The Cost of Recalls and Lost Goodwill

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 7th, 2014

Economics 101

Manufacturers make a Point of not Killing their Customers because it’s just Bad for Business

There have been some costly recalls in the news lately.  From yoga pants that were see-through.  To cars with faulty ignition switches that can turn the engine off while driving.  Disabling the power steering and airbags.  Resulting in the loss of life.  These recalls have cost these companies a lot of trouble.  Including financial losses from the recalls and lawsuits.  Being called to testify before Congress.  And possible criminal charges.

No surprise, really.  As those who distrust corporations would say.  For they believe they constantly put their customers at risk to maximize their profits.  Even if it results in the death of their customers.  Which is why we need a vigilant government to keep these corporations honest.  So they can’t sell shoddy and dangerous goods that can kill their unsuspecting customers.  Which they will do if the government doesn’t have strong regulatory powers to stop them.  Or so says the left.

Of course, there is one problem with this line of thinking.  Dead customers can’t buy things.  And when word spreads that a corporation is killing their customers people don’t want to be their customers.  Because they don’t want to be killed.  Manufacturers know this.  And know the price they will pay if they kill their customers.  So manufacturers make a point of not killing their customers.  Because it’s just bad for business.

The Longer it takes to Recall a Defective Product the Greater the Company’s Losses

Manufacturing defects happen.  Because nothing is perfect.  And when they happen they are both costly and a public relations nightmare.  As no manufacturer wants to lose money.  And, worse, no manufacturer wants to lose the goodwill of their customers.  Because it’s not easy earning that back.  Which is why executive management wants to acknowledge and resolve these defects as soon as possible.  To limit their financial losses.  And limit the loss of their customers’ goodwill.

Let’s illustrate this with some numbers.  Let’s assume a company manufactures 5 product lines ranging from low price to high price.  The lowest priced product has the greatest unit sales.  And the lowest margin. The highest priced product has the fewest unit sales.  And the highest margin.  The other three items fall in between.  Rising in price.  And falling in margin.  Summarized here.

Cost of Recall - Gross Margin per Product Line R1

So each product line produces a sales revenue, a cost of sales and a gross margin (sales revenue less cost of sales).  Adding these departmentalized numbers together we can get total sales, cost of sales and gross margin.  And subtract from that overhead, interest expense and income taxes.  Summarized here.

Cost of Recall - Net Profit

So on approximately $5.8 million in sales this company earns $312,414.  A net profit of 5.4%.  Fictitiously, of course.  Not too bad.  That’s when everything is working well.  And they have nothing but satisfied customers.  But that’s not always the case.  Sometimes manufacturing defects happen.  Which can turn profits into losses quickly.  And the longer it takes to address the defects the greater those losses can be.

Losing the Goodwill of your Customers will end up Costing More than any Product Recall

Let’s say Product 3 suffers a manufacturing defect.  By the time they identify the defect and halt production of the defective product they’ve produced 20% of the total of that product for the year.  Which they must recall.  Limiting their losses to 20% of the total of that product run.  Which they will have to refund the sales revenue for.  But they will have to eat the cost of sales for those defective units.  And despite the company’s quick response to the defective product and providing a full refund to all customers their goodwill suffers from the bad press of the recall.  Summarized here.

Cost of Recall - Recall

Refunding customers for the 20% of the line that was defective reduced net profits from 5.4% to 0.7%.  And when they lose some customers to their defect-free competition they lose some customer goodwill.  Resulting in a 15% drop in sales.  Leaving manufactured product unsold that they have to sell with steep discounting.  Bringing their sales revenue further down while their cost of sales remains the same.  Turning that 0.7% annual profit into a 2.8% loss.  But as time passes they recover the lost goodwill of their customers.  Limiting these losses in this one year.  Now let’s look at what would probably happen if the company had a ‘screw you’ attitude to their customers.  Like many on the left fervently believe.  Summarized here.

Cost of Recall - Loss of Goodwill R1

The company did not recall any of the defective products.  As word spread that this company was selling a defective product sales of that product soon fell to nothing after selling about 50% of the annual production run.  The other half sits unsold.  Even steep discounting won’t sell a defective product.  And seeing how they screwed their customers on the defective products sales fall on their other products (in this example by 30%).  As they don’t want to suffer the same fate as those other customers.  So what would have been only a $159,929 loss with a recall becomes a $1,494,344 loss.  Over nine times worse than what it could have been without a large loss of customer goodwill.  And this is why executive management moves fast to identify and resolve defects.  Because losing the goodwill of their customers will end up costing more than any product recall.  As it can take years to earn a customer’s trust again.

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Trend Analysis GM and Toyota 2005—2008

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 29th, 2013

History 101

GM’s Problems were caused by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Ceiling on Wages

The GM bailout is still controversial.  It was part of the 2012 campaign.  It was why we should reelect President Obama.  Because Osama bin Laden was dead.  And General Motors was alive.  But the bailout didn’t fix what was wrong with GM.  Why it went bankrupt in the first place.  The prevailing market price for cars was below their costs.  And what was driving their costs so high?  It was labor.  It was the UAW wage and benefit package that made it impossible for GM to sell a car profitably.

GM’s problems go back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The country was suffering in the Great Depression with double-digit unemployment.  He wanted to get businesses to hire people.  To reduce unemployment.  And pull us out of the Great Depression.  So how do you get businesses to hire more people?  Hmmm, he thought.  Pay people less so businesses have more money to hire more people.  It was brilliant.  So FDR imposed a ceiling on wages.  Why did FDR do this?  Because he was from a rich family who didn’t understand business or basic economics.

Of course there was one major drawback to this.  How do you get the best talent to work for you if you can’t pay top dollar?  Normally the best talent can go to whoever pays the most.  But if everyone pays the same by law you might as well work at the place closest to your house.  Or across from the best bars.  No, if a business wanted the best workers they had to figure out how to get them to drive across town in rush hour traffic and sit in that traffic on the way home.  A real pain in the you-know-what.  So how to get workers to do that if you can’t pay them more?  You give them benefits.

Toyota doesn’t have the Legacy Costs that Bankrupted an Uncompetitive GM

And this was, is, the root of GM’s problems.  Those generous pension and health care benefits.  Things we once took care of ourselves.  Before our employers started providing these.  And the UAW really put the screws to GM.  Getting great pay, benefits and workplace rules.  For both active workers.  And retirees.  Even laid-off workers.  Such as the job bank.  Where GM paid workers who had no work to do.  It’s benefits like this that have bankrupted GM.  Especially the pensions and health care costs for retired workers.  Who outnumbered active workers.  Those people actually assembling the cars they sell.

It’s these legacy costs that have made GM uncompetitive.  Toyota, for example, didn’t suffer the FDR problem.  So their costs for retired workers don’t exceed their costs for active workers.  In fact let’s compare GM and Toyota for the four years just before GM’s government bailout (2005-2008).  We pulled financial numbers from their annual reports (see GM 2005 & 2006, GM 2007 & 2008, Toyota 2005 & 2006 and Toyota 2007 & 2008).  We’ve used some standard ratios and plotted some resulting trends.  Note that this is a crude analysis that provides a general overview of the information in their annual reports.  A proper analysis is far more involved and you should not construe that the following is an appropriate way to analyze financial statements.  We believe these results show general trends.  But we offer no investment advice or endorsements.

GM Toyota Current Ratio

We get the current ration by dividing current assets by current liabilities.  These are the assets/liabilities that will become cash or will have to be paid with cash within 12 months.  If this ratio is 1 it means current assets equals current liabilities.  Meaning that a business will have just enough cash to meet their cash needs in the next 12 months.  If the number is greater than 1 a business will have even a little extra cash.  If the number is less than 1 a business is in trouble.  As they won’t have the cash to meet their cash needs in the next 12 months.  Unless they borrow cash.  Toyota’s current ratio fell slightly during these 4 years but always remained above 1.  Falling as low as 1.01.  Whereas GM’s current ratio was never above 1 during these 4 years.  And only got worse after 2006.  Showing GM’s financial crash in 2008.

The GM Bailout did not address the Cause of their Bankruptcy—UAW Pensions and Health Care Benefits

There are two basic ways to finance a business.  With debt.  And equity.  Equity comes from outside investors (when a business issues new stock).  Or from profitable business operations.  Which typically accounts for the majority of equity.  Profitable business operations are the whole point of running a business.  And it’s what raises stock prices.  To see which is providing the financing of a business (debt or equity) we calculate the debt ratio.  We do this by dividing total liabilities by total assets.  If this number equals 1 then total assets equal total liabilities.  Meaning that 100% of a business’ assets are financed with debt.  And 0% with equity.  Lenders do not like seeing this.  And will be very reluctant to loan money to you if your business operations cannot generate enough profits to build up some equity.  And that was the problem GM had.  Their business operations could not generate any profits.  So GM had to keep borrowing.

GM Toyota Debt Ratio

GM went from bad to worse after 2005.  Their debt ratio went from 1.02 in 2006.  To 1.24 in 2007.  And to 1.94 in 2008.  Indicating massive borrowings to offset massive operating losses.   And how big were those losses?  They lost $17.806 billion in 2005.  $5.823 billion in 2006.  $4.309 billion in 2007.  And in the year of their crash (2008) they lost $21.284 billion.  Meanwhile Toyota kept their debt ratio fluctuating between 0.61 and 0.62.  Very respectable.  And where lenders like to see it.  As they will be more willing to loan money to a company that can generate almost half of their financing needs from profitable business operations.  So why can’t GM?  Because of those legacy costs.  Which increases their cost of sales.

GM Toyota Cost of Sales

GM’s cost of sales was close to 100% of automotive sales revenue these 4 years.  Even exceeding 100% in 2008.  And it’s this cost of sales that sent GM into bankruptcy.  Toyota’s was close to 80% through these 4 years.  Leaving about 20% of sales to pay their other costs.  Like selling, general and administrative (S,G&A).  Whereas GM was already losing money before they started paying these expenses.  Thanks to generous UAW pay and benefit packages.  The job bank.  And the even greater costs of pensions and health care for their retirees.  It’s not CEO compensation that bankrupted GM.  It was the UAW.  As CEO compensation comes out of S,G&A.  Which was less than 10% of sales in 2007 and 2008.  Which was even less than Toyota’s.

GM Toyota S G and A

GM’s costs kept rising.  But they couldn’t pass it on to the consumer.  For if they did the people would just buy a less expensive Toyota.  So GM kept building cars even though they couldn’t sell them competitively.  And sold them at steep discounts.  Just to make room for more new cars.  So the UAW could keep building cars.  Incurring massive losses.  Hoping they could make it up in volume.  But that volume never came.

GM Toyota Automotive Sales as percent of 2005

Toyota continued to increase sales revenue year after year.  But GM’s sales grew at a flatter rate.  Even falling in 2008.  It was just too much.  GM was such a train wreck that it would have required a massive reorganization in a bankruptcy.  Specifically dealing with the uncompetitive UAW labor.  Especially those pensions and health care benefits for retirees.  Which the government bailout did not address.  At all.  The white collar workforce lost their pensions.  But not the UAW.  In fact, the government bailout went to bolster those pension and health care plans.  So the underlying problems are still there.  And another bankruptcy is likely around the corner.

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Product Pricing

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 10th, 2012

Economics 101

The First Thing a Business has to do to Determine their Selling Price is Determining their Costs

Did you ever think about how businesses price their products?  Do they just pull numbers out of the air?  Do they just charge as much as they want?  No, they don’t.  Because they can’t.  For if one gas station charges $12 for a gallon of gasoline while the station across the street is only charging $3.50 guess where people are going to buy their gas from.  So free market competition prevents businesses from charging whatever they want.  So how do they determine what to charge?

Well, some look at what their competitors are charging and match it.  Or charge a little less.  To steal customers away from the competition.  Which can work.  But it can also bankrupt a business.  For if a business owner doesn’t know his or her costs selling at the market price could fail to recover all of their costs.  The market price limits what they can charge.  But if their costs are too great to stay in business selling at the prevailing market price they have to do something about reducing their costs.  Which they can’t do if they don’t know their costs.  So the first thing a business has to do to determine their selling price is determining their costs.  Like this.

This is an abbreviated fictional income statement showing last year’s results.  And forecasting next year’s results.  EBT stands for earnings before taxes.  Income taxes for this year are based on the 2011 federal tax tables.  Income taxes for next year are based on the proposed Obama tax rates (increasing the top marginal rate from 33% to 39.6%).  The business is a subchapter-S where the business earnings pass through to the owners’ personal income tax returns.  The owner does not draw a salary but draws $125,000 from retained earnings to support him or herself, his or her stay-at-home spouse and their 3 children. The percentages show each number as a percentage of revenue.

You need to Sell at the Right Price and at the Right Volume to Pay all of the Bills

The difference between this year and next year is the rise in costs.  Obamacare and other business regulations increase the cost of sales (direct labor, benefits, direct supplies, etc.) by 2%.  And they increase fixed overhead (rent, utilities, administrative labor, benefits, etc.) by 2%.  They will have to recover these higher costs in higher prices.  Which will likely reduce unit sales.  But because each unit will sell for more we assume sales revenue remains the same.

The higher costs cause EBT to fall.  A lower EBT means lower federal income taxes.  But it also means less retained earnings to invest back into the business.  The reduction in retained earnings is $36,604.28.  Which limits investments to grow the business.  And leaves a much smaller cash cushion after some of those retained earnings are reinvested into the business.  To pay for the unexpected.  Like a new piece of equipment that fails and halts production.  Things worked well in the current year.  The business owner would like to have things work as well in the following year.  Which means not exposing themselves to such a dangerous cash position.  And how do they do that?  By raising their prices to make next year’s retained earnings as large as this year’s.  By recovering those retained earnings in higher prices.  Like this.

Let’s assume these numbers are for a coffee shop that sells only one type and size of drink (say a large espresso-based drink) to simplify this discussion.  If we subtract this year’s cost of sales from revenue we arrive with the markup on our direct costs.  Dividing this number into cost of sales we get a markup percentage.  For this year it was 72%.  In the current year let’s assume they sold 302,406 cups of coffee.  Which comes to about one cup a minute.  Dividing the costs of sales by the number of cups of coffee sold gives a unit cost of $2.58 for a cup of coffee.  Adding the 72% markup to this cost brings the selling price to $4.45.  Coffee sold at this price and at this volume produced enough revenue to pay all the bills, provided an income for the owner and his or her family while leaving enough left over to invest back into the business.  And provide a cash cushion for the unexpected.  As well as paying state income taxes, city income taxes, etc.

A Business must bring their Cost Structure in Line to be able to Sell at the Prevailing Market Price

To arrive at the new selling price we added the loss of retained earnings to next year’s revenue.  And re-crunched all of these numbers.  Because we are raising the price we can expect a small fall in revenue as customers buy less.  The higher costs and lower unit sales volume raised the unit cost.  The markup percentage is 1 percentage point lower but because the unit cost is higher so is the markup amount in dollars.  Which raises the selling price by $0.32.  Increasing the price of a cup of coffee to $4.77.  But is it enough?  As it turns out, no.  Because the new price raises revenue enough to push the business into a higher tax bracket.  Taking the business owner back to the numbers.

Because of the higher tax bracket, and the higher top marginal tax rate, this higher price still results in a loss of retained earnings.  About another $30,000.  So going through the whole process again brings the selling price up to $4.87.  Adding a total of $0.43 to this year’s price.  As long as the prevailing market price is around $4.87 for a large espresso-based drink this business owner should be able to keep his or her cost structure in place and stay in business.  However, if this exceeds the prevailing market price the business owner will have to make some spending cuts to bring his or her cost structure in line to sell coffee at the prevailing market price.  Make some assumptions.  And some adjustments.  Then crunch these numbers again.  And again.  For getting this price right is very important.  Too high and people will go elsewhere to buy their coffee.  To low and they won’t be able to pay all of their bills.

This may not be how all businesses determine their selling price.  But however they do it they have to bring their cost structure in line to be able to sell at the prevailing market price.   Because if their price is too high no one will buy from them.  If it’s too low everyone will buy from them.  Making them happy.  Until they realize they can’t pay all of their bills because their prices are too low.  The above example was complicated.  And that was with only one product.  Imagine a store full of products to sell.  And trying to calculate new prices on numerous products to cover the costs of new taxes and new regulations.  It’s not easy.  Which is why business owners don’t like big change coming from Washington.  For this change requires important decisions to make.  And if they get these decisions wrong and don’t find out until 6 months or so later they may dig themselves into a hole they won’t be able to get out of.  Putting them out of business.

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Inventories

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 23rd, 2012

Economics 101

Before a Business Earns any Sales Revenue they have to Spend Cash to Build an Inventory

To sell something a business needs to have it on hand first.  Because when it comes to manufactured goods we rarely custom manufacture things.  No.  When businesses sell something it’s something they already have in their inventories.  So how do they get things into inventory?  With cash.  Businesses buy goods and place them in their inventories.  They exchange some of their cash for the goods they hope to sell at a later date.  And the bigger the inventory they maintain the more cash it will take.  Cash they have to spend before they sell these goods.  Which requires financing.  Each large business, in fact, has a finance department.  That works to raise cash.  So the businesses can buy inventory (and pay their operating and overhead expenses) before they start selling anything.

This is how the retail stores work.  For manufacturers it’s a little different.  They make things.  Out of other things.  Things that go through various stages of production before becoming a finished good.  So to make these things requires different types of inventories.  Raw goods.  Work in process.  And finished goods.  When they pull raw goods out of inventory and begin working with them they become work in process inventory.  When finished goods come off the final production line they enter finished goods inventory.  The finance department secures the cash to buy the raw materials.  And for the equipment and labor used through the stages of production to produce a finished good.  Which enters finished goods inventory until they sell and ship these goods.

Before a business earns any sales revenue they have to spend huge amounts of cash first to move material through these inventories.  Cash they can’t use for anything else.  Like paying their overhead expenses.  Or servicing their debt.  So it’s a delicate balancing act.  You need inventory to produce revenue.  But if you run out of cash you can’t produce any inventory.  Or pay your bills.  A large inventory creates a large variety of things for customers to buy.  But if customers aren’t buying that large inventory will consume cash leaving a business struggling to pay its bills.  If they become so cash-strapped they will cut their prices to unload slow moving inventory.  Cut back on production rates.  Even cut back on expenses.  As in cost-cutting.  And lay-offs.

Good Inventory Management is Crucial for the Financial Health of a Business

A business doesn’t start generating cash until they start selling their finished goods.  Sales numbers may sound high but most sales revenue goes to pay for the costs of producing inventory.  A firm’s accounting department records these revenues.  And matches them to the cost of goods sold.  Which in a retailer is what they paid to bring those goods into inventory.  A manufacturer may use a term like cost of sales.  Which would include all the costs they incurred throughout the stages of production from bringing raw material into the plant.  To the labor to process that material.  To the energy consumed.  Etc.  Everything that was an input in the production process to place a finished good into inventory.  So from their sales revenue they subtract their costs of goods sold (or cost of sales).  The number they arrive at is gross profit.  Which has to pay for everything else.  Rent, utilities, marketing and advertising, non-production salaries and benefits, insurances, taxes, etc.  And, of course, interest on the cash their finance department borrowed to start everything off.

There is a unique relationship between inventories and sales.  There are countless things that happen in a business but what happens between inventories and sales receives particular attention.  A business’ greatest cost is the cost of goods sold.  Or cost of sales.  Everything that falls above gross profit on their income statement (the financial statement that shows a firm’s profitability).  This cost is a function of inventory.  The bigger the inventory the bigger the cost.  The smaller the inventory the smaller the cost.  This is a direct relationship.  You move one the other follows.  Whereas the relationship between sales and inventory is a little different.  The higher the sales revenue the bigger the inventory cost.  Because you have to have inventory to sell inventory.  However, there is no such corresponding relationship for falling sales.  As sales can fall for a variety of reasons.  And they can fall with a falling inventory level.  They can fall with a steady inventory level.  And they can fall with a rising inventory level.

In business sales are everything.  There are few problems healthy sales can’t solve.  It can even overcome some of the worst cost management.  So rising sales revenue is good.  While falling sales revenue is not.  There are many reasons why sales fall.  But the reason that most affects inventories is typically a bad economy.  When people scale back their purchases in response to a bad economy a firm’s sales fall.  And when their sales fall their inventories, of course, rise.  Until management scales back production to reflect the weaker demand.  Because there is no point building things when people aren’t buying.  Those who don’t scale back production will see their sales fall and their inventories rise.  Creating cash problems.  Because sales aren’t creating cash.  And a growing inventory consumes cash.  Making it difficult to meet their daily expenses.  Such as payroll and benefits.  As well as paying interest on their debt.  Which can lead to insolvency.  And bankruptcy.  So good inventory management is crucial for the financial health of a business.

If Retail Sales are Falling and Inventories are Rising Bad Times are Coming

Businesses target specific inventory levels.  During good economic times they increase inventory levels because people are buying more.  During bad economic times they decrease inventory levels because people are buying less.  And they monitor changes in the actual sales and inventory levels continuously.  Adjusting inventory levels to match changes in sales.  To balance the need to have an inventory flush with goods to sell.  While keeping the cost of that inventory to the lowest level possible.  All businesses do this.  And if you track the aggregate of the inventory levels of all businesses you can get a good idea about what’s happening in the economy.

John Maynard Keynes used inventory levels in his macroeconomics formulas.  The ‘big picture’ of the economy.  Looking at inventories tied right into jobs.  If sales are outpacing inventory levels then businesses hire new workers to increase inventory levels.  So sales growing at a greater rate than inventory levels suggest that businesses will be creating new jobs and hiring new workers.  A good thing.  If inventory levels are growing greater than sales it’s a sign of an economic slowdown.  Suggesting businesses will be reducing production and laying off workers.  Not a good thing.

Because of the stages of production changes in finished goods inventories can create or destroy a lot of jobs.  For if the major retailers are cutting back on inventory levels due to weak demand that will ripple all the way through the stages of production back to the extraction of raw materials out of the ground.  Which makes inventory levels a key economic indicator.  And when we combine it with sales you can pretty much learn everything you need to know about the economy.  For if retail sales are falling and inventories are rising bad times are coming.  And a lot of people will probably soon be losing their jobs.  As the economy falls into a recession.  Which won’t end until these economic indicators turn around.  And sales grow faster than inventories.  Which indicates a recovery.  And jobs.  As they ramp up production to increase inventory levels to meet the new growing demand.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #27: “Yes, it’s the economy, but the economy is not JUST monetary policy, stupid.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 17th, 2010

DURING UNCERTAIN ECONOMIC times, people act differently.  If business is down where you work, your company may start laying off people.  Your friends and co-workers.  Even you.  If there is a round of layoffs and you survive, you should feel good but don’t.  Because it could have been you.  And very well can be you.  Next time.  Within a year.  In the next few months.  Any time.  You just don’t know.  And it isn’t a good feeling.

So, should this be you, what do you do?  Run up those credit cards?  By a new car?  Go on a vacation?  Take out a home equity loan to pay for new windows?  To remodel the kitchen?  Buy a hot tub?  Or do you cut back on your spending and start hoarding cash?  Just in case.  Because those unemployment payments may not be enough to pay for your house payment, your property taxes, your car payment, your insurances, your utilities, your groceries, your cable bill, etc.  And another loan payment won’t help.  So, no.  You don’t run up those credit cards.  Buy that car.  You don’t go on vacation.  And you don’t take that home equity loan.  Instead, you hunker down.  Sacrifice.  Ride it out.  Prepare for the worse.  Hoard your cash.  Enough to carry you through a few months of unemployment.  And shred those pre-approved credit card offers.  Even at those ridiculously low, introductory interest rates.

To help hammer home this point, you think of your friends who lost their jobs.  Who are behind on their mortgages.  Who are in foreclosure.  Whose financial hardships are stressing them out to no ends.  Suffering depression.  Harassed by collection agencies.  Feeling helpless.  Not knowing what to do because their financial problems are just so great.  About to lose everything they’ve worked for.  No.  You will not be in their position.  If you can help it.  If it’s not already too late.

AND SO IT is with businesses.  People who run businesses are, after all, people.  Just like you.  During uncertain economic times, they, too, hunker down.  When sales go down, they have less cash to pay for the cost of those sales.  As well as the overhead.  And their customers are having the same problems.  So they pay their bills slower.  Trying to hoard cash.  Receivables grow from 30 to 45 to 90 days.  So you delay paying as many of your bills as possible.  Trying to hoard cash.  But try as you might, your working capital is rapidly disappearing.  Manufacturers see their inventories swell.  And storing and protecting these inventories costs money.  Soon they must cut back on production.  Lay off people.  Idle machinery.  Most of which was financed by debt.  Which you still have to service.  Or you sell some of those now nonproductive assets.  So you can retire some of that debt.  But cost cutting can only take you so far.  And if you cut too much, what are you going to do when the economy turns around?  If it turns around?

You can borrow money.  But what good is that going to do?  Add debt, for one.  Which won’t help much.  You might be able to pay some bills, but you still have to pay back that borrowed money.  And you need sales revenue for that.  If you think this is only a momentary downturn and sales will return, you could borrow and feel somewhat confidant that you’ll be able to repay your loan.  But you don’t have the sales now.  And the future doesn’t look bright.  Your customers are all going through what you’re going through.  Not a confidence builder.  So you’re reluctant to borrow.  Unless you really, really have to.  And if you really, really have to, it’s probably because you’re in some really, really bad financial trouble.  Just what a banker wants to see in a prospective borrower.

Well, not really.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  A banker will want to avoid you as if you had the plague.  Besides, the banks are in the same economy as you are.  They have their finger on the pulse of the economy.  They know how bad things really are.  Some of their customers are paying slowly.  A bad omen of things to come.  Which is making them really, really nervous.  And really, really reluctant to make new loans.  They, too, want to hoard cash.  Because in bad economic times, people default on loans.  Enough of them default and the bank will have to scramble to sell securities, recall loans and/or borrow money themselves to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if their timing is off, if the depositors demand more of their money then they have on hand, the bank will fail.  And all the money they created via fractional reserve banking will disappear.  Making money even scarcer and harder to borrow.  You see, banking people are, after all, just people.  And like you, and the business people they serve, they, too, hunker down during bad economic times.  Hoping to ride out the bad times.  And to survive.  With a minimum of carnage. 

For these reasons, businesses and bankers hoard cash during uncertain economic times.  For if there is one thing that spooks businesses and banks more than too much debt it’s uncertainty.  Uncertainty about when a recession will end.  Uncertainty about the cost of healthcare.  Uncertainty about changes to the tax code.  Uncertainty about new government regulations.  Uncertainty about new government mandates.  Uncertainty about retroactive tax changes.  Uncertainty about previous tax cuts that they may repeal.  Uncertainty about monetary policy.  Uncertainty about fiscal policy.  All these uncertainties can result with large, unexpected cash expenditures at some time in the not so distant future.  Or severely reduce the purchasing power of their customers.  When this uncertainty is high during bad economic times, businesses typically circle the wagons.  Hoard more cash.  Go into survival mode.  Hold the line.  And one thing they do NOT do is add additional debt.

DEBT IS A funny thing.  You can lay off people.  You can cut benefits.  You can sell assets for cash.  You can sell assets and lease them back (to get rid of the debt while keeping the use of the asset).  You can factor your receivables (sell your receivables at a discount to a 3rd party to collect).  You can do a lot of things with your assets and costs.  But that debt is still there.  As are those interest payments.  Until you pay it off.  Or file bankruptcy.  And if you default on that debt, good luck.  Because you’ll need it.  You may be dependent on profitable operations for the indefinite future as few will want to loan to a debt defaulter.

Profitable operations.  Yes, that’s the key to success.  So how do you get it?  Profitable operations?  From sales revenue.  Sales are everything.  Have enough of them and there’s no problem you can’t solve.  Cash may be king, but sales are the life blood pumping through the king’s body.  Sales give business life.  Cash is important but it is finite.  You spend it and it’s gone.  If you don’t replenish it, you can’t spend anymore.  And that’s what sales do.  It gets you profitable operations.  Which replenishes your cash.  Which lets you pay your bills.  And service your debt.

And this is what government doesn’t understand.  When it comes to business and the economy, they think it’s all about the cash.  That it doesn’t have anything to do with the horrible things they’re doing with fiscal policy.  The tax and spend stuff.  When they kill an economy with their oppressive tax and regulatory policies, they think “Hmmm.  Interest rates must be too high.”  Because their tax and spending sure couldn’t have crashed the economy.  That stuff is stimulative.  Because their god said so.  And that god is, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  And his demand-side Keynesian economic policies.  If it were possible, those in government would have sex with these economic policies.  Why?   Because they empower government.  It gives government control over the economy.  And us.

And that control extends to monetary policy.  Control of the money supply and interest rates.  The theory goes that you stimulate economic activity by making money easier to borrow.  So businesses borrow more.  Create more jobs.  Which creates more tax receipts.  Which the government can spend.  It’s like a magical elixir.  Interest rates.  Cheap money.  Just keep interest rates low and money cheap and plentiful and business will do what it is that they do.  They don’t understand that part.  And they don’t care.  They just know that it brings in more tax money for them to spend.  And they really like that part.  The spending.  Sure, it can be inflationary, but what’s a little inflation in the quest for ‘full employment’?  Especially when it gives you money and power?  And a permanent underclass who is now dependent on your spending.  Whose vote you can always count on.  And when the economy tanks a little, all you need is a little more of that magical elixir.  And it will make everything all better.  So you can spend some more.

But it doesn’t work in practice.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Because the economy is more than monetary policy.  Yes, cash is important.  But making money cheaper to borrow doesn’t mean people will borrow money.  Homeowners may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest mortgages, but they aren’t going to take on additional debt to spend more.  Not until they feel secure in their jobs.  Likewise, businesses may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest debt.  But they are not going to add additional debt to expand production.  Not until they see some stability in the market and stronger sales.  A more favorable tax and regulatory environment.  That is, a favorable business climate.  And until they do, they won’t create new jobs.  No matter how cheap money is to borrow.  They’ll dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

NOT ONLY WILL people and businesses be reluctant to borrow, so will banks be reluctant to lend.  Especially with a lot of businesses out there looking a little ‘iffy’ who may still default on their loans.  Instead, they’ll beef up their reserves.  Instead of lending, they’ll buy liquid financial assets.  Sit on cash.  Earn less.  Just in case.  Dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

Of course, the Keynesians don’t factor these things into their little formulae and models.  They just stamp their feet and pout.  They’ve done their part.  Now it’s up to the greedy bankers and businessmen to do theirs.  To engage in lending.  To create jobs.  To build things.  That no one is buying.  Because no one is confident in keeping their job.  Because the business climate is still poor.  Despite there being cheap money to borrow.

The problem with Keynesians, of course, is that they don’t understand business.  They’re macroeconomists.  They trade in theory.  Not reality.  When their theory fails, it’s not the theory.  It’s the application of the theory.  Or a greedy businessman.  Or banker.  It’s never their own stupidity.  No matter how many times they get it wrong.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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