I bring up this short history lesson after listening to Stanley Druckenmiller’s interview that took place at the Economic Club of New York and a follow up interview on CNBC on June 7 2019. In both events, Druckenmiller discusses the fact that corporate debt has risen from $6T in 2010 to $10T in 2018 (a 65% increase). At the same time corporate profits rose from $1.7T to $2.2T. (a 29% increase). He points out that for a 65% increase in debt total profits grew at roughly 3% annual growth rate. To paraphrase Von Moltke - where are all the profits?
It isn’t just the lack of profits where Druckenmiller has a problem. During the same period, companies spent $5.7T in buybacks versus $2.2T in CapEx. This is a complete reversal from the numbers in 2010. At that time, buybacks represented 20% and CapEx 65%. His concern is that companies haven’t invested in making their companies more productive or more competitive. Rather, cheap debt has allowed an enormous amount of companies that would - in more normal times - have faced bankruptcy put in place a systemic process to transfer wealth from the company to its largest shareholders and management. Again - to paraphrase von Moltke - where are all the bankruptcies?
A Rather False Narrative: The Russell 2000 and Corporate Debt
The narrative concerning the strength of the US economy is based on two pillars - the strength of the US equities markets and the burst in GDP growth after the tax cuts of 2017. While some may argue the markets have been rather flat for the past year (the S&P 500 is up roughly 3.8%), there is no doubt the tax cuts boosted GDP growth in the short term. But over time, I think the numbers tell a false narrative that puts value investors at grave risk. In this article, I thought I’d take a look at a segment of the market and apply Mr. Druckenmiller’s concerns.
The Russell 2000 represents the smallest 2000 small-cap stocks of the Russell 3000. It is considered the best representation of US-based small-cap businesses. As you look at the companies in the index, several statistics stand out that should cause serious reflection in all value investors.
- In 2018, 38% of the Russell 2000 had no net income, whereas only 1.4% of S&P 500 companies have no net income.
- In 2012 the Russell 2000’s total debt to capital was 19%. Prior to the Great Recession, the average total debt to capital was 29% at year-end of 2007. As of May 2019 that number sits at 34%.
- In the Q4 2018 swoon, the Russell 2000 companies whose shares were in the highest quartile of percentage declines had a median debt-to-equity ratio of 41%. Russell 2000 companies whose shares were in the lowest quartile of percentage declines had a median debt-to-equity ratio of 32%.
- In the Q1 2019 surge, the highest leverage Russell 2000 companies gained 17% on average, while the least leveraged gained just 5%.
This data can tell us some very interesting points about the investment markets.
Debt as a Percent of Equity Has Never Been Higher
The amount of debt taken on by the Russell 2000 constituent companies has not been this high since the 2008-2008 market crash. Indeed, debt as a percent of equity is far higher than previous to the crash. The vast majority of this debt consists of Cov-lite loans (as discussed in my recent article “Fata Morgana and the Illusion of Safety” which can be found here) which are very sensitive to interest rate volatility.
Debt as a Form of Capital Has Generated Awful Returns
The debt taken on by companies has provided little to no increase in productivity or profitability. Indeed, a quick review of 100 companies in the Russell 2000 by Nintai Investments shows that return on capital has decreased from an average 14.1% in 2012 to just 9.3% in 2018. Additionally, companies with no net income has risen from 26% in 2012 to 38% in 2018.
Investors Have Lost Sight of Risk
The returns generated by the highest leveraged small-cap stocks in Q1 of 2019 shows that investors have lost sight of risk associated with high levels of indebtedness. Combined with the fact that a large percentage of these companies have no net income, I would suggest value investors proceed with extreme caution in this market environment.
The last six to nine months have been a whipsaw for investors and business owners alike. The possibility of trade wars - being announced and rescinded by random tweets by the President - leave many of us without a clue as to where and what protections are afforded by business fundamentals. Combined with the 180 degree change in the Feds approach to raising rates (now even discussing lowering rates), the ability to look out and assess risk has gotten extremely difficult. With all of this happening, it would seem to me value investors must be extremely risk averse when it comes to highly leveraged Russell 2000 (or for that matter any) companies. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been wrong before. Nintai Investments’ returns have beaten both the S&P 500 and Russell 2000 indices - barely - over the past 2 years as investors have clearly decided that risk is not a prime concern. My extreme aversion to debt and requirement of fortress-like balance sheets has afforded me little advantage against the general markets. That said, I would still advise value investors focus on one question – to paraphrase von Moltke: where is the risk? Once you’ve assessed and answered that question, then act accordingly.
 I should point out I wrote about debt and the Russell 2000 in an article “Leverage and the Stock Market” in May 2018. The article can be found here.
 As an aside, Skyworks Solution (a holding in both personal and institutional investors’accounts at Nintai Investments) is a supplier to both Huawei (in January 2019 the US Justice Department unsealed 23 counts including IP theft, obstruction, etc.) and has 39% of its assets in Mexico (the President threatened and then backed off imposing between 5 - 25% tariffs on Mexican imports). As a holding in our portfolio, it is nearly impossible to generate a business case with any confidence going forward.