Some fear another recession around the corner and others seek to avoid the higher friction costs associated with new hires, sometime referring to the ACA penalties.
Higher employment regulatory friction costs, and slow economic growth are offsetting the potential benefit to employment and wages from lower interest rates.