The Warning Flags are Up: Trumpsterism and Corporate Debt

Corporate Debt Chart 2016

No, you don’t need to get out the magnifier to get the gist of this chart, but if you’d like to see the original click here.  Simply consider the trajectory of the blue line indicating the level of non-financial corporate business debt – as in UP.  Nevadans may want to gaze at this with some caution, because (to borrow and vandalize a fine old saying) the last time the national economy caught a cold, Nevada got pneumonia.  We can, and should, look at the comparison in the trends of corporate debt, government debt, and household debt:

Corporate Government Debt Levels

In the last five years government debt has dropped precipitously, (don’t show this chart to Uncle Fustian at your holiday dinner it’s likely to jolt his fact free universe) household debt has declined, and “business debt” is way up.  There are all manner of reasons for an increase in corporate debt, and some of them are very productive – such as expansion of plants and factories – others not so much.  We’re in “maybe not so much” territory.

Part of the pile of current corporate debt is the result of stock buy backs, a boomlet of sorts in recent times:

“Over the first six months of the year (2016) S&P 500 companies paid out 112 percent of their earnings in the form of either dividends or share buybacks. That, Damodaran argues, is the kind of figure you might expect to see when a recession had suddenly crimped company cashflows, not during a very long-running, if tepid, expansion.

The last time companies were paying out this much more than they are taking in was in 2008, when the financial crisis hammered revenues faster than companies could cut buybacks and dividends.”

… Certainly the very idea of buybacks has come under increasing scrutiny. While a share buyback improves per share earnings performance, it is a piece of financial engineering which increases leverage but does nothing to improve a company’s product offerings or market position, much less its long-term prospects. Indeed, the vogue for buybacks has happened at the same time as an otherwise puzzling lack of corporate investment, especially given that corporate profit margins are still high by historic standards.” [Time] (emphasis added)

There’s nothing too terribly “puzzling” about this state of affairs.   Why would companies indulge in “financial engineering” while profits are high?  Could it be that the “wealth” of the company is financially anchored rather than structurally? Consider this Household debt service as a percentage of disposable personal income  chart from FRED:

Household Debt trends 2016

Superficially, we could argue that the American consumer has done some belt tightening since the Recession of 2007-08 and there’s less money being paid out in debt service from the family coffers – but, we’d also have to be realistic and see that the debt levels are already too high.

Yes, household debt levels relative to the GDP have been declining, but it remains higher than it’s been for almost all of post-war history, and by post-war we mean World War II. [Slate]  

What else could be depressing loans? Other loans – such as Student Debts. Again, we have a picture of that from the Federal Reserve:

Student Loan Trends FRED

What we see here is an increase in student loans owned and securitized, which are outstanding: from Q1 2006 at $480.9670 to Q3 2016 at $1,396.3355.  Student loan indebtedness now exceeds credit card debt, auto loans, and other non-mortgage debt. [Slate] What’s happening here?  Perhaps those corporate profits aren’t predicated on the increasing number of consumers flocking to their doors?  Perhaps not when consumers have an annual household credit card debt of $16,000; a $27,000 average of auto loans; and $169,000 in mortgages? [Slate]

Then, there’s the matter of real household income in the US.  In the first quarter of 1999 it hit a high of $57,909 and hasn’t been back since. The current figure is $56,516. [FRED]   Little wonder there’s some “financial engineering” going on in the corporate world.   That “financial engineering” especially in terms of stock buybacks simply doesn’t make any long term sense:

“No matter how low-interest rates get, it is hard to justify the raising of corporate debt to purchase outstanding stock. Longer-term debt should be used for longer-term needs, e.g. capital expenditures. But from a macroeconomic view, raising stock prices does not figure in promoting economic growth or general well-being—it is simply financial engineering serving the interest of only shareholders and management. No new jobs are created and no new capital investment is undertaken in a world of corporate buybacks. Investors are simply bribed with their own money.” [FinSen] (emphasis added)

So, where does Trumpsterism come into play?  First, let’s assume, given the preliminary appointments to Commerce and Treasury, that the emphasis in this administration won’t be on reducing student debt and regulating the securitization of corporate debt.  Let’s also assume that a Corporate Tax Holiday in the form of “re-patriated” corporate earnings will be a feature.  How is that likely to be spent?

The Financial Times reports: “Much of the debt sold by companies in recent years has been used to buy back their own shares, pay out higher dividends or finance big mergers and acquisitions. While these buybacks funded by cheap borrowing have boosted earnings, a missing ingredient has been spending on investment to build their businesses.”

Why not? If the consumers (read the other 99% of the US population) aren’t clamoring to spend more (read creating demand) then the “financial engineers” will boost themselves by … buybacks, higher dividends, and mergers and acquisitions.  Or…

“A tax holiday that prompts repatriation of cash held overseas by global US companies, a move investors expect during the Trump administration, could help boost investment. Mr Milligan says it is unclear whether companies will plough any repatriated profits into capital investment or simply boost buybacks.“Repatriation could flow through fairly quickly and lead to a noticeable rise in share buybacks.” [FinT]

In less diplomatic terms – here we go again.  Corporations, getting tax breaks and subsidies, faced with a market in which there is declining or stagnating consumer capacity, find ways to engineer their financial statements.  Nevada has seen this movie before, and it didn’t end well for us.

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