building a new company HQ–a sign of trouble ahead?

This is a long-standing Wall Street belief.  The basic idea is that as companies expand and mature, their leadership gradually turns from entrepreneurs into bureaucrats.  The ultimate warning bell that rough waters are ahead for corporate profits is the announcement that a firm will spend huge amounts of money on a grandiose new corporate headquarters.

An odd article in the Wall Street Journal reminded me of this a couple of days ago.  The company coming into question in it is Amazon, which has just initiated a search for the site of a second corporate HQ.

What’s odd:

–why no comment on Apple’s new over-the-top $5 billion HQ building?

–the headquarters idea was followed by a discussion of research results from a finance professor from Dartmouth, Kenneth French, which show that publicly traded firms with the highest levels of capital spending tend to have underperforming stocks.

I’ve looked on the internet for Prof. French’s work, much of which has been done in collaboration with Eugene Fama.  I couldn’t find the paper in question, although I did come across an interesting, and humorous, one that argues the lack of predictive value of the capital asset pricing model (CAPM)–despite it’s being the staple of the finance theory taught to MBAs.  (The business school idea is apparently that reality is too complicated for non-PhD students to understand so let’s teach them something that’s simple, even though it’s wrong.)

my thoughts

–money for creating/customizing computer software, which is one of the largest uses of corporate funds in the US, is typically written off as an expense.  From a financial accounting point of view, it doesn’t show up as capital spending.

–same thing with brand creation through advertising and public relations.  I’m not sure how Prof. French deals with this issue.

Over the past quarter-century, there’s been a tendency for companies to decrease their capital intensity.  In the semiconductor industry, this was the child of necessity, since each generation of fabs seems to be hugely more expensive than its predecessor.  Hence the rise of third-party fabs like TSMC.

For hotel companies, it has been a deliberate choice to divest their physical locations, while taking back management contracts.  For light manufacturing, it has been outsourcing to the developing world, but retaining marketing and distribution.


What’s left as capital-intensive, then?  Mining, oil and gas, ship transport, autos, steel, cement, public utilities…  Not exactly the cream of the capital appreciation crop.


At the very beginning of my investment career, the common belief was that high minimum effective plant size and correspondingly large spending requirements formed an anti-competitive “moat” for the industries in question.  But technological change, from the 1970s steel mini-mill that cost a tenth the price of a blast furnace onward, has shown capital spending to be more Maginot Line than effective defense.

So it may well be that the underperformance pointed to by Prof. French has less to do with profligate management, as the WSJ suggests, than simply the nature of today’s capital-intensive businesses–namely, the ones that have no other option.







is 4% real GDP growth possible in the US?

the 3% – 4% growth promise

One of Donald Trump’s campaign promises is to create 3% – 4% GDP growth in the US.  Is this possible?

The first thing to note is that this is real GDP growth, meaning after inflation has been subtracted out.  I’m not sure Mr. Trump has ever clarified this–or that he wouldn’t be nonplussed by the question–but his appointees to head the Treasury and Commerce departments have said real is what they mean.  Also, 4% nominal (that is, including inflation) growth is about what the US has been churning out in recent years.  So promising 4% nominal growth would be like P T Barnum putting up his “This way to the egress” sign.

where does growth come from?

Simple models are usually the best (as in this case, feeling embarrassed when calling them “models” is a good indicator of simplicity).  Growth can come either by having more people working or by having workers be more productive, meaning churning out more output per hour.

more workers

Having more people working is a function of demographics.

Each year, the population of the US rises by about 0.8%.  Half of that comes from children being born to people already residing in the US; half comes from immigration.  If we take increases in the population as a proxy for increases in the workforce, then demographics can generate a bit less than 1% trend growth in GDP.

This also means that if Mr. Trump carries through on his threat to deport 3% of the workforce and restrict entry of immigrants, not only will the social consequences be shameful, he will make it that much harder to achieve his GDP objective.


Given that demographics will likely either not change, or will change in a negative way, getting to the low end of the 3% – 4% range will only be possible if worker productivity rises.   Let’s make the optimistic assumptions that the Republicans’ white supremacy rhetoric doesn’t discourage any potential immigrants and that there’s no increase in deportations.  If so, productivity gains would have to be at least +2.2% per year to achieve the low end of the GDP growth goal.

If +4% growth isn’t simply “marketing” in the worst sense of that word, the Trump camp must believe that productivity can be boosted to +3.2% per year.

An aside:  My first stock market boss was a vintage 19th-century capitalist.  He believed that increasing worker productivity meant boosting the workload–and making employees work longer hours for the same pay.  (No, there was no company store where we were forced to buy meals; yes, we had to basically provide our own office supplies.)

That’s not correct, though.  Productivity improvement comes through better employee education/training and by employers investing in labor-enhancing machines (back then, it would have been computer workstations, or in my firm’s case, pencils).

productivity today

Productivity today has been stuck at around +1% per year growth for about a decade.  During the housing bubble, when the US was furiously churning out many more new dwellings than the country could afford and banks were making crazy no-documentation mortgage loans (websites were also sprouting up to show low-income renters how to buy a house and scam the system for a year of “free rent” before foreclosure), we got to maybe +2.8% for a number of years.  But the last time the US rose above 3% was in the 1950s, when industry in Europe and Japan had been destroyed by war.

my take

I hope Wilbur Ross can do what he says.

I think +4% growth is simply hype–and that Mr. Ross, if not Mr. Trump, knows the situation.

The trend in manufacturing is to replace humans with robots. That’s the most straightforward way to achieve productivity gains. Output climbs steadily; output per worker goes up faster.  However, the number of employees shrinks drastically.   For many displaced workers supporting Mr. Trump, this may be a case of being careful about what you wish for.






issues with the traditional business cycle picture

As I mentioned yesterday, one BIG problem with the traditional business cycle model (the one taught in business schools) is that although it explains what happens abroad, it no longer fits with behavior in the US economy–which is, after all, the biggest in the world (for believers in purchasing power parity, the second-biggest   …after China).

The model says that lower interest rates energize business capital spending, which produces new hiring, which leads to higher consumer activity as new employees spend their paychecks.

Makes sense.

the US experience

In the US, however, consumer spending recovers first.  Typically, soon after the Fed begins to lower interest rates, US consumers have been back in the malls, spending up a storm.  Rather than industry lifting the consumer, the consumer pulls industry out of its slump.

How so?

Economists theorize that what’s at work in the US is the “wealth effect.”  Two aspects:

–maybe lower rates are like Pavlov’s dinner bell ringing and consumers begin to salivate in advance of recovery  (my personal take on this is idea that the office/plant grapevine signals that the worst is over, that layoffs have stopped and new hiring will soon begin)

–lower rates = house prices start to rise, as do bonds and stocks.  So consumers feel wealthier as rates fall, because their accumulated assets (their wealth) are worth more.

The problem here is that we’ve had zero rates for eight years without seeing the traditional recession-ending spending surge

where’s the capital spending?

Whether capital spending is the locomotive or the caboose, it’s still arguably an integral part of the economic recovery train.  Why haven’t we seen a capital spending surge in the US?  Is the lack of capital spending an indication of continuing weakness in the US economy, as the traditional business cycle theory would suggest?

I think four factors are involved here, the sum of which suggests reality has sped far ahead of theory:

–the internet.   Typically, there’d be a surge in construction of shopping malls as recovery gains speed.  But as online commerce has developed, we’re finding that we already have maybe 20% too much bricks-and-mortar retail space

–globalization.  Continuing industrialization in emerging economies like China during the last decade has decisively shifted lots of low-end US-based manufacturing abroad.  In addition, I’m also willing to entertain the thought that crazy spending in China has produced an enduring glut of manufacturing capacity there, although I have no hard evidence

–software.  For many (most?) US companies, the largest target for new investment spending is not bigger, newer plants but faster, more efficient software. The National Accounts, the government system of tallying economic progress, have no effective way of recording this expenditure for analysis.  The traditional business cycle picture is similarly stuck in the world of fifty (or a hundred) years ago

–skilled vs. manual labor.   This is a thorny issue, and one I have strong opinions about.  Here, I think it’s enough to say that the traditional model doesn’t distinguish between a twenty-year old with a grade school education and a strong back vs. a college dropout like Mark Zuckerberg.  A generation ago, the distinction wasn’t important.  today, it’s crucial.




value investing and mergers/acquisitions

buy vs. build

When any company is figuring out how it should grow its existing businesses and potentially expand into other areas, it faces the classic “buy or build” problem.  That is to say, it has to decide whether it’s more profitable to use its money to create the new enterprise from the ground up, or whether it’s better to acquire a complementary firm that already has the intellectual property and market presence that our company covets.

There are pluses and minuses to either approach. Build-your-own takes more time.  The  buy-it route is faster, but invariably involves purchasing a firm that’s only available because it has been consigned to the stock market bargain basement because of perceived operational flaws.  Sometimes, acquirers learn to their sorrow that the target they have just bought is like a movie set, something that looks ok from the outside but is only a veneer.

when the urge is greatest

Companies feel the buy/build expansion urge the most keenly at times like today, when they are flush with cash after years of rising profits.

so why isn’t value doing better?

Many economists are explaining the apparent current lack of capital spending by companies by arguing that firms are opting in very large numbers to buy rather than to build.

The beneficiaries of such a universal impulse should be value investors, who specialize in holding slightly broken companies that are trading at large discounts to (what value investors hope is) their intrinsic value.  Growth investors, on the other hand, typically hold the strong-growing companies with high PE stocks who do the acquiring.

On the announcement of a bid, the target company typically goes up.  The bidder’s stock, on the other hand, usually goes down.  That’s partly because the bid is a surprise, partly because the target is perceived to be priced too high, partly simply because of arbitrage activity.

All this leads up to my point.

Over the past couple of years, growth investing has done very well.  Value has lagged badly.  How can this be if merger/acquisition activity continues to be large enough that it is making a significant dent in global capital spending?



market share shifts when growth slows

Economic behavior is always an amalgam of many forces, sometimes complementary, sometimes neutralizing one other.  Within the complexity, however, there are (thank goodness) usually relatively simple major themes that help to guide investment decisions, even though there may be all sorts of exceptions and qualifiers.

One of these major patterns is what happens to market shares within an industry at a time like the present, when growth will likely be shifting into a lower gear.  This is my over-simple account–

the “stuff” industry

Let’s say the industry that makes “stuff” has three competitors.  There”s:

Super-Duper Stuff–highest quality, great customer service

Pretty Good Stuff–acceptable quality, ok service, pricing at or maybe a tad below SDS

Awful Stuff–poor quality, poor service, but cheap.

early in the business cycle

At the beginning of the business cycle, demand for stuff explodes upward as customers who have postponed purchases during the prior downturn rush to buy.

Everyone would prefer to deal with SDS.  But SDS doesn’t have the capacity to fill all the orders that come pouring in.  So it puts all (or most) of its customers on allocation, giving them, say, 50% of what they request.  Customers turn to PGS to fill the gap.

PGS is in the same situation.  It’s swamped as well.  It, too, may have to put customers on allocation.

Some customers will just wait in line and hope they get their stuff from SDS or PGS eventually.  But the customers’ clients are clamoring.  So, feeling pressure and afraid to lose business, others will hold their noses and turn to AS.

The overall result:  SDS’s revenues will go up by, say, 20%; PGS’s will rise by 40%; and AS–which had very little business to begin with–will double, maybe triple, its sales.

later on–where we are now

Pent up demand has already been satisfied, so order growth is slowing.

People are more willing to wait.  They’re choosier about what they’ll buy.

All the industry participants have added production capacity.

(And in the case of the US today, people are anticipating having less to spend on stuff in the future.  So they may even be planning to cut back on stuff.)

what happens

PGS may keep some of the customers who have tried it out solely because they couldn’t get a product from SDS.  Even though it is Pretty Good, however, most will shift back to their preferred supplier as soon as they’re convinced their orders can be filled.

Similarly, buyers who have patronized AS will shift either to PGS or to SDS.  AS, too, may be able to keep some customers, but only if it can quickly improve its product quality and service to acceptable levels.  Otherwise, virtually all the extra business it has gained will evaporate.

stock market implications

Early in the business cycle, the worst-managed, worst-positioned companies often show the strongest earnings gains.  These come as a pleasant surprise–even a shock.  So most times, the ASs of the world are also the best stocks–and the highest quality companies are the worst performers.

Later in the cycle, overall profit gain potential is smaller.  But the highest quality firms get the lion’s share of what growth there is.  The weaker companies can easily show earnings declines.  If the market has come to believe that AS-like leopards have changed their spots when they haven’t, negative earnings surprises can produce ugly price declines.

Right now, I think that for companies focused on the US economy, focusing on the highest quality names has to be a high portfolio priority.  You have to have truly compelling reasons–not just hunches or inertia–to remain in second- or third-tier companies.

capital spending and the business cycle: BHP as an illustration

BHP’s fiscal 2012 earnings report

When BHP Billiton made its full (fiscal) year earnings announcement, it indicated that it is rethinking its planned $20 billion expansion of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mining project.  It hopes to restructure the expansion in a way that costs less.  The company also recorded $3.5 billion in asset writedowns (“impairment charges”) for the year, the largest being a $2.8 billion reduction in the value of its US shale gas assets.

some perspective

To put these items in perspective, even after the writedowns BHP still made $15.4 billion for the twelve months and had operating cash flow of $24.4 billion.  So, for BHP the announcements aren’t a big deal.  But they do provide the occasion for making several important points about corporate behavior.

1.  Companies rarely outspend their cash flow, no matter what they may say to the contrary.  And if they do borrow to fund capital projects, it’s almost always just after the bottom of the economic cycle, when evidence is accumulating that business is past the lows and is accelerating.  Otherwise, if a firm sees that its projected cash flow over the coming year–sometimes longer–is going to be less than previously thought, it cuts the capital budget.  That’s what’s happening here.

Borrowing to fund capital expenditure adds an additional element of risk because the assets developed are long-term and illiquid, not stuff companies want to stock up on when the future is iffy.

2.  Cash flow isn’t always as available as it might seem.  Companies often have principal repayments on debt.  They can also have mandatory progress payments on capital projects already contracted for.  They pay dividends.  They may need to finance working capital–meaning they need money to buy raw materials, pay workers and offer trade credit to customers.  And (in BHP’s case a minor point, but not always) they may be “capitalizing” interest payments for ongoing projects (BHP capitalized $314 million of interest in fiscal 2012).  Capitalizing means the interest payments are parked on the balance sheet until the associated project is complete.  The money is paid to the creditors, but doesn’t appear as an expense on the income statement.

All this means a large chunk of cash flow is already spoken for each year.  Under normal circumstances, the easiest item to shrink is capital spending on new projects.

3.  Asset writedowns are a form of corporate housekeeping.  Many times–like this one, in my opinion–they occur when earnings aren’t so stellar anyway.  The idea is that more bad news doesn’t stand out so much.  That’s not the whole story, though.

Take the $2.8 billion writedown of shale gas assets.

Taken literally, the asset reduction means that BHP no longer believes the holdings are worth the amount it has invested in them.  They’re actually worth $2.8 billion less.  Conceptually, the firm is required to make the writedown once it becomes convinced this is the case.  Practically speaking, companies have a lot of wiggle room to use to avoid doing so.

Suppose it’s right that BHP has lost $2.8 billion through investing in shale gas.  It has two choices:

–it can either reduced the carrying value of the assets now, to the point where it can maybe make a slim profit in the future–and do so at a time when the business is slack and investors don’t really care, or

–it can keep the $2.8 billion loss on the balance sheet and show it little by little as gas is brought to the surface and sold.  Losses would continue for the life of the operations, until the entire $2.8 billion flows through the income statement.  Most of the red ink would presumably occur during better economic times, when investors are more eager to see earnings gains and would respond more negatively to the losses.

In other words, BHP is (prudently) wiping the slate clean while no one is looking.  In the non-commonsensical way that professional investors think, the writeoff is the mark of a good company.