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.




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.