Building Empires, or Building the Economy?
The CAW has merged with about 35 smaller unions since we were formed in 1985.Â That doesn’t stop me, however, from questioning the economic usefulness of Canadian corporate mergers.Â M&A activity last year reached an incredible $270 billion.Â That’s 20 percent of our GDP.Â And what good actually comes from it?Â At best, the M&A boom is a sideshow.Â At worst, it’s a portent of trouble ahead.Â It is the dual, I argue, of the weakness in corporate investment: CEOs are sitting on mountains of idle cash, and they want to spend it on something.Â So why not buy something that someone else built — instead of taking on the difficult job of building it themselves.
Here’s my take on this scandalous abuse of economic power, as published in the Globe and Mail:
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Just when you thought that corporate Canada would run out of profligate, economically useless ways to waste vast sums of money, along comes the latest data on mergers and acquisitions (M&A).Â According to Thomson Financial, the combined value of takeovers involving Canadian companies almost doubled in 2006, to an awesome $230 billion (U.S.).Â (For those who follow the quaint, old-fashioned practice of valuing Canadian companies in our own currency, thatâ€™s $270 billion Canadian.)
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Letâ€™s put that in perspective.Â A sum equivalent to one-fifth of our GDP was allocated last year to acquire and merge Canadian companies: building corporate empires.Â In contrast, Canadian business spent a mere $170 billion on capital investment: building the real economy.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I have been complaining loudly about the inadequacy of business investment â€“ relative to our economic needs, and relative to record profits.Â Now we know what the titans of business have been up to, instead.Â For each dollar they spent building the economy last year, they spent $1.60 building their own empires.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Sure, every time a new deal is announced, the marrying executives boast about impressive â€œsynergies,â€ savings, and efficiencies.Â These promises rarely amount to more than an accountantâ€™s hill of beans.Â In reality, the M&A action is a corporate shell game, with few if any real economic effects.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Some important patterns are visible in the M&A report.Â The biggest deals involve resource companies â€“ including six of the top ten takeovers.Â Many deals involve foreign takeovers, like last yearâ€™s buyouts of Inco, Falconbridge, and Fairmont Hotels.Â These takeovers represent a huge capital inflow to
Canada, but one that does next to nothing to actually develop our real economic potential.Â (I have nothing against foreign investment, as long as it actually does something useful.)
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The current M&A boom is reminiscent of a similar binge in the late 1990s, just before the dot-com meltdown.Â At its peak in 1999, Nortel Networks paid $3 billion for a software start-up (Qtera) with no revenues and 170 employees.Â We all know what happened to Nortel.Â Back then, intoxicated buyouts were justified on the basis of the internetâ€™s awesome value-creating potential.Â Replace the word â€œinternetâ€ with the word â€œmineral,â€ and you could sing the same hymn today.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Somewhere around the corner, however, a price will once again be paid â€“ when resource prices tumble, and the bullish spreadsheets which underline todayâ€™s inflated valuations suddenly turn to slag.Â The
Toronto Stock Exchange hits new highs almost daily, with rumours of still more takeovers (aluminum could be next) fuelling the fire.Â Just donâ€™t bet your RRSP that this frenzy will produce any lasting value on which to retire.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Iâ€™ve always been curious why business leaders (juiced on cheap finance and idle cash) are given free reign to drive up the prices of the stuff they buy with such wild abandon.Â Consider the biggest deal of 2006: the takeover of Inco by Brazilâ€™s CVRD.Â The deal cost $20.3 billion (U.S.).Â Yet Incoâ€™s tangible assets (including property, plant, and equipment; inventories; and cash) were worth barely half that, according to its last annual report.Â The remaining premium is just a huge bet that Inco profits will remain sky-high thanks to inflated global commodity prices.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â If workersâ€™ wages grow by more than 2 percent, the Bank of Canada clamps down hard.Â But in business, nobody questions an â€œinflation rateâ€ of 100 percent or more in the market for corporate control.Â What does this say about our economic priorities?Â And why donâ€™t we take away the CEOsâ€™ punch bowls, when their partying starts to overwhelm our whole economy?
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â In reality, the takeover binge reveals the bankrupt business leadership of uncreative executives whoâ€™ve been given way too much money to play with.Â Rather than inventing something new, expanding our capacity, or investing in real productivity, they pay outrageous prices for companies that others built.Â Bottom-line earnings appear to â€œgrow,â€ and so might share prices (for a while, anyway, until the debt comes home to roost).Â Every marrying CEO â€“ whether hunter or hunted â€“ gets a golden parachute, assuaging any lingering regrets over lost empires.Â And Bay Street, as usual, takes a juicy cut of every pointless deal.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â But from the perspective of our real economic potential and productivity, at best this shell game is a sideshow.Â At worst, itâ€™s a portent of trouble ahead.