Tis the season to be jolly, especially if you are a US corporation full up with cash. And many are. Cash reserves at US companies are at a 40-year high, with companies averaging 10 percent of market value in cash deposits or T-bills. In the health care and tech sectors, that cash reserve number is a whopping 20 percent. (All in all, a good season for the health care industry, where stocks are expected to take off as impediments to profiteering disappear—there is nothing in any of the pending health proposals to slow galloping costs.) Google CEO Eric Schmidt was effusive about his company coffers on an analyst call this week: “We love cash.”
Unlike government, there is no fiscal crisis in corporate America. Still, prudence is the order of the day. CEOs hit their mark by cutting jobs, strict inventory control– a recalibration of P&Ls. And there is no relief in sight. If there were a “CEO confidence” survey, as exists for consumers, it would read very, very low. CEOs are well aware that the same low wage policies that brought historic profits, and bonanza bonuses, have had a double edge effect.
A scrooge is a scrooge. “Over the last several years, companies have become stingy on what they’re spending, but what we’ve seen in the last six to seven months is companies really holding onto their money,” said S&P’s Howard Silverblatt on Public Radio four days before Christmas. “We go back with the S&P indexes for decades and there’s been nothing like this….”
The latest round of pocket stuffing is at.. ho, ho, ho, the banks, as the financial sector just keeps humming along. Turns out that 2008 was just a glitch in America’s main act: making money on money In excess of $50 billion of new capital was raised to replace TARP money repaid by the banks to Treasury– still trying to share in the glory of the Fed and its leader, Time Person of the Year, Chairman Ben. He saved the world economy, in case it missed you. And don’t the banks know it: December was the biggest month for the sale of bank stock in history.
What’s sweet about the deal is that the banks reap hundreds of millions in fees selling their own shares. Matthew Toole of Thomson Reuters told the New York Times: “Ironically, the mechanics of exiting TARP turned out to be lucrative business for equity underwriters this year.” Now there’s a recovery.
If you want to know what you are buying in those bank stocks, see yet the latest (December 22) full-page newspaper ad of JPMorgan Chase: “[W]e believe families who work hard to meet their mortgage payment obligations deserve to be treated with respect and given the opportunity to stay in their homes.” What about people who work hard and don’t meet their mortgage payment obligations? The most obvious thing in America today is that you can work hard and stay poor.
Not far from JPMorgan Chase HQ in Manhattan are middle-class neighborhoods experiencing the worst joblessness in generations. In the northern Bronx, a middle-class area, unemployment has doubled in two years and is now 12.2 percent. Same 12.2 percent for middle class sections of Queens. Foreclosures there are rising rapidly. “Respect”? “Opportunity”?
CARL GINSBURG is a tv producer and journalist based in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org