Corporate America Knows the Bailout Is Baked In

Corporate America has embraced fragility, says Nic Carter. Its business model depends on a bailout.

AccessTimeIconApr 3, 2020 at 9:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 8:25 a.m. UTC

CoinDesk columnist Nic Carter is partner at Castle Island Ventures, a public blockchain-focused venture fund based in Cambridge, Mass. He is also the cofounder of Coin Metrics, a blockchain analytics startup.

In the year 1730, the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon described the uneven effect of newly issued money as it enters society. He made two common-sense observations: that money must enter the economy at a specific point of ingress; and that the devaluation that often follows issuance does not happen immediately, but over time, as the economy incorporates the new monetary issue. This means that the first spender has an advantage. Society hasn’t had the chance to recognize their dollars are worth slightly less yet.

A “Cantillon insider,” consequently, is an individual who is able to monetize proximity to the printing press. (As far as I can tell, the term was coined by Nick Szabo.) In western countries, inflation-derived handouts typically do not happen transparently, because the population would be scandalized to witness them. Instead, they happen obliquely, and they are justified with recourse to euphemisms in op-eds insisting the government must do something. So let’s explore specifically how the latest fiscal and monetary outlay – equivalent to 25 percent of one year’s worth of America’s entire productive capacity – is being unevenly distributed. In short:

  • The U.S. government is selectively distributing funds to entities most adept at positioning themselves for handouts
  • The U.S. government is directly rewarding corporate failure and discouraging the standard process of capitalism

A stimulus consisting solely of payouts to individuals or households would be far more direct, and much fairer, than the obscure and arbitrary handouts the state has devised instead. Instead, the stimulus is directed towards keeping corporations intact rather than having them suffer messy liquidations or restructurings.

Corporate America has embraced fragility

So do shareholders in these insolvent publicly traded companies deserve bailouts? Is it possible they, through no fault of their own, suffered an unfair fate and deserve to be rescued? To evaluate this, we must consider their capital allocation decisions over the last decade. Overwhelmingly, this involved repurchasing their own stock. While there is nothing inherently wrong with buybacks, they have, of late, been employed by corporate executives with a gusto that would make Crassus look miserly.

When a company perceives there are no productive projects left to invest in, is it common to distribute some of their earnings to shareholders, either through buybacks or dividends (the former are more popular because they are tax-advantaged). The other instance when buybacks are defensible is when management believes the stock price is undervalued. But valuations are not low – they are historically rich, on a relative basis.

And when a company not only dedicates its free cash flow almost entirely to buybacks but combines it with an insatiable appetite for debt, as virtually the entire corporate sector has done for the last decade, something is clearly amiss.

What our largest corporations have done is trade a short-term appreciation in the share price (which rewards executives, who are primarily compensated with stock options), for long-term fragility. Lacking a strong balance sheet buffer, the slightest amount of volatility is sufficient to render a company insolvent.

So why would boardrooms and the C-suite make this trade? Surely they knew that a low-volatility regime could not last forever. Even though the virus was unforeseeable, a crisis (of some kind or another) was not. The best answer I have is they internalized lessons from 2008-09. They guessed that, come an economic slowdown, they would be able to successfully lobby the government for a bailout. And this was a good bet, because our society is allergic to failure, choosing instead to stifle all trouble with the opiate of easy money. We set a lingering precedent in 2008-2009, and now we have opted to double down on the arrangement.

Now what alternative would I propose, you may ask? 

Debt to GDP ratio, Source: St Louis Fed
Debt to GDP ratio, Source: St Louis Fed

Very simple: Pass legislation allowing standard liquidation or restructuring processes to be expedited, so creditors can take over, companies can be bought at fire sale prices, capital can churn and the corporate sector can refresh itself as we start to extricate ourselves from the viral gauntlet. Remember: When companies go bankrupt, their assets do not disappear. The shareholders take a loss and restructuring or a sale occurs. As for the government stimulus, allocate it exclusively to households so they can support themselves during a forced lockdown. Make everyday folks, and not corporate shareholders, the Cantillon insiders. If corporations fail, equity holders should bear the necessary cost of their poor governance decisions, creditors should take over, and boardrooms should learn the meaning of risk once again. It will be a lesson they never forget.

What many misunderstand is that this is not primarily a debate about the devaluation of the dollar. It’s entirely possible we escape inflation – although I expect that now extreme fiscal and monetary operations have been normalized, policymakers won’t want to give up their new toys so easily (see President Trump’s plea this week for a new $2 trillion infrastructure plan). No, even if the dollar somehow retains its purchasing power as the U.S. government mortgages itself to the hilt, the distortions will persist.

What is happening now is a straightforward reallocation of society’s resources. The specifics have been well covered elsewhere. We all know that airlines spent 96 percent of their free cash flow on buybacks, and will now be bailed out. We know executives at bailout candidate Boeing siphoned $5.4 billion from the company, that dilution veiled through the clever employment of buybacks. All of this while refusing to invest in its fleet, leading to the deaths of 346 innocent souls. Then we have tax breaks to the tune of $170 billion for real estate investors, disproportionately benefiting the wealthy. And, of course, we have complete non-sequiturs, like $100 million earmarked “for the arts,” of which $25 million is directed to the Kennedy Center. These are the entities your government is preferentially rewarding with easy money, under the guise of rescuing the economy.

The message is very clear: failure and risk taking is rewarded and encouraged.

It’s undeniable that money entering society benefits those with the greatest proximity to the spigot. Honest economists evaluating the government’s stimulus plan should bite the bullet and concede these distortions are simply the cost society must bear in exchange for stability, rather than feigning that they don’t exist. They should explain to everyday Americans their direct handout is minuscule compared to the total size of the stimulus and that Congress prefers corporatism as the dominant organizational mode of society, even if the outcomes are profoundly unfair.

Let me remind you why this is catastrophic for society and for the genuine capitalist impulse. Bailouts are not one and done. The market remembers. The dangled implicit promise of a bailout creates an institutional environment which selects for the most risk-seeking, pro-lobbying companies. And this isn’t the beginning: what is happening now is the culmination of a system which was entrenched for good in 2009.

Moral hazard

Think of the corporate environment like an ecology. Under normal circumstances, companies which unsustainably accumulate debt and return capital to shareholders instead of investing it in the business or retaining it as a buffer enter a fragile state, and suffer adverse consequences when faced with a crisis or shock. Their equity holders may be totally wiped out. However, in the pre-crisis period, they outperform their more conservative peers. The existence of this downside risk is what keeps reckless behavior in check.

If you eliminate the negative consequences of risk taking, you reward these risk-seeking entities. Now the calculus is different. The companies taking on leverage and refusing to buy insurance (in the form of capital retained on the balance sheet) outperform in the short and long term, as the government writes them a gigantic free put option in the form of a bailout. The message is very clear: failure and risk taking is rewarded and encouraged.

The consequence is more restrained businesses that act responsibly and hedge against tail risks end up getting outcompeted, as they end up overpaying for insurance the government is giving out for free. The dominant corporate activity shifts away from innovation, R&D, and CapEx, towards ensuring shareholder equity is protected in a crisis by a watchful, paternalistic state. So this evolutionary environment yields a homogenous set of corporates that are socialized into taking on debt, aggressively returning capital and devoting energy towards wasteful lobbying efforts. We are left with a quasi-nationalized system.

Standing in the way of the standard insolvency, restructuring or liquidation processes that undergird effective capitalism is a violation of nature: It arrests the destruction of capital and the revaluation of businesses. Individual mortality is what guarantees the thriving of the collective; conversely, prohibiting failure guarantees the stagnation of the whole. If failure becomes unacceptable, the members of that corporate setting reconfigure themselves to exploit the life-giver, to zombify and stagnate. We simply must permit businesses to fail.

Richard Cantillon, via Wikimedia
Richard Cantillon, via Wikimedia

After the government rewarded the directors of insolvent financial institutions during the crisis of 2008-2009, the best we could muster as a response was a ragtag bunch of protestors in New York City's Zuccotti Park on the left, and the Tea Party and Ron Paul on the right. Today, these movements have been utterly defanged: There is no party that endorses fiscal responsibility or monetary restraint. Printing, easing and spending at the expense of tomorrow – these are some of the only shared hobbies of the Democrats and the Republicans.

The truth is, both parties are profoundly beholden to the managerial class and this zombie-capitalist system they have incubated. The progressive movement tried valiantly to rid the Democratic Party of its corporate influence; the movement was brutally quashed not once but twice. And the Republicans have scarcely ever resisted the capital-political complex.

Ultimately, policymakers will make their choice. But unlike in 2009, the population is more prepared now. Even though we have been temporarily cowed by the virus, the outrage will be no less fierce. The solution lies not within politics, but outside of it altogether: No vote can arrest this slide. The only genuine choice is dissociation altogether.


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