As we explained in great detail recently, the abundance of so-called cash-on-the-sidelines is a fallacy, but even more critically the we showed the belief that these ‘IOUs of past economic activity’ would immediately translate into efforts to deploy them into future economic activity is also entirely false. Simply put, there is no relationship between corporate cash and subsequent capital expenditure, nor is the level of capital expenditure even well-correlated with the level of real interest rates. At this point, as John Hussman explains, it should be clear that the mere existence of a mountain of IOUs related to past economic activity is not enough to provoke future economic activity. What matters instead is the same thing that always matters: Are the resources of the economy being directed toward productive uses that satisfy the needs of others?
US companies are carrying far more net debt than in 2007
Another curiosity is this notion that US companies have substantially reduced their debt pile and are therefore cash rich. The latter is indeed true. Cash and equivalents are at historically high levels, but rarely do those who mention the mountains of corporate cash also discuss the massive increase in debt seen over the last couple of years.
In fact, debt levels have been growing to such an extent that net debt (i.e. excluding the massive cash pile) is 15% higher than it was prior to the financial crisis.
and Proposition 1: Corporate cash is high, and therefore, businesses should put that cash to work through capex.
Comments: This is the most obviously deceptive of the four propositions, hence Mark Spitznagel’s incredulous response when asked to address cash balances by Maria Bartiromo last week. As Spitznagel explained, it makes little sense to isolate the cash that sits on corporate balance sheets without netting the credit portions of both assets and liabilities. We last updated corporations’ net credit position here, showing that gradual increases in cash balances are dwarfed by rising debt.
A longer history further disproves the proposition; it shows that there’s no correlation between capex and corporate cash:
So how do we restore growth?
To the extent that such desirable activities exist – whether as consumption goods or as investment goods like machines, the act of bringing them forward not only engages existing resources (such as factory capacity and labor), but also creates new income that can be used to purchase yet other desirable products. This is what creates a virtuous circle of economic activity and growth. Not quantitative easing, not suppressed interest rates, not speculation. The resources of the economy must be channeled toward activities that are actually productive, desirable, and useful to others.
When this doesn’t occur – when companies produce output that isn’t wanted, when capital investments are made that aren’t productive, when housing is constructed at a pace that exceeds the sustainable demand and ability to finance it – the act of production and the resources of the economy are wasted. That is really the narrative of the past 14 years, and is largely the result of repeated bouts of Fed-induced speculation and misallocation. Robert Blumenthal recently wrote an excellent essay describing the economic costs of such “malinvestment.”
At the moment that a person uses their labor to produce something of value to others, that person’s own income is enhanced, and the ability to purchase the output of others is also created. As economist Jean-Baptiste Say wrote, “A product is no sooner created than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value… Thus the mere circumstance of creation of one product immediately opens a vent for other products.”
In a healthy economy, the productive activity of one sector opens a vent for the productive activity of other sectors of the economy. The useful allocation of resources in one area of the economy reinforces the useful allocation of resources in another. Economic growth continues as the efforts of each sector focus on the production of those things that will be of demand and use to others. Each productive act is not simply an event, but contributes momentum to a virtuous cycle.
The difficulty emerges when something is brought into production that is not desired – that fails to align with the actual demand for it. In that event, the value of the product itself may be less than the value of the resources committed to its production. Since it is not consumed, it simultaneously becomes “savings” and “unwanted inventory investment.” Long-term growth is harmed, because economic effort and resources are wasted and fail to open a vent for other production. If this occurs at a large scale, jobs are lost, inventories build, and the economy suffers the long-term effects of misallocated activity.
When we review the economic narrative of the past 14 years, this is exactly what we observe.
The first insult occurred during the excesses of the tech bubble and the severe misallocation of capital that resulted. Next, in response to the economic downturn in 2000-2002, the Federal Reserve held interest rates down in the hope of reviving interest-sensitive spending and investment. Instead, the suppressed interest rate environment triggered a “reach for yield” that found itself concentrated in enormous demand for mortgage securities. Wall Street was more than happy to provide the desired “product,” but could do so only by creating new mortgages by lending to anyone with a pulse.
The resulting housing bubble became a second episode of severe capital misallocation, and led to the economic collapse of 2008-2009. In response to that episode, the Federal Reserve has now produced and largely completed a third phase of speculative malinvestment, this time focused on the equity market. On historically reliable valuation measures, equity prices are now double the level at which they would be likely to provide historically normal returns. As in 2000, three-quarters of the record new issuance of equities is now dominated by companies that have no earnings. The valuation of the median stock is now higher than it was at the 2000 peak. NYSE margin debt as a percent of GDP exceeds every point in history except the March 2000 peak. All of this will end badly for the equity market, but the real insult is what this constant malinvestment has done to the long-term prospects for U.S. economic growth and employment.
The so-called “dual mandate” of the Federal Reserve does not ask the Fed to manage short-run or even cyclical fluctuations in the economy. Instead – whether one believes that the goals of that mandate are achievable or not – it asks the Fed to “maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.”
What the Fed has done instead is to completely lose control of the growth of monetary aggregates, in an effort to offset short-run, cyclical fluctuations in the economy, so as to promote maximum speculative activity and repeated bouts of resource misallocation, and ultimately damage the economy’s long-run potential to increase production and promote employment.
In the face of our concerns about long-run consequences, some might immediately appeal to Keynes, who trivialized prudence and restraint, saying “In the long run, we are all dead.” But we are not talking about decades. The insults to the U.S. economy, to U.S. labor force participation, and to the long-term unemployed are the largely predictable result of policies that have been pursued in the past decade alone.
On the fiscal policy side, there are numerous initiatives that – when properly focused on productivity and labor force participation – could easily be self-financing for the economy in aggregate. Too much of our fiscal deficit has nothing to do with productivity or inducements that reward economic activity. Productive infrastructure (ideally projects that have large distributed effects, as opposed to notions like rural broadband), alternative energy, earned income tax credits, tying extended unemployment compensation to some sort of activity requirement (community, internship or otherwise), small business loans and tax credits tied to job creation and retention, investment and R&D credits, and other initiatives fall into this category. The objective is for the private markets to retain a vested interest and exposure to some amount of risk, so that losses and unproductive decisions remain costly, but also for fiscal initiatives to ease constraints that are binding on private decision-making.
On the monetary policy side, it’s simply time to change course to a far less “elastic,” rules-based policy. With $2.5 trillion in excess reserves within the banking system, even one more dollar of quantitative easing is harmful because it perpetuates financial distortion and speculative activity while doing nothing to ease any constraint in the economy that is actually binding. Fortunately, it actually appears that the FOMC increasingly recognizes this, as attention has gradually focused on questions about policy effectiveness and financial risk, and away from the weak hope for positive effects. We will have to see how long this insight persists, but statements from FOMC officials increasingly reflect the intention to “wind down” QE, and emphasize the “high bar” that would be required to move away from that stance.
The cyclical risk for the U.S. equity market is already baked in the cake, and we view downside potential as substantial. The economy would allocate capital better, and to greater long-term benefit, if interest rates were at levels that rewarded savings and discouraged untethered growth in fiscal deficits. The economy would also allocate capital better if equity valuations were closer to historical norms (unfortunately about half of present levels given the extent of present distortions). While the capital markets are likely to undergo a great deal of adjustment in the coming years, we don’t anticipate systemic economic risks similar to the 2007-2009 period. We do observe a buildup of inventories in recent quarters that, combined with disruptions abroad, seem likely to contribute to economic weakness, but there are numerous episodes in history when stock market losses were not associated with steep economic losses.
The largest economic risks are particularly likely to emerge in Asia, where “big bazooka” central bank policies and speculative overinvestment have also produced large and persistent misallocation. China and Japan are of principal concern, though many smaller developing countries outside of Asia also appear at risk. Policy makers should certainly focus on areas where exposure to foreign obligations, equity leverage, and credit default swaps would produce sizeable disruptions. In any event, I believe it is urgent for investors to recognize the current position of the U.S. equity market in the context of a complete market cycle. As I noted in the face of similar conditions in 2007, my expectation is that any “put option” still provided by the Federal Reserve has a strike price that is way out-of-the-money.