by Danielle DiMartino
The art of brevity was not lost on Abraham Lincoln. It is that brevity in all its glory that shines through in what endures as one of the most beautiful testaments to the art of oration: The Gettysburg Address rounds out at 272 resounding words. The nation’s 16th President humbly predicted that the world would quickly forget his words of that November day in 1863. Rather, he said, history would solely evoke the valiant acts of men such as those whose blood still soaked the consecrated battleground on which they stood. Of course, Lincoln was both right and wrong. Neither the men who sacrificed their lives nor his words would be forgotten. We remember and know that a terrible and ever mounting price would ultimately be paid, some 623,026 American lives, the steepest in man’s bloody history.
In what can only be described as the pinnacle of prescience, a 28-year old Lincoln foretold of the coming Civil War, which he presaged would come to pass if the scourge of slavery remained unchecked. In an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in January 1838, Lincoln spoke these haunting words: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” The enemy within.
Since that devastating brother against brother Civil War, so prophetically foreseen by Lincoln, more than 626,000 American soldiers have lost their lives defending the ideals and freedom of our Union. Today that Union stands, but it must now face the threat of an enemy rising within its borders to wage a different kind of war against our hard fought freedom.
To be precise, today’s dangers emanate from our nation’s boardrooms, where officers and executives have authorized an era of reckless abandon in the form of share buybacks. In the event the word ‘hyperbolic’ just came to mind, the ramifications of a lost generation of investment in Corporate America should not be lightly dismissed. This trend, above all others, has weakened the foundation of U.S. long term economic growth.
The real question is whether those who have facilitated the malfeasance will be held accountable. Before the launch of the second iteration of quantitative easing (QE2) that the Fed voted to implement on November 3, 2010, Richard Fisher, to whom yours truly once answered, raised serious concerns. An October 7, 2010 speech before the Economic Club of Minneapolis was the venue.
The contextual backdrop is key: Just weeks before at Jackson Hole, Ben Bernanke had unleashed the mother of all stock market rallies by hinting that QE2 was indeed coming down the FOMC pipeline. The hawks were understandably hopping mad as the debate on the inside was anything but settled. Fisher indicated as much, albeit with notoriously diplomatic panache:
“In my darkest moments I have begun to wonder if the monetary accommodation we have already engineered might even be working in the wrong places. Far too many of the large corporations I survey that are committing to fixed investment report that the most effective way to deploy cheap money raised in the current bond markets or in the form of loans from banks, beyond buying in stock or expanding dividends, is to invest it abroad where taxes are lower and governments are more eager to please.”
Six years on, corporate leverage is hovering near a 12-year high and domestic capital expenditures have plunged. In the interim, reams of commentary have been devoted to share buybacks and with good reason. Companies reducing their share count have, at least in recent years, been where the hottest action is, courtyard-seat level action.
But now, it looks as if the trend is finally cresting. A fresh report by TrimTabs Investment Research found that companies have announced 35 percent less in buybacks through May 19th compared with the same period last year. And while $261.5 billion is still respectable (for the purpose of placating shareholders), it is nevertheless a steep decline from 2015’s $399.4 billion. Even this tempered number is deceiving – only half the number of firms have announced buybacks vs last year.
Have U.S. executives and their Boards of Directors finally found religion?
We can only hope. The devastation wrought by the multi-trillion-dollar buyback frenzy is what many of us learned in Econ 101 as the ‘opportunity cost,’ or the value of what’s been foregone. As yet, the value of lost investment opportunities remains a huge unknown.
In the event doing right by future generations does not suffice, executives might be motivated to renounce their errant ways because shareholders appear to have stopped rewarding buybacks. According to Marketwatch, an exchange traded fund that affords investors access to the most aggressive companies in the buyback arena is off 0.8 percent for the year and down 9.8 percent over the last 12 months.
The hope is that Corporate America is at the precipice of an investment binge that sparks economic activity that richly rewards those with patience over those with the burning need for instant gratification. The risk? That central bankers whisper sweet nothings the likes of which no Board or CFO can resist. Mario Draghi may already have done so.
In announcing its latest iteration of QE, the European Central Bank (ECB) added investment grade corporate bonds to the list of eligible securities that can satisfy its purchase commitment. Critically, U.S. multinationals with European operations are included among qualifying issuers. As Evergreen Gavekal’s David Hay recently pointed out, McDonald’s has jumped right into the pool, issuing five-year Euro-denominated paper at an interest rate of a barely discernible 0.45 percent.
Hay ventures further that the ECB’s program will have the welcome effect of mitigating the widening of the yield differential, or spread, between Treasurys and similar maturity U.S. corporate bonds the next time markets seize up. The firm’s chief investment officer takes one last step over the intellectual Rubicon with the following hypothesis, “The Fed might want to imitate the ECB but may be restricted from doing so by its charter,” Hay posits, adding that, “We wouldn’t discount the possibility it will try to amend, or get around, any prohibitions, however.”
Talk about sweet nothings on steroids. But could it really happen in a theoretical launch of (God forbid) QE4?
For the record, Hay is right. There is no explicit permission in the Federal Reserve Act that authorizes open market corporate bond purchases. Hay is also correct, however, that there could be legal wiggle room. This possibility was corroborated by Cumberland Advisors’ in-house central banking guru Bob Eisenbeis, who noted that the Fed’s emergency powers provision, when invoked, allows for purchases of almost any security, especially those that are not expressly disallowed in the Act’s language.
As for the prospect that politicians would put their foot down and insist that the Fed stand pat and not cross the line? What are the odds of that happening if the economic backdrop is dire enough for the subject of QE4 and open market corporate bond purchases to be matters of public debate?
Given markets’ maniacal machinations of late, the degree to which the economic data remain mixed, and the growing vocal consensus among Fed officials that June is a ‘go’ for a rate hike, it’s a safe bet that the details of QE4 will not be a focal point of the upcoming FOMC meeting.
When the time does come, and it’s sure to come before rates are normalized, Corporate America will hopefully be capable of resisting the temptation to play along. To bolster their resolve: Required reading on all CEO, CFO and Board officer bedside tables should be last November’s missive by Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Michael Hartnett.
In it, the firm’s Chief Investment Strategist paraphrases Winston Churchill and how the great statesman would have described the risk of what Hartnett cleverly warns could be, ‘Quantitative Failure,’:
“Never in the field of monetary policy was so much gained by so few at the expense of so many.”
May those words be ones Janet Yellen lives by.
Hartnett then goes on to encapsulate the one statistic that should haunt the current generation of central bankers more than any other: For every one job created in the United States in the last decade, $296,000 has been spent on share buybacks.
Recall that the fair Chair is a labor market economist above any other field. Surely she will be able to see the damage past QE has wrought and forgo the facilitation of further bad behavior. Should she ignore the potential for further QE-financed share buybacks to exact more untold economic damage, it would be akin to intentionally corrupting Corporate America.
In the words that have mistakenly been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, arguably with sound reasoning: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Since the turn of this century, debt-financed share buybacks have severely tested the character of those charged with growing publically-traded U.S. firms. The time, though, has come for these wayward companies’ banker and enabler, the Fed, to hold the line, no matter how difficult the next inevitable test of their character may prove to be. It’s time for the Fed to defend the entire Union and end a civil war that pits a chosen few against the economic freedom of the many.