Weekly Economic Commentary

License to Spend

In our 2012 Outlook we wrote, “U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) is likely to produce below-average growth of about 2% in 2012, supported by solid business spending and modest, but stable, consumer spending” and that U.S. business spending would grow at several times the pace of consumer spending in 2012. With data on GDP now in hand for the first quarter of 2012, it appears that business capital spending has plenty of catching up to do over the final three quarters of 2012. While businesses have been generating record profits, leaving corporate cash flows close to all-time highs, they have been reluctant to add to staff or do much capital spending in early 2012, preferring other uses for their cash.

The Skills to Pay to the Bills

·         Acquire other companies. Merger and acquisition (M&A) activity, while nowhere near as robust as it was prior to the Great Recession, has ramped up quickly since the end of the recession. Global M&A activity has increased by close to 40% since the middle of 2009, according to Bloomberg data.

·         Initiate or increase dividend payments to shareholders. According to Standard & Poor’s Index Services, 677 companies either initiated or increased dividends to shareholders in the first quarter of 2012, the most in any first quarter since 2007. S&P 500 companies paid out $240 billion in dividends to shareholders over the four quarters of 2011, the best four quarters for dividends since the four quarters ending in the third quarter of 2008, when many financial institutions slashed or eliminated their dividends as the Great Recession worsened. As we have noted in prior commentaries, corporate dividend strategies face uncertainty at the end of this year as the Bush tax cuts (which put the tax rate on dividends at 15%) are set to expire. Many firms may want to issue special dividends ahead of this date, thus diverting funds that could be used for capital spending.

·         Buy back shares. According to Standard & Poor’s Index Services, share buybacks, another way companies can deploy cash to shareholders, totaled $409 billion for S&P 500 companies in 2011, a 40% increase from the $299 billion in buybacks in 2010. The year 2011 saw the most buyback activity since mid-2008, prior to the onset of the worst of the Great Recession in the fall of 2008. Although share prices have increased 25% since the fall of 2011, making it more expensive for corporations to buy back shares, share buybacks should at least match 2011 levels in 2012.

Legislation and Weather May Have Sabotaged Business Capital Spending in Early 2012

Part of the slowdown in business capital spending in early 2012 relative to the robust pace seen in 2011 (and to the pace of consumer spending) may have been related to legislation and the weather. As we have discussed on several occasions in these pages, the much warmer-than-usual weather in the first three months of 2012 likely pulled forward some consumer spending into the winter months from the spring months, artificially boosting consumer spending, which grew at a 2.9% annualized rate in the first quarter. Business capital spending, which is not as weather sensitive, grew at just a 1.7% annualized rate in the first quarter of 2012.

The slow pace of business capital spending growth in the first quarter of 2012, in part, reflects the strength in capital spending in late 2011 which, in turn, may be related to legislation. Business spending was strong in 2011, especially in the final two quarters of the year, as spending rebounded from the supply chain disruptions triggered by the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan in March of 2011. Business capital spending surged by 16% and 8% in the final two quarters of 2011, respectively, and increased by 10% over 2011. The year 2011 marked the second consecutive robust year of business spending, after business spending all but dried up in 2007, before declining sharply in both 2008 (4%) and 2009 (-16%). Business capital spending surpassed its previous all-time high (set just prior to the onset of the Great Recession) in the third quarter of 2011, and continued to set new all-time highs in both the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012.

As noted above, part of the surge in business capital spending in late 2011 may have been related to legislation passed by Congress in December 2010, which allowed businesses to fully expense (for tax purposes) capital equipment purchased before the end of 2011. This probably pulled some capital spending that would otherwise have occurred in early 2012 into the latter half of 2011. The law allows companies to expense only 50% of capital equipment purchased before December 31, 2012 and, as the law stands now, even this provision would expire at the end of 2012, as part of the “fiscal cliff” we have discussed in recent weeks. This uncertainty may have the same impact on business spending this year, especially as we approach the 2012 Presidential and Congressional elections.

Check it Out: What May Boost Business Capital Spending Throughout 2012

Moving beyond legislation, many of the factors we forecast would be in place in 2012 to continue to boost capital spending remain in place. They include:

·         Record cash levels. The aforementioned record level of cash and corporate profits, combined with very low rates of return on these cash assets, is forcing corporate boards to ask corporate managements to put the cash to a more productive use.

·         Near-record low financing rates for businesses. The Federal Reserve (Fed) has promised to keep rates at “exceptionally low levels” until at least 2014. In addition, the Fed’s Operation Twist has kept long-term rates lower for longer, aiding both business and consumer borrowers

·         Steadily increasing loan growth. Commercial and industrial loans by banks to businesses, a key weekly metric of bank lending activity, is at a three-year high, and is up more than 13% from a year ago, the strongest pace of growth in nearly four years.

·         Gradually easing lending standards. Lending standards for loans by banks to finance capital spending, especially for commercial real estate, are easing, though still tight. As noted above, corporate revenue is again growing strongly and is generating large amounts of free cash that is available to finance investment. Yet, tight credit markets are limiting the ability of small and medium-sized companies, generally those without access to financial markets, from taking on new investment projects.

·         Equity prices. The 100%-plus gain in equity prices over the past three years and the 25%-plus gain in stocks over the past six months are notable. No sector of the economy is more highly correlated with movement in equity prices than business capital spending. Further gains in equity markets should fuel more capital spending over the remainder of the year.

·        “Onshoring” trend. We have observed ongoing anecdotal evidence of “onshoring” of jobs, especially in the manufacturing area. Aided by: 1) poor quality control in China, 2) relatively high unemployment, and lowered wage and benefit demands in the United States, and 3) the low cost of fuels like natural gas to help run the plants, an increasing number of big and small companies have moved production back to the United States in recent quarters. Political considerations are also hastening this trend.

·         Capital for labor. An ongoing substitution of capital for labor is occurring, as businesses continue to compete globally using the latest in technology and production processes. In addition, adding new workers often involves paying benefits along with salaries. New machinery, of course, does not require benefits like health care.

·         Average age of productive infrastructure at multi-year highs. The average age of the nation’s productive infrastructure is at multi-year highs, especially in traditional manufacturing, but in many other areas as well. Industries including transportation and warehousing, wholesale trade, retail trade, accommodation, and food services all have seen the average age of their productive infrastructure hit new multi-decade highs since the onset of the Great Recession, as businesses cut investment to protect their shareholders in the downturn.

The sweeping regulatory and legislative changes and prospects for additional changes, affecting sectors such as Financials, Energy, Utilities, and Health Care, that took place in 2010 are fading and may even be reversed — with the outcome of the 2012 election. Therefore, in 2012, business spending may continue to enjoy what may be a new multi-year cycle supported by this clearer regulatory and legislative environment.

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IMPORTANT DISCLOSURES The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. All performance reference is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country's borders in a specific time period, though GDP is usually calculated on an annual basis. It includes all of private and public consumption, government outlays, investments and exports less imports that occur within a defined territory.
Federal Funds Rate is the interest rate at which depository institutions actively trade balances held at the Federal Reserve, called federal funds, with each other, usually overnight, on an uncollateralized basis.
Private Sector – the total nonfarm payroll accounts for approximately 80% of the workers who produce the entire gross domestic product of the United States. The nonfarm payroll statistic is reported monthly, on the first Friday of the month, and is used to assist government policy makers and economists determine the current state of the economy and predict future levels of economic activity. It doesn’t include: - general government employees - private household employees - employees of nonprofit organizations that provide assistance to individuals - farm employees
The economic forecasts set forth in the presentation may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.
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