Category Archives: cash balances

NERA Doubles Down

In a previous blog post, I criticized a study by the economics consulting firm NERA purporting to measure the costs companies would face as the Dodd-Frank reform of the OTC derivative markets is implemented. NERA is working on behalf of a group of energy companies lobbying to avoid some of the law’s mandates. Last week, NERA filed a “Briefing Note” with the CFTC specifically addressing my criticism and explaining the reasoning that leads them to stand by their original numbers.

What is at issue? Dodd-Frank forces companies to margin swap trades that previously could be executed without margins. Does this impose extra costs on those companies? If so, how large are these costs?

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Hedging by Racing Cash Out

Speaking at GlaxoSmithKline’s annual results presentation last week, CEO Andrew Witty disclosed some of the strategies the company is employing to manage the risk posed by the Eurozone debt crisis:

We sweep all of our cash raised during the day out of the local banks and send it to banks here in the U.K. which we think are robust and secure. … We don’t leave any cash in most European countries. … And we’ve done that with a huge focus on getting paid. Like all things, if you focus on it, then eventually you do get paid.

GSK is not alone. According to the WSJ, Switzerland’s Novartis changed the incentives for its sales force in countries with significant debt issues, to collect the cash, not just generate the sales and put receivables on the company’s balance sheet. And Vodafone moves cash out of Greece every evening to guard against an exit from the euro, according to its CFO Andy Halford.

In some earlier posts, we have described some of the risk mitigating strategies by companies doing business in the Eurozone–here, here and here. The case made public by the CEO of GSK shows that companies also take precautionary actions by moving money across borders and between banks, as well as by taking steps to claw back money owed them by clients in financially distressed economies. Racing cash out of troubled zones is often done by multinationals operating in third-world countries. What is new is the use of that in first-world Europe.

One might ask whether this is a good way to actively manage risks, since it appears that by cutting funds to these countries companies like GSK are making the crisis worse and increasing their own risks of doing business.

Asked why GSK has taken these steps, Witty replied:

There was a period when things looked more worrying. The action that the [European Central Bank] took over the last six months has clearly had a very positive effect on bank liquidity and confidence. But there was a period last year when every day you were getting a phone call about Bank A, B or C which was perceived to be about to go or there were risks or there was anxiety about different banks in different countries. And we did a very comprehensive review about which banks we thought were the strongest and which weren’t. We moved our cash accordingly.

Witty’s remarks highlight the problem of bank (or country) runs. Whether GSK stays or leaves, it matters little, for if others leave the system collapses. The only way to avoid failure is if everybody stayed, but this is impossible to coordinate when each suspects that the others might leave. Such belief is by itself sufficient to bring down the system. Thus, the role for Leviathan, in Witty’s words impersonated by the ECB, and its actions to provide liquidity and confidence.

One final remark: When asked what the hedging strategy is with the money brought back daily to the U.K., Witty replied:

Remember that we pay our dividend in sterling so actually bringing the cash back to the U.K. is not a bad thing anyway because we always have use for sterling-denominated resources, so it’s really not an issue for us.

Surely that can’t be the whole story, for Witty understands that there are many ways to hedge exchange rate risk. The real problems are the concern over counterparty risk (banking freeze) and having money locked in a country that might fall off the cliff and impose capital controls.  Witty still remembers an emerging markets crisis where the “general manager took bags of money to people’s [GSK staff's] houses”.

Phantom Costs to the Swap Dealer Designation and OTC Reform

The CFTC is working to finalize the rule defining swap dealers and major swap participants. Under the Dodd-Frank financial reform, the rules governing operation of the OTC derivative market operate in large part through codes of conduct imposed on these entities. As reported most recently by Silla Brush at Bloomberg, a number of companies are hoping that the rules will be redrafted so that they escape designation and the responsibilities that go along with it. To bolster their lobbying effort, these companies commissioned a report by the economics consulting company NERA to estimate the costs of applying the law to them. The Bloomberg story quotes me as saying that “the study exaggerates the costs of the rule.” Here’s a little more meat behind what I meant.

NERA calculates the cost of posting margin as follows. According to the 26 companies that sponsored its report, the average company would have had to post $235 million in margin. NERA estimates the margin account would have earned interest at a rate of 3.49%, pre-tax. According to NERA, the Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC) for the energy companies who sponsored its report at 13.08%, pre-tax. That is, in order to raise the capital needed to fund an extra $1 in the margin account costs the average company 13.08%, but that account only earns 3.49%. The difference is 9.59%. The idea is that a company is losing the difference, or 9.59%, on every $1 is has to post in margin. Multiplying 9.59% by $235 million per firm yields an annual cash flow shortfall of $23 million per firm, NERA’s estimated Annual Carrying Cost of Margin.

One big error in the calculation is the use of the 13.08% WACC figure as an estimate of what it would cost to fund the margin account. This is comparable to the error of discounting a specific project’s cash flow using the company’s WACC, ignoring the fact that the risk of the project may be very different from the average risk of the firm. Every introductory corporate finance textbook warns the reader against this mistake. The average WACC reflects the average riskiness of all of the different assets of the firm. It makes no sense to compare the average WACC against the expected return of a specific asset or project and claim that that is a rate of return shortfall. A manager who did that, would consistently see a shortfall in relatively safe projects and a premium in relatively risky projects, regardless of the actual NPV of each project. The NPV is determined by comparing the project’s expected return against the project’s own cost of capital, not against the firm’s average cost of capital. Only in the specific case that the project’s risk equals the firm’s average project risk, is the WACC coincidentally the right cost of capital. That is clearly not the case for the margin account. It is invested in relatively safe assets. In contrast, the NERA companies’ average WACC reflects investments in power plants, oil wells, and derivative trading operations, all of which can be expected to be much riskier. That is why NERA’s calculation is an exaggeration. It isn’t just off by a rounding error. The key number it uses has absolutely nothing to do with what NERA purports to measure.

The growing return on cash in the bank

Phil Izzo at the Wall Street Journal‘s Real Time Economics blog is focused on how the danger of contagion from the European debt crisis is raising the return on those cash hoards US companies have been stockpiling.

Risk and return in the eye of the beholder

The corporate finance practice team at McKinsey & Co has joined the long line of people looking at the large cash hoard being assembled by corporations and asking “why?”. In an article in the McKinsey Quarterly, they suggest a surprising answer:

One factor that might go unnoticed, however, is the surprisingly strong role of decision biases in the investment decision-making process—a role that revealed itself in a recent McKinsey Global Survey. Most executives, the survey found, believe that their companies are too stingy, especially for investments expensed immediately through the income statement and not capitalized over the longer term. Indeed, about two-thirds of the respondents said that their companies underinvest in product development, and more than half that they underinvest in sales and marketing and in financing start-ups for new products or new markets. Bypassed opportunities aren’t just a missed opportunity for individual companies: the investment dearth hurts whole economies and job creation efforts as well.

The article provides a useful examination of biases in decision making. Many managers would concur that a million dollars lost on a bad investment in the recent past would tighten the finances of a company much more than a million dollars won would relax the constraint. This may be especially so in a period when creditors are deleveraging and equity holders are quite wary about bad news.

The McKinsey piece reminds us that a project is not just the Power Point slides and the numbers in a spreadsheet, but what these are in the eye of the beholder.  But how does that relate to the global picture of corporate cash hoards? It’s one thing to be humble about the quality of decision making and the biases that affect it. It’s an entirely other thing to connect those biases to the very large aggregate economic fluctuations in the global economy, including the cash that companies seem to think it is prudent to husband very carefully right now. When did prudence became a bias?

Cash & Carry, #4: Other resolutions to the puzzle

We began this series of posts recapping the finding that a currency carry trade investment has historically produced high return relative to the low risk. This finding is not consistent with models in finance that focus on the correlation between an investment’s return and the return on some benchmark stock portfolio. Using these models, and looking at the historical distribution of returns, the carry trade looks like a good bet, even accounting for bad outcomes. Posts #2 and #3 in the series reported on one route of the research effort to explain the puzzle, which attributes the abnormal return to the “peso problem”. But other researchers have been pursuing different routes. To wrap up this series, we’ll quickly mention some of this work.

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Cash & Carry, #3: the Price of “Peso” Risk

In our previous post in this series, we highlighted a line of research by Burnside et al. that explains the profitability of the carry trade as a “peso” problem. That is, the historical data doesn’t completely reflect all of the bad outcomes that may arise. The as yet unobserved bad outcomes are known as “peso events”. The historical profitability of the carry trade, isn’t the complete story. It’s a biased sample. The few bad outcomes not yet observed resolve the puzzle. Investors are worried about these “peso events” and price the currencies accordingly.

In this post we want to delve a bit more into this issue of how investors may be pricing “peso events.”

There are two different aspects to pricing “peso events.” First, we must assess the probability of an extreme negative event. Second, we must assess the discount we want to apply to that negative event. This second aspect is what we want to focus on.

In finance all dollars are not created equal. Cash received in states when the investor otherwise has plenty cash is not worth as much as cash received in states when the investor otherwise is short cash.

The standard models for pricing risk – such as the CAPM, the Fama-French and the Carhart factor models, among others – are based on what is called a linear stochastic discount factor across all states. They assume a linear relationship between the discount factor and some underlying risk factor. In the CAPM, that would mean a linear relationship between the discount factor and the payoff on the market portfolio. But there isn’t any natural presumption in favor of linearity in the discount factor.

The argument made by Burnside et al. is that the discount factor is not linear. Instead, a very high discount factor is applied to the as yet unobserved “peso events.” And this very high discount factor is essential in making sense of the historic profitability of the carry trade strategy.

In order to make the argument more accessible, we have constructed a simple numerical example:

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Cash & Carry, #2: Pesos and Steamrollers

In a previous post, we reported on the evidence that the carry trade strategy – investing in currencies with high interest rates and borrowing in currencies with low interest rates – earns high returns with low risk. In this post we describe in more detail some of what is known about the risk and return tradeoff on a carry trade investment. Our focus is on the risk and the cost of risk.

The returns to the carry trade, like the returns on a number of other trading strategies, are sometimes characterized by the phrase “They take the stairs up, but the elevator down.” That is, the profits accumulate gradually, but once in a while there arises a very, very large loss. The figure below, taken from a recently published paper by Burnside, Eichenbaum, Kleschelski and Rebelo (here is the free working paper version), shows the distribution of returns to a carry trade strategy between 1987 and 2009. The shaded bars are the observed sample. The black line is a normal distribution with the same mean and standard deviation as the sample.

What you can see in the figure is that the sample has a fatter left tail than the normal distribution, as highlighted by the red circle. Those few bad returns are the events at issue. They are very bad, and although few, they occur much more often than is predicted by the normal distribution. And these few extreme events matter to the total return of the strategy: Harvard’s Jeffrey Frankel noted that “In one week of 1998 (October 4-10), the yen rose 16% against the dollar, thereby suddenly reversing years of profitable carry trade from the low-interest-rate yen into the higher-paying dollar.”[1]

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Cash & Carry, #1: Where to Park?

Holding cash is a key risk management tool, and corporations are holding more cash than ever. Where should the corporate treasury park that cash? In which currency should these balances be held–US dollars, Euros, Yen, Swiss Francs, Australian Dollars or what? The choice of the currency denomination of cash investments is the flip side of the problem of selecting the currency denomination of debt. Modern capital markets confront corporate treasury with a broad array of opportunities for borrowing and investing in various currencies.

Assuming the expected returns in all currencies are fairly priced for risk (i.e., Uncovered Interest Rate Parity holds), the answer will depend on the multinational structure of the company’s business and its exposure to fluctuations in the different currencies. Some companies will be better off stashing cash in dollar denominated securities because they anticipate future net cash outflows denominated in dollars, while others will be better off stashing cash in Euro denominated securities and others in Yen, and so on. Many companies will have an optimal mix of cash stashed in a variety of currencies. We’ll call the company’s optimal mix under the assumption of Uncovered Interest Rate Parity the company’s Benchmark currency portfolio.

Other factors will matter, too, such as international tax rules, concerns about capital controls and so on.

But what about that big assumption we made up front? What if expected returns in all currencies are not fairly priced for risk, so that Uncovered Interest Rate Parity does not hold? What if investments in certain currencies are generating big profits, while investments in other currencies are generating losses?

It is well documented that a speculative portfolio built by purchasing high interest rate currencies and selling low interest rates currencies—the carry trade portfolio—has been very profitable over many years.The figure below, taken from a recently published paper by Burnside, Eichenbaum, Kleschelski and Rebelo (here is the free working paper version), shows the cumulative return to an investment in the carry trade portfolio between 1976 and 2009 as compared against the cumulative return to an investment in US stocks and the return to an investment in US Treasury Bills.

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Apple’s cash hoard: how much is too much?

There was plenty of press last week when Apple announced it’s 3rd quarter earnings. Much of the attention was on the size of the cash pool Apple has accumulated. Here’s the balance sheet:

 

 

Cash and other liquid securities total $76 billion and represent more than 70% of Apple’s book assets.

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