Here are some bits from an article in Yahoo! News:
American companies are not in robust financial shape. Federal Reserve data show that their debts have been rising, not falling. By some measures, they are now more leveraged than at any time since the Great Depression.I sure hope the above article is wrong, but I fear Brett Arends is the one journalist out shaking the bushes for the real story while the rest of the media is standing around repeating the "good news" stories put out by press releases and political spin doctors.
You'd think someone might have noticed something amiss. After all, we were simultaneously being told that companies (a) had more money than they know what to do with; (b) had even more money coming in due to a surge in profits; yet (c) they have been out in the bond market borrowing as fast as they can.
Does that sound a little odd to you?
A look at the facts shows that companies only have "record amounts of cash" in the way that Subprime Suzy was flush with cash after that big refi back in 2005. So long as you don't look at the liabilities, the picture looks great. Hey, why not buy a Jacuzzi?
According to the Federal Reserve, nonfinancial firms borrowed another $289 billion in the first quarter, taking their total domestic debts to $7.2 trillion, the highest level ever. That's up by $1.1 trillion since the first quarter of 2007; it's twice the level seen in the late 1990s.
Central bank and Commerce Department data reveal that gross domestic debts of nonfinancial corporations now amount to 50% of GDP. That's a postwar record. In 1945, it was just 20%. Even at the credit-bubble peaks in the late 1980s and 2005-06, it was only around 45%.
The Fed data "underline the poor state of the U.S. private sector's balance sheets," reports financial analyst Andrew Smithers, who's also the author of "Wall Street Revalued: Imperfect Markets and Inept Central Bankers," and chairman of Smithers & Co. in London.
"While this is generally recognized for households," he said, "it is often denied with regard to corporations. These denials are without merit and depend on looking at cash assets and ignoring liabilities. Cash assets have risen recently, in response to the fall in inventories, but nonfinancials' corporate debt, whether measured gross or after netting off bank deposits and other interest-bearing assets, is at peak levels."
But why is this line being spun about healthy balance sheets? For the same reason we're told other lies, myths and half-truths: Too many people have a vested interest in spinning, and too few have an interest in the actual picture.
Journalists, for example, seek safety in numbers; there's a herd mentality. Once a line starts to get repeated, others just assume it's correct and join in.
Wall Street? It's a hustle. This healthy balance-sheet myth helps sell stocks and bonds. How many bonuses do you think get paid for telling customers the stark facts, and how many get paid for making the sale?
You can also blame our partisan age too. Right now, people on the right have a vested interest in claiming businesses are in healthy shape. That makes the saintly private sector look good, and demonizes President Barack Obama and Big Government for scaring away investment. Vote Republican! Meanwhile, people on the left have an interest in making businesses sound really healthy too: If greedy companies are hoarding cash instead of hiring people, they can cry "Shame on them! Vote Democratic!"
As ever, the truth is someone else's problem and no one's responsibility.