The Knowledge Economy Cash Anomaly, Part 3: The exciting conclusion

This is part 3 in a series.  Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

Tax Shields 

The organization of the knowledge economy is inclined towards creating great tax advantages.  Both start-ups and mature companies enjoy huge advantages that the resource economy does not enjoy.  Most investments can be expensed.  The companies grow fast enough that they create huge tax losses, even as they create extraordinary value for the owners.  Once they become mature global companies, their assets can be transferred almost costlessly to whatever jurisdiction offers the most favorable treatment.  Transfer pricing makes it almost impossible for authorities to tell where value was added.  Money generated off-shore can stay off-shore tax free indefinitely.  In contrast, resource economy companies have easily traceable assets, some of which require particular locations and may be quite literally fixed to that location.  Their assets are comparatively easy to tax, whatever form their assets take.

If this is the case, it follows that knowledge economy companies have huge tax shields from their operations.  To have these tax shields add value to the business, the CFO of a company needs a business that is low risk, earns the cost of capital after tax, and does not consume much management attention.  Investing in marketable securities seems like just the ticket.  The gain on securities allows the owners of the company to take advantage of the tax shields that would otherwise go unused.

Here is what we’ve been looking for all along.  A reason why cash is better off in the pocket of the company than in the pocket of the owner.  In addition, all the other reasons why a firm might hold so much cash are still active and valid.  Full use of tax shields would be a driving factor for keeping cash on the balance sheet.  The discount rate for tax shields is low and even if only gets used every few years, it adds to the wealth of the shareholders.  For a founder, cash on the balance sheet capitalizes an otherwise unused tax shield, provides diversification, defends the core business, and enhances the value of R&D investments by its mere presence.

The question for further study would be when we would expect to see these benefits diminish?  Can we empirically test which of these hypotheses are most important in guiding payout policy?

The Knowledge Economy Cash Anomaly, Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1.

Option Value of Cash on the Balance Sheet

This theory of the cash anomaly posits that the returns from R&D are high, but also highly uncertain.  Every once and awhile, the R&D of a company will produce a really high value project that requires massive investment and possibly acquisitions to use in combination with the asset.  The problem with R&D as an economic asset is that it is very difficult to sell or even be exploited by organizations other than the organization that developed it.  Unlike discovering oil, it is not clear even after discovery of a project that another firm could develop the project to create economic returns.

Because exploitation relies on unique capabilities inside the firm that are only poorly understood outside the firm, their economic value is harder to forecast.  This violates the costless symmetric  information condition of efficient markets is violated, unlike the projects of old economy companies, where the market has a reasonable expectation that it will understand the value of the project.  This uncertainty introduces huge frictions if projects need to raise new capital. Therefore, if a company has R&D projects, the value of that project stream is greatly enhanced if the company also has a means of financing the projects that does not require subjecting those projects to the friction of market financing.  These frictions are both directly financial in the form of more returns to new investors and intermediaries, and also temporal.  In winner takes all markets, which many technology markets are, temporal costs are huge.

The option value of cash on the balance sheet could be huge, however, we would expect more tech companies to at least on occasion, expend all their cash and perhaps even borrowing capacity when they exercised options if this were the case.  This is common in growing technology companies.  Mature tech companies, rarely, if ever come close to expending their investment capacity.

I’m skeptical of this explanation.  Why does Google need to hold enough cash to buy Yahoo or Facebook in cash, if they are never exercise the option to do so?  When was the last time you heard that a company was undertaking a project with more than a billion dollars of expenditures in year one of the project?  These kinds of companies can make acquisitions with stock, invest over time out of future cash flows, and they even have relatively low cost borrowing capacity should it be required.

Cash Poor at Home

Recently, much has been made of the U.S. companies that are parking cash overseas to avoid the tax when they repatriate it.  Many companies are cash poor in their U.S. entity, but their consolidated balance sheet shows a lot of cash.  This cash can’t be repatriated for distribution without a large tax bill.  This is the worst of all possible worlds from a policy perspective, but it doesn’t seem to afflict tech companies as much as industrial conglomerates.

(BTW, Congress doesn’t need to capitulate to corporate demands for no tax on foreign earnings.  All it has to do charge the companies income tax on their cost of capital for any overseas investments, then true up when the companies bring cash home.  Particularly if the law slightly over estimated the cost of capital, or ignored the cost of capital on financial assets in the WACC calculation, so that repatriating funds usually triggered a small refund rather than a small bill, you could just sit back and relax and watch them all bring their cash home while still paying tax.)

Distress Costs

The final explanation I’ve heard offered is the idea that since most of the investments of a technology company are in workforce and R&D, the costs of financial distress are huge.  Not only that, but the costs of financial distress can manifest themselves long before bankruptcy is close.  If managers are cutting benefits or tightening R&D activites, and the costs are not properly captured by accounting frameworks.  New talent goes elsewhere, the best old talent leaves, R&D becomes less creative, less real economic capital employed stealthily decreases without the accountants noticing.  However, CFOs are smart, they know this–even if the accountants don’t.  They keep cash on the balance sheet, employee benefits generous, and 10% time meaningful.  This prevents the stealthy erosion of the real assets of the company, by the prospect of distress, which the intelligent and savvy workforce is acutely aware of even if they don’t conduct formal analysis.

But there is one more reason…

In part 3, I will outline how holding cash creates economic value, regardless of and in addition to, all these explanations.  Go to Part 3.

The Knowledge Economy Cash Anomaly: Part 1

This is part 1 in a three part series about why technology companies hold so much cash on their balance sheets.  Here are Part 2 and Part 3.

The academics disclaim knowledge of a definitive answer as to why companies in the knowledge economy hoard a such a disproportionate amount of cash.   The problem is that the chart below has two branches where our classical understanding would only expect one.

Robotics (Blue) is firmly in the knowledge economy, using very few real assets, but a disproportionate amount of financial assets, to finance the company.

Robotics (Blue) is firmly in the knowledge economy, using very few real assets, but a disproportionate amount of financial assets on the company’s balance sheet–just like software companies.

The Expectation

The companies that form a cluster heading up close to the Y-axis are the traditional economy companies.  They are everything from utilities to content companies to retailers–some of them quite high-tech.  Basically, they have the real assets that they need to their business and a little bit of cash and securities to get them through the shocks of the next couple of months.

This is what financial economists expect companies to look like:  orderly, well managed institutions that collect cash from operations and distribute the operating profits out to shareholders and debt holders.  Since these companies have access to relatively liquid and efficient capital markets, they have no need to hold onto cash.  Good investment projects can simply be financed through issuing new securities or retaining more future earnings.

Tech Companies

Robotics companies and tech companies on the other hand horde massive amounts of cash–spreading out along the X-axis in the chart above.  Many of these companies, already profitable, could forego revenues for over a year.  And, oddly enough, the most profitable and most successful of these companies hold the most financial assets.  Nobody quite understands why companies do this.  The previous discussion, Is a Dollar Worth a Dollar on a Tech Company’s Balance Sheet?, reviewed some of the arguments for and against the value of cash on a company’s balance sheet.

Holding Cash Is Usually Bad

Most investors feel that excess cash in the company is a temptation to value destroying misadventures by management.  Particularly if management has incentives to grow gross profit, management can grow gross profit by deploying the company’s cash in less than profitable ways.  The classic example of this overpriced acquisitions.  Say you were the CEO of HP and you wanted to grow profits.  You might have heard about this company called Autonomy.   So you decide to buy it at market price plus a huge control premium.  Your profits go up, because you have HP + Autonomy’s profits together.  You get a bonus.  But your shareholders get hosed.

If the shareholders wanted to buy Autonomy, they could have owned it without paying the control premium.  Unless these so-called synergies show-up (and synergies are what go up the banker’s chimney after Santa Claus comes down–see I learned something in business school),  there is no reason to pay the control premium.   The control premium just gets pocketed by the previous owners and the bankers with all that value lost to the shareholders of the acquirer–those are your shareholders.

Conversely, if the company disgorges the cash, and you and your management team go to the market to raise new debt or equity to finance the purchase of Autonomy, Instagram, or any of another thousand bad acquisitions–the financial market has a chance to tell you that this is a really bad idea.  But if it is a good acquisition, the market will easily provide you with the money.  So all in all, investors tend to discount cash on the balance sheet and reward paying it out where they can reinvest it.  So why would companies hold all this cash?

Concentrated Ownership

Many tech companies are owned or controlled largely by single individuals or small groups.  The company represents a substantial portion–if not substantially all–of the wealth of the these founders.  Since they control the company, they are willing to take steps to decrease the risk to the company that are not economically maximal to diversified shareholders.

Consider this hypothetical:  Google and Apple are locked in winner take all product war for a small market that is worth $2Bn in market capitalization to Google now, but will go entirely to Apple in year unless Google spends $3Bn.  If all of your wealth is in Google and you couldn’t easilty get it out, you might be willing to have Google spend $3Bn to save $2Bn in wealth.  Your loss is now $1Bn instead of $2Bn.  However, if you are a diversified investor and own both Google and Apple, you want Google to let the business go and refund you the $3Bn.  You still have your share of the $2Bn in your portfolio and the chance to invest your share of the $3Bn somewhere else to earn a return.

Founder Payout Diversified Common Shareholder Payout
Spend money to protect Failing Business -1 -1
Do Not Spend Money to Protect Failing Business and Payout Cash -2 +3Bn

Less sinister, the company may just be conducting tax free diversification on behalf of the founder.  The effective corporate tax rate is below the individual tax rate, especially on capital gains.  While this is tax efficient for a founder, it may not be tax efficient for other investors.  The harm is probably not as stark as the example above, but it does raise the question about who the firm is being run for and rubs our Anglo-Saxon sensibilities about the primacy of the shareholders the wrong way.

Defense

The story here is that only Apple or Microsoft would ever even think about entering search knowing that Google has the largest market share, the best technology, and is sitting on $45Bn in cash.  If you want to take search from Google, you are playing a long game and an extremely expensive game.  It will fight hard and it has the resources to do this.  Potential competition is scared off, increasing the ability of the company to earn rents in on its primary operations.   While closely related to concentrated ownership story, this is actually favorable to the common shareholder if this is true.   Services like Siri, Wolfram Alpha, and IBM’s Watson cast some doubt on this story, but perhaps at least in the example of general consumer search it is mostly true.

The defensive effect need not be 100% effective to be worthwhile.  This effect is an extra return on the cash that shows up in operations, not financing, because of accounting rules.   Additionally, the company always has the cash, so there is option value.  In our example, if Bing every really started to rule search, Google could decide not to fight, and either sell or wind down search operations.  They still  have $45Bn to distribute even if the value of operations falls to zero, but the option to fight is inherently valuable.  With the cash to execute this option, it becomes more valuable, or credible.

to be continued…   Next up, option value of IP and distress costs

Jump to Part 2

Robotics capital intensive?! What are you smoking? Don’t believe it.

Robotic manufacturing is not capital intensive, contrary to the popular wisdom.  (Looking at you HBS.)

Unless someone can bring data to the contrary, we should treat this issue as thoroughly decided against the  conventional wisdom.  As we saw previously, robotics companies do not need a lot of fixed assets.  Now, we will see why people who blithely repeat the conventional wisdom that robotics companies are capital intensive are wrong–even if they claim robotics companies are hiding their true use of capital.

First off, robotics companies’ balance sheets look like technology companies’–the internet kind, not the aerospace/industrial kind.  Robotics companies have lots of cash and relatively little else.

Second, robotics companies have gross margins that even companies that don’t make stuff would envy.  The robotics gross margin would probably be even higher if iRobot and Aerovironment were not defense contractors.   There is a lot of pressure to bury as much expense as allowed into the cost of goods due to defense contract rules.   Intuitive and Cognex’s margins are around 75%.  They are even beating Google on gross margin!

Although, it does appear that robotics companies have a bit longer cash conversion cycle than the basket chosen for comparison here, their cash cycle appears to be in line with other complex manufacturers.  Plus, the robotics companies are holding so much cash their management may just not really care to push the conversion cycle down.

Look at the cash required to sell aircraft though!  Manned or unmanned it looks like it takes forever to get paid for making planes.

Although robotics companies have physical products, the value of a robot is in the knowledge and information used to create it and operate it.  The materials are nothing special.  Consequently, these companies look like part of the knowledge economy–few real assets, lots of cash, and huge attention to their workforce.   Next time someone tells you robotics companies are capital intensive, ask them to share what they’re smoking–it’s probably the good stuff–because they aren’t using data.

One thing that a venture capitalist may mean when he says that robotics is capital intensive is that it generally takes a long time and lots of money to develop a viable product in robotics.  This may be true, but it is not really the same thing as being capital intensive.   This observation should cause a lot of soul-searching within our industry.  What the venture capitalist is telling us is that we–as an industry–cannot reliably manage our engineering, product development, and business structures to produce financial results.

This is why the conventional wisdom is dangerous.  It suggests that the lack of investors, money, and talent flowing into our industry isn’t our fault and there’s not much we can do about it.  That is what needs to change in robotics.  We need to get better at management.  We need to start building companies quicker and producing returns for our investors.  If we do that the money, talent, and creativity will start pouring into industry.  Then robotics can change the world.

Notes on Data and Method
Data Source: Last 10-k

Method:

Accounts Receivable = All balance sheet accounts that seem to be related to a past sale and future cash, so accounts receivable plus things like LinkedIn’s deferred commissions.

Cash + Investments = All balance sheets I could identify as being financial investments not required to operate.   Assume all companies require zero cash to operate.

Did not account for advances in cash conversion cycle.