Fed Fueled M & A Destroys Capital

Fed Fueled M & A Destroys Capital
Profile photo of Doug French

The world’s central bankers have given companies the urge to merge. Merger and Acquisition (M&A) activity has already reached $2.2 trillion this year according to Thomson Reuters Deals Intelligence, up 70% from this time a year ago.

The deals are big, with eight acquisitions, each over $5 billion, being announced in just a single week in July.   However CEO buying sprees do not create new jobs and new products that make our lives better, but are instead just wasteful malinvestments that destroy capital.

Post crash zero interest rate policy has spurred M&A around the globe. For instance, 2011 was considered a blockbuster for global mergers and acquisitions, with the total number of deals and values both rising by over 20 percent for 2010, hitting $2.4 trillion.

Besides the egos of CEOs, the Fed’s cheap money drives M&A. Wall Street began to fall apart in the summer of 2007 with the M2 money supply standing at $7.3 trillion. The Fed has hit the monetary gas and by June 2014, M2 was just short of $11.4 trillion, a 56 percent increase.

Six-month Libor (the London interbank offered rate) was 5.37 percent in July 2007, it is currently 33 basis points. Lots of deals will work on paper with rates that low.

Firms have lots of cash earning little of nothing Bloomberg reported in March, “U.S. companies outside of the finance industry are holding more cash on their balance sheets than ever, with $1.64 trillion at the end of 2013.”

Another factor is increased government interference. Professor Peter Klein’s work on entrepreneurship has determined that firms make acquisitions when faced with increased uncertainty, citing regulatory interference and tax changes as major causes of uncertainty.

When faced with increased regulatory interference, firms respond by experimenting, making riskier acquisitions — and consequently more mistakes. Klein concludes that unprofitable acquisitions tend to come in industry clusters and that these clusters are likely to arise from intensified regulation. So, while money’s cheap and government keeps getting more intrusive, CEOs figure, “Let’s roll the dice and buy another business.”

Many times  they pay too much. Warren Buffett wrote in the Berkshire Hathaway 1982 annual report, “The Market, like the Lord, helps those who help themselves. But, unlike the Lord, the market does not forgive those who know not what they do…. A too high purchase price for the stock of an excellent company can undo the effects of a subsequent decade of favorable business developments.”

A former director of Coopers & Lybrand explained to author Mark Sirower where high acquisition prices come from. “Lotus is the culprit in failed acquisitions. It is too easy to assume anything you want in perpetuity without any understanding of the economics of an industry, and package it in a beautiful report.”

In his bookThe Synergy Trap, Sirower says valuation models turn on three things: free-cash-flow forecasts, residual value, and a discount rate. All three are heavily influenced by Fed policy.

The cost of capital is integral to making these assumptions. The lower the assumed interest rate or cost of capital, the higher the price for the acquisition that the models will justify.

Once interest rates go up, these valuation models will be blown to pieces,

But is bigger better?

Austrian economics has determined that there are limits to the size of a firm. The Left wrings their hands about giant corporations taking over the world, but it doesn’t work out that way. According to Max Landsberg and Dr. Thomas Kell at the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles, nearly three-quarters of mergers fail. The hookups of AOL and Time Warner, Snapple and Quaker Oats, and Sears and Kmart make the point.

Mises determined that socialism can’t function because there are no market prices in a socialist economy to distinguish more- or less-valuable uses of social resources.

Peter Klein writes in his bookThe Capitalist and the Entrepreneur that Mises wasn’t just talking about socialism. Mises was addressing the role of prices for capital goods.

Entrepreneurs make guesses about future prices and allocate resources accordingly to satisfy customer wants and turn a profit while doing it. If there is no market for capital goods, resources won’t be allocated efficiently whether it’s a socialist economy or otherwise. The market economy requires well-functioning asset markets. Without these prices, decision making is distorted.

Murray Rothbard extended Mises’s analyses to considering the size of firms, and the problem of resource allocation under socialism to the context of vertical integration and the size of an organization.He wrote, “ultimate limits are set on the relative size of the firm by the necessity of markets to exist in every factor, in order to make it possible for the firm to calculate its profits and losses.”

To make implicit estimates, there must be an explicit market. “When an entrepreneur receives income, in other words, he receives a complex of various functional incomes,”Rothbard wrote. “To isolate them by calculation, there must be in existence an external market to which the entrepreneur can refer.”

As firms get too big, economic calculation gets muddied because firms do not receive the profit-and-loss signals for their internal transactions. Managers are lost as to how to allocate land and labor to provide maximum profits or to serve customers best.

As these firms grow (especially by acquisition), one part of the company is often the provider and another part of the company is the customer, yet there are no market prices to allocate resources efficiently. Rothbard wrote,

Economic calculation becomes ever more important as the market economy develops and progresses, as the stages and the complexities of type and variety of capital goods increase. Ever more important for the maintenance of an advanced economy, then, is the preservation of markets for all the capital and other producers’ goods.

Professor Klein makes the point that

as soon as the firm expands to the point where at least one external market has disappeared, however, the calculation problem exists. The difficulties become worse and worse as more and more external markets disappear, as [quoting Rothbard] “islands of noncalculable chaos swell to the proportions of masses and continents. As the area of incalculability increases, the degrees of irrationality, misallocation, loss, impoverishment, etc, become greater.”

When firms expand, company overhead expands. And there is difficulty in allocating overhead or any fixed cost for that matter amongst various divisions of a firm. “If an input is essentially indivisible (or nonexcludable), then there is no way to compute the opportunity cost of just the portion of the input used by a particular division,” explains Klein. “Firms with high overhead costs should thus be at a disadvantage relative to firms able to allocate costs more precisely between business units.”

Federal Reserve monetary policy over the last couple decades has not produced real economic growth but instead bubble after bubble — with each bubble (or each group of contemporaneous bubbles) being bigger in aggregate and more damaging than the one that preceded it.

These bubbles destroy part of the capital stock by diverting capital into economically unjustified uses, explains economist Kevin Dowd. The central bank’s artificially low interest rates make investments appear more profitable than they really are, and this is especially so for investments with long-term horizons, i.e., in Austrian terms, there is an artificial lengthening of the investment horizon.

A company is the ultimate long term asset, which is not just a group of employees and the current inventory of products or services but a package of previously made, long-term capital investments.

“These distortions and resulting losses are magnified further once a bubble takes hold and inflicts its damage too: the end result is a lot of ruined investors and ‘bubble blight’ — massive overcapacity in the sectors affected,”Dowd explains. “This has happened again and again, in one sector after another: tech, real estate, Treasuries, and now financial stocks, junk bonds, and commodities — and the same policy also helps to spawn bubbles overseas, mostly notably in emerging markets right now.”

Savers are punished and encouraged to risk capital on ventures that don’t make economic sense. And CEOs, fooled by the faulty assumptions buried in their valuation models, see cheap money as the path to building empires.

Inevitably these empires crumble, destroying precious capital in the process.


Profile photo of Doug French

Douglas E. French is a Director of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Additionally, he writes for Casey Research and is the author of three books; Early Speculative Bubbles and Increases in the Supply of Money, The Failure of Common Knowledge, and Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Owenrship Myth. French is the former president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

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