Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Merger Binge and the Economy

We wondered what Microsoft was up to when it started issuing long-term debt last year, something that it had never done all the rest of the time it has been a public company. 

This money was not going to go to expand operations.  It already had tons of cash to do that!

The best bet was that Microsoft was going to go acquiring…but, what.

Now we have a partial view…Microsoft…and Steve Ballmer…is buying Skype!  The estimated cost?  More than $8 billion.

What about all the other money Microsoft raised in the bond market?  My best guess is that we will see more acquisitions in the future!

But, Microsoft is not alone in this.  Hertz is going after Dollar Thrifty and outbidding Avis.  Southwest Airlines acquired AirTran Holdings to get into the Atlanta airport, the world’s busiest. 

And the beat goes on.

AT&T is intent on acquiring T-Mobile for around $39 billion; Johnson & Johnson has a $21.5 billion deal in the works for Synthes; Duke Energy plans to merge with Progress energy, the deal totaling a little less than $14 billion; and there is the bid for NYSE Euronext for more than $11 billion.

I have been arguing for at least a year now that much of the cash being built up at many large corporations was going to contribute to a major acquisition binge…worldwide. 

And, this binge would include companies from more and more nations.  The Chinese are looking to put $200 billion into corporate acquisitions globally.

Roger Altman, Chairman of Evercore Partners, Inc., argues that the deal making will be at an all time high in 2011, surpassing the $4 trillion record total that was achieved in 2007. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-06/altman-sees-dealmaking-recovery-surpassing-record-4-trillion-of-2007-boom.html)

Some analysts argue that the growing stability of the economy is contributing to this.  Others attribute this movement to the strength in the stock market. 

Whereas these support the cumulative rise in the amount of M & A activity taking place, I still believe that this record-breaking rise in acquisition activity is being subsidized by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve System. 

The first to benefit from this subsidy are those companies that came through the Great Recession with little or no debt on their balance sheets. 

The second group to benefit have been those that have been able to use leveraged loans and junk bond issues to refinance billions of dollars of debt borrowed during the credit inflation of the past decade or so. 

These companies are now buying other companies and strategically positioning themselves for the future.  And, in a real sense, the big are getting bigger…and more complex.  Industry is following the banks on this as the larger firms are getting greater market share and expanded market space. 

And, in my experience, there is only one way to really make acquisitions work.  The acquirers, after the deal is made, must become the biggest “bastards” in the world.  That is, the acquirers must become ruthless in rationalizing their purchase…otherwise…the acquisition just won’t pay off.

The effect on the economy?  In the longer-run…good…very good!  In the short run…continued pain.  Jobs must be cut, un-economic facilities must be disposed of, and, in general, spending must be reduced. 

“In AT&T’s pending deal for T-Mobile USA, the companies estimate cost savings of $40 billion over time, including expected layoffs, starting from the third year after the merger is completed.” (http://professional.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704810504576305363524537424.html?mod=ITP_moneyandinvesting_0&mg=reno-wsj)

But, this gets into another point I have been trying to make for the past two to three years.  During this time I have argued that about one-in-four to one-in-five people of working age are under-employed.  Forget the unemployment rate as it is measured…there are a lot of individuals that have either left the labor market or are not fully employed but would like to be.  And, this has been a growing problem over the past half-century. 

The merger and acquisition binge is not going to help this situation…one bit!

David Brooks in his New York Times column this morning emphasis this problem. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/10/opinion/10brooks.html?_r=1&hp)  Brooks reports that 80 percent of “all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work…there are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical.”

And, the primary factor that distinguishes the unemployed?  Not sufficient educational training.  “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35 percent of those without a high school degree are out of the labor force.”  Not unemployed…but, “out of the labor force”!  And, while this number goes down the more education one has, there is still a close correlation between the number of individuals “out of the labor force” and the amount of education that an individual has.   

And, as the mergers and acquisitions take place, the trend will just worsen.  For too long a time, when unemployment arose, we have tried to put people back into the jobs they had formerly held, even though those jobs became less and less economically justified.  The expectation was that the government would stimulate the economy and people would get their old jobs back.

Now we are going through a transition in which those “old jobs” are no longer there. 

And, the monetary stimulation coming from the Federal Reserve System is now resulting in a continued reduction in the less productive jobs through the merger and acquisition banquet going on and is doing very little toward helping these people get back into the work force.

This is consistent with the argument that I have continuously made in these posts that the credit inflation created by the monetary and fiscal policy of the United States government over the past fifty years has done a very good job in splitting the labor force into two segments, the less educated and the more educated, and the society into a much more highly skewed income distribution than earlier.

The acquirers have the cash, they can still borrow at ridiculously low interest rates, and these conditions are expected to stay in place for “an extended period.”  Continue to watch all the M&A activity taking place.  I think this will be a time to remember.

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