Less Debt? Less Leverage? It's Practically Un-American!
Last Thursday the Federal Reserve published confirmation of a trend we have been seeing for a few quarters, that is, corporate America is taking on marginally less debt and leverage could be moderating. This trend is practically un-American, as corporate leverage has been ticking up for decades!
Moderating leverage is great for corporate bond investors and is one of the reasons why we still like investment grade corporate bonds this late in the credit cycle. In addition to moderating leverage, corporate bonds are benefiting from higher corporate earnings, very high levels of technical demand (as central banks keep interest rates low) and credit spreads that continue to tighten yet are still relatively attractive compared to other fixed income options. We call it the credit Indian summer–great while it lasts.
It is not quite clear what CFOs are thinking and if the recent moderation of leverage is a durable trend. Current beliefs about the optimal corporate capital structure are still widely influenced by Franco Modigliani (a 1985 Nobel Prize winner), whose groundbreaking work with Merton Miller made the argument that corporations could increase their value by substituting debt for equity. Debt is cheaper than equity and interest payments are tax deductible. This academic endorsement of leverage is, we believe, the underpinning to Michael Milken, the rise of the junk bond markets, private equity and LBOs, and perhaps even to the banking crisis of 2008. Pretty influential for a professor!
This early trend of moderation in leverage may nonetheless have legs. Interest rates around the world have likely bottomed, and even slowly rising rates mixed with high leverage is uncomfortable for CFOs. Also, the corporate bond market now has more BBB than A ratings, and the migration from BBB to BB is usually quite painful. The government’s tax reform proposal may reduce or eliminate the tax deduction for debt. And finally, perhaps stock buybacks and dividend increases are losing favor compared to investments that actually grow revenue and income.
Call us old fashioned, or just plain conservative, but we do think it would be very American to grow the value of companies through investments in productive assets, people and processes all funded with cash flow, rather than just increasing stock values with the use of leverage.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, The Federal Reserve, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Advisors Will Be Extinct in 5 Years Unless…
I’ve had financial advisors for more than 40 years. Not once in those years have I called my advisor to find out what stock/funds I should buy or sell. But I have called to find out where I should get my first mortgage, when to sell my house, or how much income I could get in retirement.
In short -- and I think I’m pretty typical – I was looking for financial advice, as it relates to my life.
Here’s the disconnect, what most advisors do is simply manage their clients’ assets. They determine what to buy, and what to sell, they think about risk management, about growing their practice by finding new clients and about getting paid.
Historically that has been the business model. But as more women take control over financial assets, they, like me, will be looking for a different experience. And unless the financial community is willing to change ….. advisors, as they are today will be extinct in five years.
Advisors who want to survive will have to do a lot more than just manage money – they will have to provide genuine “advice”. That means doing what’s right for the client, not pushing product and pretending it’s advice.
Women especially, but all investors generally, are becoming more and more cynical. They says, “If I want advice about reducing my debt, that’s what I want and not ‘here’s more debt’ because that’s what my advisor gets paid for! And if saving taxes is what I want then saving taxes should take precedent over selling me a product.”
You may be thinking that spending your time providing advice isn’t lucrative but the reality is that in the long run – it pays off in spades. The advisors who take the time to build real relationships with clients, who provide advice as it relates to their clients’ lives, even when there is no immediate financial benefit to themselves, those who don’t simply push product – are the ones who over time have the most successful practices.
Generally women understand and value service, but they will say, “If I’m paying, I want to know what I’m paying for: Is it for returns? Is it for advice? Is it for administration? I want to know. Then I can make up my mind what’s worth it and what isn’t.”
Investing is becoming a commoditized business and technology is replacing research that no one else can find. Today the average advisor is hard pressed to consistently beat the markets, and with women emerging as the client of the future, unless they start providing real advice, their jobs will likely be extinct in five years.
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