In his latest weekly note, John Hussman takes on this idea that corporations of a ton of “dry powder” ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, or the second they start feeling confident about the recovery.
It’s an important question, since plenty of folks have a lot riding on the notion that this is what we’ll bring the economy back on its feet.
First he notes, the echoes of history:
Four years ago, in There’s No Such Thing as Idle Cash on the Sidelines, I observed:
“Investors should not believe that the “cash on the balance sheets” of corporations might suddenly be used, in aggregate, for new investments and capital spending. That cash on their balance sheets has already been deployed as loans to the Federal government and to other companies. Now, yes, if the government runs a surplus and retires its debt, in aggregate, or the other companies that borrowed the money generate new earnings and then pay off their debt, in aggregate, then those new savings that retire the T-bills and commercial paper then make it possible for the recipients to finance new investment, in aggregate. So as usual, savings equals investment, and new savings can finance new investment. But what investors often point to and call “cash on the sidelines” is really saving that has already been deployed and used either to offset the dissavings of government or to finance investments made by other companies. Once those savings have been spent, you can’t, in aggregate, use the IOUs (in the form of money market securities) to do it again.”
Now, as then, analysts are pointing to an apparent pile of corporate “cash on the sidelines” as these holdings of debt securities somehow make new corporate spending more likely. In order to evaluate this argument, it’s necessary to understand that what is being called cash is actually a stack of IOUs for money that has generally already been spent by other companies or by the government.
But even if your cash are not IOUs, the cash is, on net, still not all that helpful from a macro perspective:
Don’t get me wrong. At an individual company level, it’s obvious that if DuPont has a bunch of marketable securities on its balance sheet, it is free to sell those securities and spend the money on new equipment and so forth. The issue is that somebody else has to buy those securities. At the end of the day, there is no less “cash on the sidelines” after that change of ownership than there was before.
Put simply, there is a lot of apparent “cash on the sidelines” because the government and many corporations have issued enormous quantities of new debt, often with short maturities, while other corporations have purchased it. It is an equilibrium. The assets that are held in the right hand represent debt that is owed by the left. You cannot call that pile of short-term marketable securities an asset without calling it a liability. The cash on the sidelines is evidence of debt incurred to fund economic activity that is already in the past. It will remain “on the sidelines” until the debt is retired. The government debt has been issued to finance deficit spending. At the same time, a great deal of corporate debt has been issued over the past year apparently as a pre-emptive measure against the possibility of the capital markets freezing up again.
And finally, the cash on the sidelines argument ignores the debt side of the ledger
What’s fascinating about the “corporate cash” argument is that few observers recognise that a great deal of this cash is not retained earnings but new debt issuance. Brett Arends of MarketWatch puts present levels of corporate cash in perspective: “According to the Federal Reserve, nonfinancial firms borrowed another $289 billion in the first quarter, taking their total domestic debts to $7.2 trillion, the highest level ever. That’s up by $1.1 trillion since the first quarter of 2007; it’s twice the level seen in the late 1990s. Central bank and Commerce Department data reveal that gross domestic debts of nonfinancial corporations now amount to 50% of GDP.”
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