Is ‘dead money’ always a bad thing?
Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of Canada, has launched an important new conversation about the role of corporations in a tumultuous economy.
When Mark Carney was a student at Harvard University he was a goalie on the varsity hockey team. It's an experience that seems to inform his approach to his role as Governor of the Bank of Canada: he watches the game from his end of the ice trying to anticipate where the puck is going to go. And every once in a while he shifts from defence to offence, skating out of the crease, giving the puck a poke check into the opposite direction.
That pretty much describes what happened when Carney gave a recent speech to the gathered ranks of the Canadian Autoworkers Union. After closely watching the economic puck for the past few years, he went out and gave it a good whack.
It's a whack that's been reverberating ever since.
In its clubby upper circles, Corporate Canada isn't accustomed to being publicly criticized. And there's not much question that Carney — who has both a high profile and high credibility — has got them all riled up.
Specifically, the Governor has chided corporate Canada for accumulating what he describes as "dead money." In the uncertain economy, it appears that Canadian companies have played it safe and socked away about $526 billion in cash on their balance sheets instead of redeploying it.
Given his focus on overall domestic economic performance and competitiveness, Carney's perspective has reasonable context. If companies don't spend their capital and re-invest in new equipment and growth, stagnation sets in quickly.
It's also reasonable to make the point that Canadian CEOs make an average $8.4 million and ought to generate wealth and growth for shareholders to deserve that kind of pay packet.
Just about anyone can deposit a bag of money in the bank. And you sure as heck don't deserve a 27 per cent year-over-year raise (what the top-earning CEOs have averaged in the last couple of years) to do that. CEOs are paid handsomely to manage sustainable growth in corporate profits and assets, not clip coupons.
On the other hand, Carney is skating pretty far out of his goalie crease in exhorting corporate leaders to take on greater risks at a time of extreme market uncertainty. And frankly, his declaration that un-invested profits should be handed straight back to shareholders is a bit extreme.
To be fair, it panders to the enduring taste for high dividend returns — something that's been recently reinforced by the number of corporate share buyback programs.
But in this turbulent period, it's not entirely unreasonable to keep your powder — and your cash — dry. Of course there are opportunities out there for acquisitions or expansion, but valuations and market conditions can be erratic — making big capital commitments unwise.
In fact, it could be considered downright prudent — including the role that conservative management plays in preserving jobs. And since when is discipline a bad thing in the c-suite? That's all the more true when you consider the hot mess that so many companies have made in the bid to grow at any cost. The first few years of this decade are littered with examples.
There's a balance that needs to be achieved between preserving the capital required to take advantage of opportunities when trends and conditions settle and taking risks just for the sake of spending accumulated money. And that needs to be acknowledged.
One thing that remains irrefutable in this situation is that the Governor of the Bank of Canada is one smart guy. Chances are pretty good that he thought it through pretty carefully before he stood up in front of a group of unionized autoworkers and took a deliberate shot at Corporate Canada. It is, after all, pretty much like throwing candy into a crowd of children.
Furthermore, the view he expressed is over-simplified: each company operates in a different region, sector and space. Suggesting they all need to open the spigots — or that all of them have the same sort of stash — is completely unrealistic.
It's quite likely that Carney decided this was an issue that needed attention and a conversation that needed to take place. On both counts he scored — which goalies sometime do. Just hopefully not on his own net.
MSN.ca Money's editorial goal is to provide a forum for personal finance and investment ideas. Our articles, columns, message board posts and other features should not be construed as investment advice, nor does their appearance imply an endorsement by Microsoft of any specific security or trading strategy. An investor's best course of action must be based on individual circumstances.