Corporate foie gras, by Eugen Von Bohm-Bawerk

From Eugen Von Bohm-Bawerk at

One of the arguments put forth in the bull vs. bear debate is that the solidity of US non-financial corporations have never been stronger. The amount of cash held by non-financial corporations has risen 150 per cent since the depth of the crisis in 2009. With such a massive cushion to stave off whatever the market may throw at them, they will be able to cope, or so it is held.

In addition, we know that financial corporations are flush with cash, or excess reserves held at the Federal Reserve. Throughout the various quantitative easing (QE) programs conducted by the Federal Reserve, commercial banks have been force fed cash as ducks on a foie gras farm. This has swelled their excess reserves to the unprecedented, and what would be thought unimaginable only few years’ back, level of US$2.6 trillion.

With all this cash the system should be, again according to the perma-bulls, more than ready to withstand the shock from the ongoing global deleveraging, a stronger dollar, emerging market blow-ups and the forthcoming US recession.

We beg to differ. When it comes to excess reserves they are most likely already “spoken” as a form of collateral in shadow banking chains. While the initial effect from QE on the shadow banking system was massive deflationary shock as all the high quality securities used in re-hypothecated collateral chains were soaked up by the Federal Reserve, it is a safe bet that excess reserves has to some extend filled that void.

In the non-financial sector on the other hand cash is, well, plain old cash. With more than US$1 trillion of the stuff on their balance sheet complacency is destined to be prevalent. And it is.

Credit market instruments, id est. debt, have also risen at a tremendous rate. Net debt, that is credit market liabilities less cash, has actually never been higher. As the chart below shows, sitting at more than US$6.6 trillion, non-financial net debt outstrips even the high from 2008.

Now, if we express the gargantuan debt load as share of market value of non-financial equities outstanding things looks not only sustainable, but outright sound. At only 30 per cent the debt to equity ratio is at multiyear lows. We need to go all the way back to the peak of the dot-com folly to find today’s equal.

And it is exactly the folly of the dot-com (and went) that best epitomizes todays manic corporate debt issuance. According to Bloomberg more than US$2.7 trillion in stock buybacks has been effectuated over the last six years. We would be amiss if we didn’t mention that this spending spree, not on capital goods or R&D that will help propel future growth mind you, but on liability massaging, coincided with ZIRP.

Investors desperate for yield have more than happy to lend US Inc. trillions of dollars, even though it is used mainly to buy back own stock. Not surprisingly this also help goose the market value of equites outstanding; also known as the denominator in the ratio presented in our chart.

So more debt begets higher market value of equites which in turn improves the debt/equity ratio which gives the incentive to issue more debt ad infinitum. Or in a slightly simpler version, debt beget more debt.

We have seen the story before. In the shaded grey areas we highlight episodes when the virtuous relationship turns ferociously vicious. Remember, markets take the escalator up, but the elevator down. And the longer the escalator the further down the elevator goes.

To continue reading: Corporate foie gras

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