Short Arms, Deep Pockets
Companies have deep pockets flush with cash, but are plagued with short arms, unwilling to reach into their wallets to make substantive new hires. I have talked about “unemployment hypochondria” in the past but is this cautious behavior rational?
The short answer is yes, and it is very typical in light of the similar “jobless recoveries” we experienced in 1991 and 2001. After suffering the worst financial crisis in a generation, employers’ wounds are still not completely healed and the frightening memories of 2008-2009 are still fresh in their minds.
The globalization cat is out of the bag, and technology is only accelerating the commoditization of labor. When labor can be purchased for $1 per hour in China or $.50 per hour in India , and in many instances no strategic benefit lost, then why are so many people surprised about the hemorrhaging of $25 per hour manufacturing jobs to cheaper locales? Agriculture and related industries used to account for more than 90% of our economy about 150 years ago – today agriculture makes up about 2% of our economic output. Even though this dominating sector withered away on a relative basis, the United States became the global powerhouse innovator of the 20th century.
Innovative companies understand that true value is created by those workers who make themselves indispensable – or what Seth Godin calls “Linchpins.” Apple Inc. (AAPL) understands these trends. If you don’t believe me, just flip over an iPhone and read where it clearly states, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” (see BELOW).
We are falling further behind our global brethren in math and science, and our immigration policy is all backwards (Keys to Success). Education, creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit are the main ingredients necessary to climb the labor food chain. For those workers that make themselves linchpins, their services will be in demand during good times and bad times.
Jobs = Heavy Hiking Boots
Like scared hikers jettisoning heavy hiking boots to escape a pursuing grizzly bear, business owners will eventually need to purchase a new pair of boots, if they want to hike the mountain to face the next challenge. Right now, businesses are content waiting it out, more worried about the potential of a bear jumping out to devour them.
Although businesses may not be plunging into hiring a substantial number of new workers, positive leading indicators are becoming more apparent. Beyond the obvious improvement in the explicit job numbers (e.g., nine consecutive months of private job creation), other factors such as increased temporary workers, accelerating job listings, and increased capital expenditures are the precursors to sustained job hiring.
Quarterly Capital Carrots
Capital expenditures generally lead to more immediate productivity improvements and do not have a complete negative and immediate impact on the sacred EPS (earnings per share) and income statement metrics. On the other hand, hiring a new employee has an instant depressing effect on expenses, thereby dragging down the beloved EPS figure. What’s more, new employees do not typically become productive or sales generative for months. If you consider the heavy explicit wages coupled with implicit training costs, until the coast is clear and confidence overcomes fear, businesses are not going to dip their hands into their cash-filled pockets to hire workers willy-nilly.
As previously mentioned, improved business confidence is being signaled by increased capital spending. Just over the last week, investors have witnessed significantly expanded capital expenditures across a broad array of industries. Here are a few random samplings:
September 2010 – Quarterly Capital Expenditures
Q3 – 2010 Q3 – 2009 YOY%
Apple Inc. (AAPL) $760 mil vs. $459 mil +66%
Halliburton Company (HAL) $557 mil vs. $440 mil +27%
Coca Cola Company (KO) $442 mil vs. $419 mil +5%
Dominos Pizza Inc. (DPZ) $5.2 mil vs. $4.1 mil +26%
Intel Corp. (INTC) $1.4 bill vs $944 mil +44%
Although the pace of the recovery is losing steam, companies’ health persists to strengthen, as evidenced in part by the +45% growth in 2010 S&P 500 profits, swelling record cash piles, and increasing corporate confidence (rising capital expenditures). Despite these positive leading indicators, business owners are reluctant to dip their short arms into their deep cash-filled pockets to hire new employees. Given our experience over the last few decades this corporate behavior is perfectly consistent with recent jobless recoveries. Until its clear the economic bear is hibernating, businesses will continue building their cash warchests. Everyone will be happier once we are done running from bears, and instead chasing bulls.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HAL, KO, DPZ, INTC, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.