ALL IS eerily quiet on the corporate front. Even though the global economy continues to grow strongly, and the economic recovery is nearly a year old even in America, corporate investment, and mergers and acquisitions, remain at low levels even though firms are sitting on record piles of cash.
This, in turn, is causing growing concern about whether the recovery can continue, or at least continue with much strength. As The Economist noted earlier this month, “If cautious firms pile up more savings, the prospects for recovery are poor.”
Why are firms so cautious? One likely factor is that they regard the outlook for the economy as highly uncertain, particularly in America and Europe. The recent combination of volatility and a declining trend in developed-world stockmarkets has reinforced concerns that already abounded in companies’ executive suites, that the recovery so far has relied too much on government spending. That, given all the recent political talk about the need for public austerity to fend off bond-market vigilantes, may not continue. Meanwhile, private-sector demand remains anaemic.
第二个因素就是企业现在投资的必要性要小得多了，因为它们的产能利用还处于历史低谷。花旗银行金融策略集团的Carsten Stendevad 如是说。比如说，目前，美国的工业产能利用率为73%。高过了经济衰退时期的69%，但是与2008年九月经济走低前几年以及九十年大部分时间的80%以上的水平相比，还是相形见绌。由于工厂依旧有大量的闲置生产力，负责人们没有找到资本开支的足够理由。花旗集团预测，在发达国家，工业资本支出今年会下降3%，去年已经下降了10%。在发展中国家市场，资本支出今年可能增长8%，这个增长率不错，但是与去年的21%的增长率相比，还是相差甚远。
A second factor is that firms have much less need to invest now because their capacity utilisation remains at historically low levels, points out Carsten Stendevad of Citigroup’s Financial Strategy Group. Currently, for example, industrial-capacity utilisation in America is 73%. That is up from the recessionary low of 69%, but well below the 80%-plus level it was at in the years before the economic meltdown in September 2008, and during much of the 1990s. Since plants still have so much spare capacity, managers see little justification for capital spending. Citigroup forecasts that in developed countries, industry’s capital spending will fall by 3% this year after a 10% fall last year. In emerging markets, capex is expected to grow by 8% this year—not a bad rate, but far short of last year’s roaring 21% growth.
Where are the deals?
The lack of mergers and acquisitions—the much predicted new merger wave having failed to materialise—also owes something to the continuing uncertain economic outlook. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that potential acquisition targets tend to find selling especially hard to stomach when their share price is some way below recent highs, as is generally the case today.
In one respect, corporate fears seem to have eased a bit, however. After the financial markets collapsed in 2008, especially the commercial-paper market on which many large firms relied for meeting their short-term financial needs, cash became king. Although cash reserves are now at record levels, the hoarding seems to be peaking. The clearest evidence of this is the return of the share buyback, a popular method of returning cash to investors. In the first half of this year, share repurchases have surged close to pre-crisis levels, says Mr Stendevad, a sign that firms feel they no longer need to cling to every last penny for fear of another systemic financial collapse.
Pressure from investors to hand back even more of those cash piles is likely to grow, especially if economic growth falters, says Mr Stendevad. Firms have been able to boost profits in the past year mainly by cost-cutting, something that is unlikely to be as easy in future. It will be no surprise if instead firms use share repurchases to drive up their earnings per share, returning to the pre-crisis trend in which buybacks accounted for one-third of total earnings per share growth for firms in the S&P 500 during 2003-08.
Receiving more money this way will no doubt please investors. Alas, its benefits for the economy are likely to be much smaller, at least in the short-term, than if firms spent the money instead on profitable new business opportunities that can quickly generate new jobs. For now, the only place companies seem likely to do much of that sort of investing is in the developing world, which while better than nothing, is unlikely to cheer up the venerable economies of America and Europe.
2010-07-14 11:32 编辑：kuaileyingyu