Thursday, October 14, 2010

Where the Action Is

Commercial banks aren’t lending. That we know.

But, there is action elsewhere and, I believe, that this behavior tells us a lot about how the recovery is working itself out…although it is not a recovery like the ones of the recent past.

There is a lot of money in the financial markets…in the shadow banking system…and worldwide.

Where is the action taking place?

Well, for one, in the bond market. We have major companies issuing bonds at ridiculously low interest rates. For example, Microsoft just completed a new bond deal. On September 23, 2010, Microsoft Corp., the world’s biggest software maker, sold $4.75 billion of bonds, “at some of the lowest rates in history for corporate debt.” The offering information stated that “Proceeds may be used to fund working capital, capital expenditures, stock buybacks and acquisitions.”

This follows Microsoft’s “first ever” debt issue which came in May 2009. An analyst noted at the time, “Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is sitting on $25 billion in cash, so the company doesn’t need the bond proceeds ‘unless they have something big in mind.’”

And, Microsoft is not the only major company taking advantage of the AAA bond market.

Then there is the “Junk Bond” market. The New York Times trumpets “Junk Bonds Are Back on Top.” (

Jim Casey, “one of today’s junk-bond kings” and who runs the junk-bond business at JPMorgan Chase claims that “even those heady days of the 1980s” when Michael Milken ruled Wall Street and who Mr. Casey worked for at Drexel Burnham Lambert, “seem a little tame.”

So far this year, it is reported, that in the first nine months of this year corporations have raised $275 billion in this market worldwide, up from $163 billion in 2009.

“In high-yield, it’s undeniable that these are the best years that anyone has seen in their career.”


It is estimated that “about 75 percent of the deals are aimed at refinancing, rather than taking on additional debt.” The risk profile of the companies has gone up!

And, who are big players helping to underwrite these deals? Let’s see, JPMorgan, Bank of American and Merrill Lynch and Citigroup…the top four!

Further action?

Well check out the private equity interests. They are raising capital in the billions. To do what? “Many banks are looking to sell large portfolios of commitments to private equity funds that they made during the credit bubble.” Banks are doing this because these “assets” are underwater and also because new higher capital requirements will make their “ownership” very expensive.

This just points to a whole host of private equity interests moving into the area of distressed assets. And, they are moving in aggressively. We read the article in the New York Times this morning about short-seller David Einhorn, the founder of Greenlight Capital. (See “A Bear Roars”, One of the interesting insights relating to the work of Mr. Einhorn is the detail that Greenlight Capital put into its “due diligence” of the target.

The attention being focused on “distressed assets” today is not just a casual thing. Fund managers are aware of the risks they are under taking, just as they are aware of the potential returns that are available. As some have said, they are “taking care.”

One analyst remarked on the condition of the market: “We are seeing a steady river of deals” and “we expect this stream to carry on for some time.”

This is all part of the movement I reported on in “Corporations are Hoarding Cash and Keeping Their Powder Dry,” (

There seems to be a tremendous re-structuring of the economy taking place. I now believe that the re-structuring that is going on is beyond the power of the government to reverse. I believe that a similar re-structuring took place in the 1930s and 1940s, a re-structuring that the government, at that time, could not reverse. The 1950s represented the start of a “new era”.

The structure of the industrial base of the United States is dis-located with American industry using only 20% to 25% of its capacity. The structure of the work force is dis-located as 20% to 25% of the age-eligible workers in the United States are under-employed. And, the income/wealth distribution in the United States has become more and more skewed over the past fifty years.

These “dis-locations” will not be resolved by what corporate America seems to be doing now. Large companies, large banks, private equity funds, hedge funds, and other money sources are building up their cash reserves. They are looking, I believe, to buy assets, to buy “distressed companies” and so forth.

Imagine that Microsoft, a company that had never issued any debt in its history, has raised over $8.5 billion in new cash over the past 18 months or so while it is sitting on $25 billion in cash. Can you picture this money going to fund working capital and capital expenditures? I can’t but I can certainly see it going to fund stock “buybacks” (which raises its ability to purchase other companies) and to fund acquisitions.

Actions like this, however, will not result in higher levels of employment or greater investment in capital that would spur the economy along. If anything, a re-structuring, like the one I am writing about will have exactly the opposite effect.

Yet, this may be how the economy goes about recovering!

As I said above, I now believe that the re-structuring that is going on is beyond the power of the government to reverse. If this is true, neither a further quantitative easing on the part of the Federal Reserve System nor additional fiscal stimulus on the part of the federal government will do much in the way of achieving a more rapid economic recovery. If I am correct, the economic re-structuring will take place at its own speed. But, this will require a different response on the part of the government.

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