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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Weening Businesses off Debt: A Difficult Recovery?

The near credit-freeze that came to a head in September of 2008 meant that even in the ensuing recovery, managers at American companies would be hesitant to spend their companies’ cash reserves. $838 billion for S & P’s 500 Index in March, 2010, was up 26% from March, 2009. Accordingly, managers have been hesitant to hire. From late 2007 to late 2009, payroll employment dropped by nearly 8.4 million by July, 2010; only 11% of the lost jobs were regained. Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, points to the shift in executive compensation more in the direction of stock options. This arrangement gives managers more incentive to cut costs more in recessions and hold off in hiring in recoveries so that profits might surge first. However, one could point to the mandatory delay stipulated in some executive’s options to buy stock as giving them an incentive to look to the longer term.  Lynn Reaser, another economist, points to the lack of available external credit even more than a year after the financial crisis of 2008. She argues that managers conserved cash because they couldn’t rely on outside financing. However, firms like Apple, Yahoo, and Google are debtless and doing very well, so I would question the premise that outside credit is something to be desired.  Managers betting on leverage typically allow their irrational exuberance to distort their debt-to-assets and debt-to-profit benchmarks. If managers have become more averse to debt, maintaining higher cash reserves is not a bad thing, even when little interest is made on the cash. Once the new level is achieved, then only replenishments would be needed, so the diminishment of a firm’s investing in equipment or new hires would be temporary—to build the reserves and then to keep them stocked.  Drawing on their firm’s cash reserves rather than asking a bank for a loan or selling bonds proffers more freedom and self-reliance—qualities that are valuable even though they are difficult to quantify.  So we might view the recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 as a systemic correction in which managers were weened off their reliance (i.e., addition) on debt. Of course, the key lies in holding to the correction rather than falling off the wagon. Perhaps there should be an AA for debt-ridden businesses.

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, “The Big Hiring-Freeze,” Newsweek (August 2, 2010), p. 26.