Companies – even new ones – appear to be giving capital spending the brush off, but it may just be that the capex isn't getting counted because your kid is playing with it, UBS said.
"The failure of capital spending to pick up is one of the oft lamented features of the current economic recovery," Paul Donovan, an economist at UBS, said in a note this week. "This sluggish capital spending story is peculiar because it has been accompanied by a significant increase in the number of businesses in many economies."
Starting businesses without start-up capital spending appears a bit "peculiar," he noted, but it added that it doesn't take into account the technological shift over the past 20 years to portable devices.
"A laptop or a tablet device can easily provide the basic requirements for an employee," Donovan said. "The fact that a tablet has to be wrestled out of the hands of a five-year-old child playing games before it can be used for inventory management does not deny the value of that tablet as capital stock."
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But while personal electronics may be getting used for work, bean counters are still going to count them as consumer spending, not capex, he noted.
Indeed, consumer spending on technology is increasing relative to business investment in the segment in the U.S., the U.K. and many European economies, Donovan said.
"Investors looking for a 'capex recovery' may be missing the point. The secret capex story may be that businesses make better use of nonbusiness assets, and that part of the capex cycle (including replacement capex) masquerades under a 'retail sales' pseudonym," he said, noting that his report was written on a laptop "which I bought. Not UBS."
To be sure, when it comes to capex, not everyone is pointing at the iPhone.
Goldman Sachs, for one, expects commodity-related capex to remain depressed.
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"The commodity infrastructure build-out has been a significant driver of machinery demand for key commodity export countries/regions," Goldman said in an April report. It noted that machinery demand is down 30 percent from its peak, with more downside risk ahead as the bank expects a 10-15 year exploitation phase for past investments. Direct commodity capex accounts for around 30 percent of machinery sales, it said.
All is not lost, however, with Goldman positive on ex-commodity machinery as it expects a capacity expansion cycle in the U.S., while adding that in Europe, machinery's share of gross domestic product (GDP) is likely near its trough.
"If export demand accelerates following the recent currency move, machinery demand could surprise to the upside. Truck and construction machinery investment share of GDP is 15-25 percent below normalized levels," Goldman said.
Within Asia, a vicious cycle may keep capex low. Around 44 percent of the region's capex is in the machinery and equipment segment, accounting for 52 percent of Asia's export basket, said in a note Wednesday. But with demand for exports relatively weak, that's weighing on manufacturing utilization, it noted.
"Manufacturing capacity utilization rates in China, India and Korea have all declined to post 2008 lows, which, combined with a weak capital productivity trend, is discouraging corporates from undertaking new investment," Morgan Stanley said.
—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1