by Keith Weiner
Many people today see the Fed’s Quantitative Easing as money printing. They remember what happened in the 1970’s, and they instantly jump to conclusions. However, we live in a different world. To illustrate this, consider the following story about Joe, a promising and eager young manager in a struggling manufacturing company.
Joe excitedly walks into the boardroom and pitches his idea. “Let’s borrow a billion dollars. We can use it to build a massive warehouse and to buy massive quantities of our raw materials!”
The senior management team stares at him. The CEO demands, “Why?”
“We need to have a stockpile at every level. We should start with 3 months of raw materials, and a three-month buffer of work-in-progress in between every one of the 27 steps of our manufacturing line. And even better, we need to warehouse finished product. We shouldn’t ship anything that hasn’t been sitting for at least 4 months. Ideally six, but we can start with four.” Joe has the bit in his teeth now.
He rushes on. “Bernanke has printed so much money, and Yellen is going to continue. We already have massive inflation and it’s going to get worse! By borrowing to buy stuff that is only going up in price, we can make extra profits and protect ourselves from supply shocks as the cost of commodities rises out of sight!”
The CFO leans over to whisper in the ear of a young assistant, Bill. Bill does a quick Google search and finds the price of copper, which is one of the most important raw materials the company buys. Bill puts the copper chart up on the screen. It has fallen a third over the past few years.
Joe will be lucky to remain employed when he leaves the room. To be fair to him, his mistake is simply to try to implement a business strategy around what most casual observers and many economists believe.
Sometimes, the best way to debunk an idea is to take it seriously.
Though it makes no sense today, holding inventory was not the crazy idea of a young fool back in the 1970’s. It was how many businesses conducted business. In that era, the game was to accumulate inventories. The more, the better. First people were trading excess cash for inventories. I can recall my parents stockpiling things like canned tuna fish. It was better to keep one’s wealth stored in a durable food product than in a bank account. Consumer prices were rising about 20 percent per year.
Next, companies began selling bonds to finance inventory growth. This pushes down the bond price, which is the same thing as pushing up the interest rate. And of course it pushes up prices.
In the 1970’s, cash was trash. Inventories rose relentlessly in value, at least as measured in terms of the dollar. This, by the way, is a great example of how irredeemable money distorts the economy. You aren’t producing any more, or creating any kind of new wealth, and yet, you are rewarded with a profit.
Now we have the opposite condition. Since the interest rate began falling in the early 1980’s, companies have been finding ways to reduce inventory accumulation. The Lean manufacturing movement began to gain acceptance at this time. Lean, also known as the Toyota Way, defines inventory—such as work-in-progress sitting on a shelf—as waste. Lean is all about eliminating waste.
Today, cash is king. Excess inventory quickly becomes obsolete.
Companies are not borrowing to hold inventory, but to expand production when they can make a profit above the cost of capital. Since the interest rate keeps falling, the hurdle to get over for minimum acceptable profit keeps going lower.
Think of it this way, if you manufactured handheld electronic devices, would you want to keep inventory a minute longer than you had to? Of course not, because your competitor is about to release a new model that will make your product less desirable, or even unsalable. How about clothing? Cars?
In the 1970’s, the interest rate was rising. When a worn-out plant needed replacing, it may not have been feasible to borrow to replace it. That’s because the new interest rate was much higher than at the time when the plant was first acquired, a decade or more earlier.
This is the connection between the rate of interest and the rate of profit. It’s impossible to borrow at a higher rate than the profit one hopes to earn. A rising rate will therefore lead to rising margins, and a falling rate to falling margins.
Other than the problem of financing plant replacement, business was easy. Sleepy conglomerates had travel policies that allowed managers and executives to fly first class, even for domestic travel. With the cost of borrowing rising all the time, profit margins were expanding. And there was the kicker, holding inventory before selling it fattened margins further.
Business had a lazy pace to it, as I look at it today (though business managers at the time might not have agreed with that characterization).
In comparison, today it is the opposite. Limitless oceans of dirt-cheap credit issue forth, like effluent from the world’s central banks. The problem is not replacing worn-out plant when the cost of capital is higher. The problem is that every competitor has ever-cheaper cost of capital. The challenge is that rapid product cycles are driving rapid obsolescence. It is harder and harder to recoup design and tooling expenses. Inventory that sits for a week may have to be liquidated at a massive discount. Profit margins are under constant pressure.
Business executives routinely fly coach, even for international travel.
If the word for the 1970’s business environment was lazy, the word for today’s climate is frenetic.
Neither is the ideal behavior for a rational enterprise. They are the direct fault of the regime of irredeemable paper money.
Everyone’s attention is misdirected towards prices. Is the Consumer Price Index rising? Is it rising more than expected? How about the producer price index? Is that dropping into the dread D-word—deflation?
It’s the greatest economic sleight of hand ever perpetrated.
Instead of zeroing in on prices, we should be looking at the enormous distortions of our centrally banked irredeemable currency. We have bubbles, malinvestment, insolvencies, volatility, with exponentially rising debt and derivatives outstanding.