Monday, November 15, 2010

Whither Economic Policy? Whither Investments?

President Obama has returned to Washington, D. C. We are told that he plans upon his return to focus on domestic economic issues.

The president has had two weeks that have not necessarily been the best of his administration. The mid-term election did not go the way he wanted and his sojourn into the international waters of the East did not go swimmingly.

Now, where is he going to go on the economic front?

His economic team is crumbling before his eyes and Ben and Tim are not getting the best critical reviews.

The economic news is not exactly what he would like to hear. It seems as if the results the economy is posting are exactly the opposite of what he has tried to do.

The front page of the Wall Street Journal trumpets: “Paychecks for CEOs Climb”. Here are the opening words:

“The chief executives of the largest U.S. public companies enjoyed bigger paydays in their latest fiscal year, as share prices recovered and profits soared amid the country's slow emergence from recession.

At these 456 companies, the median pretax value of CEO salaries, bonuses and long-term incentives, such as grants of stock and stock options, rose by 3% to $7.23 million, according to an analysis of their latest proxy filings for The Wall Street Journal by consulting firm Hay Group.

The Journal usually tracks executive compensation each spring. To provide a fuller post-recession picture, it followed up this year by analyzing pretax CEO pay at every U.S. public company with at least $4 billion in annual revenue that filed proxy statements between Oct. 1, 2009, and Sept. 30, 2010.

The results differ markedly from the April analysis, which covered 200 such companies and found median total direct compensation had dropped 0.9%.” (

The largest companies in the United States and their chief executives seem to be doing just fine, thank you. Plus, these companies are able to raise debt at record low interest rates and they seem to be piling up cash as fast as they can.

Recent headlines also reported that the income distribution in the United States again has moved more and more toward the wealthier end of the spectrum.

And, what do the policymakers and economists supporting the administration recommend? More spending because the administration has been too timid. More liquidity for the financial markets because we are in a liquidity trap.

Will this continue to be the economic policy of the Obama administration going forward?

I see no indication that it’s economic policy will change. And, if this is the case then this environment should drive investment decisions going forward.

The foundation of these investment decisions, I believe, is that the “largest U. S. public companies” will continue to prosper. The economic policies being proposed have little or nothing to do with resolving the underlying economic imbalances that exist in the United States and that is why the recovery, as it continues, will be skewed toward the larger companies.

Of course, not all of the largest U. S. public companies are going to thrive, but I believe that this is where a lot of the action will be. The action will be in the following companies: companies that will be bought by the large companies building up the large piles of cash; the companies that are engaged in “bubble” assets like commodities, emerging market financial instruments, and bond markets; and a select few companies that are doing the buying of the smaller companies.

I don’t immediately like companies that are doing the acquiring because mergers and acquisitions don’t always work out. In fact, my research indicates that at least two-thirds of the corporate combinations don’t work out. First off, those that move earlier tend to fare better because the acquisition prices don’t get inflated until the merger frenzy progresses: followers get killed. Second, I don’t trust a lot of executives in making mergers work. So many get caught up in “ego” problems that they either overpay for the target or move to make mergers without the culture or the expertise to pull off the acquisitions.

This makes the potential targets for takeover extremely attractive. Why? Because the targets in this instance will be those companies that are not performing well due to the recession and the tepid recovery and the price of their stocks will be relatively low with few prospects, except for being acquired, for they are still basically struggling companies.

To me the pieces are in place for a substantial consolidation of companies in the United States. The largest companies have cash and will have the ability to garner much more as they need it. Note: this just came across the net: Caterpillar Strikes $7.6 Billion Deal for Bucyrus. Caterpillar is offering $92 a share in cash for Bucyrus, a 32 percent premium, as the heavy equipment colossus makes a big push into mining equipment.


The executives of these companies stand to make lots and lots of money by making their companies bigger, whether or not they make them bigger successfully. Given the information presented above, this seems to have already started. Continuing the government’s existing
economic policy will see this environment lasting for quite some time.

Companies dealing in “bubble” assets can obviously benefit from “going to the dance.” The downside is “staying too long at the dance.” But, the Treasury and the Fed have signaled that their current policies will continue for “an extended time.” Let the music play on.

The results of this? The income distribution will continue to skew toward the wealthy end. Big businesses will get bigger. Small businesses will do alright, but they will be on the periphery not at the center and will be devoted more to upper income tastes. Employment will continue to be weak because mergers and acquisitions tend to result in layoffs and a shrinking workforce rather than an increasing one. Capital investment will not be too lively because mergers and acquisitions, at first, result in the scrapping of old physical plant and equipment and not the expansion of it.

Basically, the scenario I have described translates in the following way: the stimulus is going to be paper, and, therefore, the profits and wealth that are going to be created are going to be primarily paper.

Money will be made in this environment…lots of it! Just don’t remain too long at the dance!

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