Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stop Taxing Corporations on Foreign Earnings

As many investors know, U.S. corporations are holding large amounts of cash on their balance sheets. Some commentators argue they are doing so because they believe investing is too risky right now. Furthermore, they ask, if these corporations, which are run by very sophisticated managers, are unwilling to put their money to work, does it make sense for ordinary investors to risk their own money in the stock market at this time?

I took a look at some of the largest corporations in the S&P 500. I examined their most recent SEC filings. As shown in the table below, they are indeed holding lots of cash and short-term marketable securities that could be quickly converted into cash.

Perhaps we can conclude from these large cash balances that these companies are reluctant to invest because of economic uncertainties and other risks, including political risks. Yet, at least to some extent, we can also conclude that the decision to pile up cash is motivated by taxes. After all, many of these companies have significant operations abroad. To a large extent, their cash balances reflect profits earned overseas. Repatriating those profits would result in significant U.S. tax liabilities.

Consider this statement from Google's most recent 10-Q filing with the SEC, "As of June 30, 2011, $18.8 billion of the $39.1 billion of cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities was held by our foreign subsidiaries. If these funds are needed for our operations in the U.S., we would be required to accrue and pay U.S. taxes to repatriate these funds."

Perhaps Google does not need to invest the money in the U.S. right now, but it is clearly objecting to the tax consequences it would face if it did try to bring the money home. It's pretty clear that Google would probably repatriate at least some of this $18.8 billion if it did not have to pay an onerous tax.

Google is not the only company on the list to mention repatriation and taxes. Several companies commented on this. Here's what Microsoft had to say in its most recent 10-K: "We earn a significant amount of our operating income from outside the U.S., and any repatriation of funds currently held in foreign jurisdictions may result in higher effective tax rates for the company."

By forcing companies to pay a tax that runs as high as 35% on repatriated profits, our government is all but ensuring that the money stays overseas. It seems like common sense to reduce this tax rate dramatically. Better yet, why not eliminate it entirely? Doing so could be one of the most effective job creation initiatives the government could take.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Warrants Warrant Warren's Investment

The big news for a while this morning was Steve Jobs' resignation as CEO of Apple. But it wasn't long before Warren Buffett stole the headlines. On Berkshire Hathaway's behalf, Buffett decided to invest $5 billion in Bank of America. Berkshire is buying cumulative preferred stock that pays 6% dividends. But that's not all. The preferred stock also comes with warrants that give Berkshire the right to buy 700 million shares of common stock at $7.14 per share.

Yesterday, before the deal was announced, shares of Bank of America rallied 11% to close at $6.99. Today, after the deal was announced, the stock opened at $8.29. That means the warrants immediately went into the money.

I discuss this kind of deal, known as a PIPE (private investment in public equity), in my book Even Buffett Isn't Perfect. PIPEs are not available to ordinary investors. Buffett used this structure not too long ago to invest in Goldman Sachs and General Electric. So far, at least, those stocks haven't done very well.

It remains to be seen if Bank of America pays off for Berkshire in the long run. But given the exercise price on the warrants, the odds are certainly in Berkshire's favor.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Is France Next?

Last Friday, in a widely telegraphed move, Standard & Poor's downgraded America's credit rating one notch from AAA to AA+. The real surprise was the timing, not the downgrade. Nonetheless, officials at the Treasury Department went ballistic, in part due to an error in the calculation of projected debt. Yet after acknowledging the error, S&P stood by its downgrade.

Whether the downgrade was deserved or not, it has clearly shaken up financial markets around the world. Stocks, in particular, sold off everywhere. Yet U.S. bonds rallied. This seemingly nonsensical reaction in the bond market is due to investors trying to reduce risk. They are selling "risky" stocks and buying "safe" bonds. In other words, they believe the S&P downgrade is more a comment about dysfunction in the U.S. government than it is a concern about the government's inability to pay back its debts. As for stocks, the lower they go, the safer they get.

What comes next? No doubt the other rating agencies, Moody's and Fitch, are doing their homework and might issue downgrades of their own. I don't expect that to happen in the very near future. More likely, Moody's and Fitch will wait until they see how Washington reacts. The recent agreement to raise the debt ceiling and reduce spending requires the formation of a commission to come up with the cuts. Members of this commission have yet to be named. If the commission looks credible and if it makes serious recommendations in a timely fashion, Moody's and Fitch will likely maintain their prime ratings on U.S. credit. But if the commission turns out to be another dysfunctional political group that cannot agree on serious spending cuts, more ratings cuts are likely.

Now that S&P has downgraded America, you have to wonder about the remaining countries that still enjoy AAA ratings. France, in particular, looks vulnerable. Ten-year notes in France are yielding significantly more than 10-year notes in America--even after America's downgrade. In other words, investors are telling S&P it is wrong. They perceive French bonds to be riskier. Remember, the U.S. can always print more money. France no longer has its own currency. After downgrading the U.S., it would be entirely inconsistent for S&P to maintain its prime rating on France. I expect a downgrade of France will be the next shoe to drop.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Market Snubs Congress

Conventional wisdom said stocks would rally once Congress settled on an agreement to raise the debt ceiling and cut spending. Yet on the same day that President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 into law, the S&P 500 sold off more than 2.5%. The S&P is down almost 7% in the last seven trading days.

Of course, the selloff can't be blamed entirely on the events in Washington. Economic factors deserve some of the blame. For example, yesterday's ISM manufacturing index came in at just 50.9 for July, well below expectations and well below the 55.3 reading for June. Because the figure was greater than 50, it indicates expansion, yet the pace of growth in the manufacturing sector has markedly slowed. Tomorrow, ISM will release its services index, which has been weaker than the manufacturing index in recent months. Economists expect a reading of 53.7, but there is a good chance the index will fall below the critical 50 level.

Yet the bulk of the blame for the selloff must go to Congress and the president. Even those politicians who voted for the bill were anything but happy. There was no backslapping and President Obama chose not to host a signing ceremony. And as soon as he signed the bill in the privacy of his office, he talked about the need to increase taxes on the so-called rich. In his book that means people making as little as $200,000 per year. How they can be called millionaires and billionaires, I don't know. In any case, investors understood that today's bill was nothing but a temporary fix. They see nothing but more political dysfunction ahead. Investors came to one conclusion: Risk Off!