Thursday, July 23, 2020

A Viral Market Update XII: The Resilience of Private Risk Capital

In the midst of chaos and confusion, it is human nature to look for order and for a unifying theory that explains the world. As I have navigated my way through this crisis, I have used data from markets to try to come up with explanations for why markets have rebounded as quickly and as much as they have, and in the process, why they have added value to some companies, while reducing the value of others. It is in this pursuit that I noted that the crisis has enriched growth companies at the expense of value companies, flexible companies have gained at the expense of rigid ones, and young companies have gained on older, more mature businesses. But why have these shifts occurred? In this post, I look at a factor that lies behind all of them, and that is the resilience of private risk capital, taking the form of venture capital for start ups and private business, initial public offerings in public markets and debt (in the form bonds and bank loans) to the riskiest companies, as the crisis has unfolded. 

Market Outlook
Let me start, as I have in my prior posts on this crisis, start with a market overview. In the three weeks since my last update, equity indices have continued their recovery, albeit at a more modest pace, from the worst days of the crisis:

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Note that I have broken returns down into two periods for every index, the first period (2/14-3/20) marking the worst days of this crisis, and the weeks since (3/20-7/17) representing the comeback. By July 17, the NASDAQ had not just recouped its losses but was up 9.61% since February 14, my starting date for the crisis. Within each region, there remain divergences, with the DAX outperforming the FTSE and CAC in Europe, and the Nikkei and Shanghai doing much better than the Sensex in Asia. As stocks have gone through a roller coaster ride, US treasuries seem to have gone into a coma, after an initial period of frenetic activity:

The rates on US treasuries dropped significantly in the first four weeks of the crisis, but since the middle of March, have shown almost no movement, with short term treasuries staying close to zero, and 10-year treasuries at or around 0.7%. Tracking oil and copper, two economically sensitive commodities, here is what I see:

Both commodities saw prices drop between February 14 and the end of March, but oil dropped significantly more than copper in that period. In the weeks since, both commodities have recovered, with copper now trading 12.5% higher than it was on February 14, but oil his still down more than 20%.  As the crisis has played out in the equity and bond markets, I also tracked gold and bitcoin price movements over the period:

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Since February 14, gold prices are up more than 14%, reaffirming its role as a crisis asset, but bitcoin has been on a wild ride, dropping more than 50% between February 14 and March 20, as stock prices dropped, and rising almost 75% in the weeks since, as stocks have recovered. In short, it has behaved like very risky equity, not a crisis asset.

Equity Breakdown
While looking at indices, treasuries and commodities gives big picture perspective on this crisis, the real lessons are in the company-level data and to learn them, I examined market capitalization changes across all publicly traded companies, classified by region:

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Emerging markets, at least collectively, have lost more value than developed markets, with Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa showing the biggest losses. Asian stocks have done better, with China being the best performing region of the world and India being the laggard in that region. Updating the values globally, stocks have lost $3.6 trillion in market capitalization since the start of the crisis, but that is quite a turn around from the $26 trillion that had been lost through March 20. Breaking down the changes in value, by sector:

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While every sector has seen improvement since the bottom on March 20, energy, financials and real estate still show substantial losses in market cap over the entire period, but six of the eleven sectors now show positive returns, with health care leading the way, up 9.5% since February 14. Breaking the sectors down further into industries, here is the list of the ten best and worst performing industries:
There are two striking features in this table. The first is that the worst performing industries are a mix of  capital intensive businesses and financial services and the best performing industries are dominated by capital-light businesses and health care. The second is the divergence between the best and worst performing industries is striking, with the best performing industries (online retail and internet software) up more than 30% since February 14, while the worst performing industries (oil and airlines) are down more than 40% over the same period.

Risk Capital
There is little that I have said in this post, so far, that is new, since it is a continuation of trends that I have seen since March. That said, and now that we have information on winners and losers over the last five months, it is worth taking a closer look at the broader forces that are driving the market to reward some companies, and punish others, and what it is that is making market behavior so disconcerting to long-time market observers. Specifically, I will argue that the behavior of risk capital during this crisis has been very different from prior ones, and it is that difference that explains anomalous market behavior.

Definition and Crisis Effects
Risk capital is capital that is invested in the riskiest assets and markets, and it encompasses a wide range of investment activity. For young companies, private and in need of capital to be able to deliver on their potential, it takes the form of venture capital. In public markets, it manifests itself in the money that flows into initial public offerings and to the riskiest companies, often smaller and more money losing. It can also take the form of debt, lending to firms that are in or on the verge of distress, and investing in high yield bonds. In most market crises, risk capital becomes less accessible and available, as fear dominates greed, and investors look for safety. Thus, you will see venture capital, always a boom and bust business, become scarcer, and the young companies that are dependent on it have to either shut down or sell themselves to deep-pocketed and more established companies, often at bargain basement prices. In public markets, initial public offerings become rare or non-existent, and money flows out of the riskiest companies to safer companies (generally with stable earnings and large dividends). In corporate bond market, new issuance of corporate bonds drops off, across the board, but much more so for the riskiest companies (those below investment grade). As I will argue in the rest of this section, that has not been the case in this crisis. While the flight to safety was clearly a dominant theme in the first three or four weeks of this crisis, risk capital has not only stayed in the market through this crisis, but has become more accessible rather than less, at least in some segments. 

Venture Capital
Investing in young companies, especially start-ups and angel ventures, has always been a high-risk endeavors for two reasons. First, these businesses have to be priced or valued with much less information on business models or history than more mature companies, and many investors are uncomfortable making that leap. Second, the failure rate among these companies is high, since more than two-thirds of start ups do not make the transition to being viable businesses. Venture capital's role is to nurture these young companies through these early dangers, and in return, the hope is that the investment will earn outsize returns, when they exit.  This accentuated risk return trade off makes venture capital the canary in the coal mine, during a crisis, and you can see that play out in the following graph, tracking venture capital raised by year, both in the US and globally:

Source: NVCA Yearbook

In the last quarter of 2008 and in 2009, as the public markets plunged into crisis, note the drop of in venture capital invested, down more than 50% globally, and 60% in the United States. In fact, it took until 2014 for venture capital to return to levels seen before the crisis (in 2007), but once it did, it found new buoyancy leading into 2020. When the COVID crisis hit in February, the question was whether venture capital would retreat as it did in 2008, and the numbers so far don't seem to indicate that it will:
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Venture capital infusions did drop off in the first quarter of 2020, but not precipitously, and staged a recovery int he second quarter. It is true that less money is being invested in angel seed companies, presumably the riskiest class, and more in later stage businesses, but it does not look like venture capital has shrunk back into its shell, at least so far. 

Public Equity Risk Capital
In public markets, risk capital plays out in more subtle ways than in private markets, flowing in and out of the riskiest segments of the market, as fears rise during a crisis. In most crises, as I noted earlier, the money flow favors the safer companies, pushing up their pricing and valuation, and works against the riskiest companies.

1. Risk Groupings
One measure of how risk capital has behaved in public markets is to look at market capitalization shifts from groupings of companies that are considered risky to groupings that can be considered safe. Since there can be disagreements about how best to create these groupings, I have considered multiple measures for the risk/safe continuum in the table below, and highlighted how market capitalizations have changed, in the aggregate, on each measure:

To make sense of this table, pick a grouping, say PE ratios. The Risk On/Off columns highlight the conventional wisdom that low PE stocks are safe and high PE stocks are risky. The returns columns report on what companies in the top and bottom deciles of PE ratios have earned during this crisis period, in both percentage and dollar terms. Thus, the stocks with the highest PE ratios (top decile) have seen their market capitalization increase by 10.81% ($674 billion) while stocks in the lowest PE ratio decline have seen their market values drop by 8.31% ($246 billion).  On almost every measure that I use for risk in this table, this market has pushed up the valuations of the companies that would be considered riskiest and pushed down the values of the companies that would be considered safest.  The only risk categorization where punishment has been meted out to the riskiest companies is financial leverage, with the companies that have the most debt (in net debt to EBITDA terms) seeing market capitalization decrease by 15.49% ($1,082 billion), while companies that have the least debt have seen market value increase by 12.32% ($300 billion). It is still only five months into the crisis, and markets can surprise and shift quickly, but at least from today's vantage point, this crisis has played out in a most unusual way, with the riskiest companies increasing in value, at the expense of the safest, with debt-driven risk being the exception.

2.  IPOs
One of the most observable measures of market confidence in access to risk capital is initial public offerings, since companies going public are often younger, more risky companies. The best way to illustrate this is to look at initial public offerings over time, measuring both the number and dollar value raised in these offerings:

Source: Jay Ritter IPO data
In terms of number of initial public offerings, the 1990s clearly set a standard that we are unlikely to see in the near future, and while the dot com bust brought the IPO process back to earth, you can see the damage wrought by the 2008 crisis. In the last quarter of 2008, as the crisis unfolded, there was only one initial public offering made in the US and the drought continued through 2009. While the number of IPOs has remained well below dot com era levels, the value raised from IPOs bounced back in the last decade, reflecting the fact that companies were delaying going public until they were bigger in market cap terms, with 2019 representing a year with several high-profile IPOs that disappointed investors in the after-market. When the COVID crisis hit in February, the expectation was that just as in prior crisis, the IPO process would come to a grinding halt, as private companies waited for the return on risk capital. In the graph below, I look at initial public offerings (both in numbers and dollar proceeds), by quarter:

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As with venture capital, there was a pause in the IPO process, in the first few weeks, and you can see that in the first quarter numbers. However, initial public offerings returned to the market in the second quarter, in both numbers and dollars, and the pipeline of IPOs is filling up again. In fact, I have not counted IPOs of SPACs (or blank check companies) in my statistics in my analysis, and there were quite a few of those in the second quarter of 2020, another indicator of investors willing to take risk. 

3. The Price of  Risk (Equities)
When risk capital is on the move, the number that best reflects its movement is the equity risk premium, rising as risk capital becomes scarcer and falling with access. During 2008, for instance, my estimates of the equity risk premium reflected this fear factor, rising from 4.4% on September 12 yo a high of 7.83% on November 20, before dropping back to 6.43% on December 31 (still well above pre-crisis levels):

I have reported that process during this crisis, but my estimates of the equity risk premium for the S&P 500 are in the graph below:
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The story embedded in this graph is the same one that you see in the VC and IPO pictures. In the first few weeks of the COVID crisis, the price of risk in the equity markets surged, just as it had in 2008, hitting a high of 7.75% on March 23. In the weeks since, equity risk premiums have almost dropped back to pre-crisis levels, as risk capital has come back into the market. Incidentally, this return of risk capital is not just a US-phenomenon, as can be seen in the picture below, where I report my estimates of the equity risk premiums, by country, through the crisis:
Download the data

With each country, I report three numbers, an equity risk premium from the start of 2020 (reflecting pre-crisis values), from April 1, 2020, at the height of the market meltdown, and from July 1, 2020, as capital has returned. Just to illustrate, Brazil saw its equity risk premium rise from 8.16% on January 1, 2020, to 11.51% on April 1, 2020, before dropping back to 9.64% on July 1, 2020. Put simply, risk capital has returned to the riskier emerging markets, though the return has not been as complete as it has been in the US.

Risky Debt
Much of the discussion about risk capital so far has been focused on equity markets, but there is risk capital in other markets as well. In the private lending market, risk capital is what supplies debt to the companies most in need of it, often distressed, and in the corporate bond market, it manifests itself as demand for the riskiest corporate bonds, usually below investment grade.

The COVID Effect - Early Days
In the first few weeks of the crisis, the key concern that investors had about the economic shut down was whether companies that carried significant debt loads would be able to survive the crisis. This fear manifested itself not only in concerns about bankruptcies, but also in government bailouts to save companies that were most exposed, such as airlines. There was also talk of how this crisis could spread to other sectors burdened with debt, and put the banking system at risk. It is these fears that led the Fed to announce on March 23, 2020, that it would be provide a backstop in the corporate lending market, proving loans to companies in distress and buying corporate bonds. There is debate about whether the Fed should be playing this role, but it cannot be denied that this action, more than any other by any entity (government or central bank) during this crisis, changed its trajectory.  It is not a coincidence that Boeing which had been having trouble raising debt, in early March, was able to borrow $25 billion in the corporate bond market a few weeks after the Fed's announcement. In fact, as you will see in the section below, the Fed's announced opened the flood gates for corporate bond issuances and caused a turnaround in corporate bond yields.

The COVID Effect - Corporate Bond Issuances
In the corporate bond market, risk capital is the lubricant that provides liquidity in the high yield bond market, and allows companies that are below investment grade to continue raising capital. Not surprisingly, during crises, it is this portion of the corporate bond market that is affected the most, with yields climbing and new bond issues becoming rarer. You can see this phenomenon play out in the graph below, where I look at corporate bond issuances by year:

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During the 2008 crisis, bond issuances declined across the board in the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, but the drop was much more precipitous for high yield portion. During the COVID crisis, the numbers look very different:

After a brief pause in issuances in the first few weeks (between February 14 and March 20), bond issuances returned stronger than ever, with high yield bond issuances hitting an all-time high (in dollar value) in June 2020. For the moment, at least, the Fed's backstop bet has paid off in the bond market.

The Price of Risk (Bonds)
As with the equity market, there is a market measure of access in risk capital in the bond market, and it takes the form of default spreads. During a crisis, as risk capital leaves, you see spreads increase, as was the case in the last quarter of 2008:

Default spreads increased across the board for bonds in every ratings class, but much more so for the lowest rated bonds during the 2008 crisis. To provide a contrast, I looked at default spreads for bonds in seven ratings classes on February 14, March 20 and July 17:

As in 2008, default spreads surged between February 14 and March 20, as the crisis first took hold, but unlike 2008, the spreads have rapidly scaled down and are now lower for the higher investment grade classes than they were pre-crisis and only marginally higher for the lowest rated bonds.

Explaining the Resilience
If you accept the evidence that risk capital has stayed in the market during this crisis, in contrast to its behavior in prior crises, the follow-up question is why. For some of you, I know the answer is obvious, and that is that this market recovery has been engineered and sustained by central banks. While there is some truth to the "Fed did it" argument, I think it is too facile and misses other ingredients that have contributed.
  1. Central Banks: Earlier in this post, I noted that the turnaround in this market can be traced to the Fed's announcement on March 23, that it would provide a backstop to the corporate bond/lending market. That said, the actual amount spent by the Fed on these programs has been modest, as can be seen in this graph:
    Source: Financial Times
    While there is a healthy debate to be had about whether central banks have become too activist, I believe that the Fed's corporate backstop announcement is the type of action you want central banks to take, since in its absence, bankruptcies and bailouts would have been the order of the day. In fact, the very fact that the Fed has actually not needed to use it is evidence that it worked, since private lenders stepped in to fill the gap. I concede that some risk taking investors will take the wrong cues from this action, expecting that the Fed will protect them from the downside, while they take advantage of the upside. 
  2. Investor Composition: The Fed's actions worked as well as they did because investors in both equity and bond markets responded quickly and substantively, and that response may reflect the changed composition of investors today. First, markets have become much more globalized, and investors are much more willing to invest across markets, with money moving from equity to debt markets, and across geographies, much more easily than it used to. Second, the investment world has flattened, as retail investors (the so called stupid money) catch up to institutional investors (smart money?) in terms of access to information, data and tools and are more willing to deviate from conventional wisdom. 
  3. Unique Crisis: As I have noted in prior posts, this has been an unusual crisis, in terms of sequencing. Unlike prior crises, where market meltdowns came first and the economic damage followed, in this one, the economic shutdown, precipitated by the virus, came when markets were at all-time highs and risk capital was widely accessible. It is possible that risk capital, for better or worse, believes that this is crisis comes with a timer, and that economies will revert back quickly once the virus passes, and shut downs end.
  4. Change in Corporate Structure: After two decades of disruption, it is quite clear that center of gravity has shifted for both economies and markets, with the bulk of the value in markets coming from companies that are very different from the companies that dominated the twentieth century. While much is made of the fact that the biggest companies of today's markets (in market capitalization terms) derive their value from intangible assets, I think the bigger difference is that these companies are also less capital intensive and more flexible. That flexibility, allowing them to take advantage of opportunities quickly, and scale down rapidly in the face of threats, limits downside and increases upside. At the risk of using a buzz word, there is more optionality in the biggest companies of today, making risk more an ally than an enemy for investors, and with options, risk can sometimes be more ally than enemy.
Five months into this crisis, I am still learning, and there is much that we still do not know about both the virus and markets. 

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Thursday, July 2, 2020

A Viral Market Update XI: The Flexibility Premium

I must confess that when I started these updates in February, I did not expect to be doing them in July, but a crisis is as good a time as any, to learn new lessons and relearn old ones. As the virus makes a comeback, particularly in the United States, it is not surprising that markets reflect the uncertainty that we all feel about how the rest of the year will play out in both our personal and business lives, with  mood rising and falling on positive and negative news stories. In this post, I will begin by updating the numbers for markets overall, and within the equity market, across regions, sectors and industries. I will then use the differences I see across companies to highlight flexibility in investing, operating, financing and cash return policies as the one quality that seems to be separating the winners from the losers in these last few months, and argue that this represents an acceleration of a longer term shift towards more nimble and adaptable business models.

Market Update
If you have been reading all of my viral market updates during this crisis, I admire your fortitude, and I know that you will get a sense of deja vu, as you read this section, since I follow the same road map on each of them. I start, as always, by looking at US dollar returns on selected equity indices around the world:

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Looking at the entire time period (2/14-6/26), US equity indices have done better than European equity indices, with a strong rebound from the lows of March 20 allowing for a complete recoupment of losses in the NASDAQ and an almost complete retracing for the S&P 500. Asian equities have diverged, with Japan and China performing better than India. As equities have seesawed, US treasury bonds have stabilized, after a steep drop in yields in the first four weeks of the crisis:
The treasury rates have settled in, at least for the moment, at close to zero at the short end of the maturity spectrum and at about 0.65-0.75% for the 10-year bonds and 1.2-1.4% for 30-year bonds. I know that there is a widely held view that it is the Fed that has engineered the rate drop, but note that much of the decline occurred before the Fed made its quantitative easing announcements in mid-march.  I think that the Fed’s real impact has been on private lending, with its March 23rd announcement that it would operate as a backstop in corporate bond and lending markets. You can see the effects of that announcement on default spreads for corporate bonds, across ratings classes:
Note the climb in default spreads between February 14 and March 23, with investment grade (BBB) rated bonds almost tripling during that period, and the pull back in spreads since, to end at levels higher than on February 14, but well below the March 23rd levels. Mirroring the changes in the price of risk in the corporate bond markets, the price of risk in equity markets (measured with an implied equity risk premium) has been on a wild ride, rising dramatically between February 14 and March 23, before sliding down towards pre-crisis levels:
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At one level, the fact that equity risk premiums are above 5% and well above historic norms (4.86% between 2000-2019 and 4.20% between 1960-2019) may seem comforting, but there is a disconcerting component to these expected values. The equity risk premium of 4.83% on February 14 was earned on top of a ten-year bond rate of 1.59%, yielding an expected return of 6.42% on equities, already low by historic standards. The equity risk premium of 5.23% on June 30 was earned over and above a ten-year bond rate of 0.66%, yielding an annual expected return of 5.89% on equities for the long term, a number well below the 7-8% that investors were pricing stocks to earn during much of the last decade. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, equities don't look good as an investment class, until you compare them to the alternatives.

Looking at oil and copper, the two economically-sensitive commodities that I have tracked through this crisis, the divergence between the two remains, with oil prices down almost 30% since February 14 and copper prices up 4.31% since that date:

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Finally, I keep tabs on gold, a crisis investment of long standing, and bitcoin, a more recent entrant into the game. 

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If this were a contest for a crisis asset, gold wins by a knock out, since bitcoin, at least during this crisis has moved with stocks, dropping more than 50% between February 14 and March 20 and rising more than 70% from its lows after March 20. It is possible that bitcoin can still live up to the promise of being a good currency, but it has not even come close to being one yet, snd if you are a Bitcoin advocate, you have your work cut out for you.

Equities: An Overview
I stick with my practice of downloading the market capitalizations of all publicly traded companies in the world, and then computing aggregated changes in value by groupings. In my first grouping, I look at how equities have performed across the regions of the world:

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Looking at percentage change in aggregate market capitalization between February 14 and June 26, global equities have lost 9.30% of their value ($8.4 trillion), but that is quite a comeback from the 29% loss ($26.3 trillion) recorded on March 20. Emerging markets in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe show far more damage than developed markets over the entire period (February 14-June26), though the UK is an exception, down almost 20%. Breaking down the market action by sector:

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If you were primarily invested in technology and health care, your reaction to the crisis might be "What crisis?", since those sectors are now ahead of where they were on February 14, and consumer product companies (both discretionary and staple) are not far behind. Energy and real estate have lagged the market, as have utilities, but financials remain the worst performing sector remains. If you look at the last four columns, you can see that even in sectors that have held their own during this period, the recovery has been uneven, with more stocks down than up in every sector. Finally, I break down sectors into industries, and list the ten worst and best performing, in terms of market cap change from February 14 to June 26:
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As in my prior week updates, there is a preponderance of infrastructure and financial services in the worst performing industry list, and a dominance of health care and technology on the best perfuming list. Education is a new entrant into the best performing list, perhaps reflecting the promise and potential of online education.

The Flexibility Story
As the market makes its way back from its lows, it remains an uneven one, with wide divergences between winners and losers, and in my earlier posts, I have looked for clues in the data. In my fourth post from March 23, I noted that heavily indebted companies have under performed companies with lighter debt loads, and in my eighth post from May 13, I highlighted the fact that growth stocks are outperforming value stocks. In my last post from June 19, I used the concept of a corporate life cycle, and noted that younger companies seems to be doing much better than older companies. Others have noted that capital intensive businesses seem to have been worse affected during this crisis than capital-light businesses, and early in the crisis, buybacks were highlighted as a reason why some companies and sectors were doing worse than others. In fact, the new buzzword that business consultants are pushing is "resilience", arguing that the resilient companies have weathered this crisis better than the rest of the market. While there is some truth in all of these contentions, I would argue that if there is one quality that ties together all of these seemingly disparate factors, it is flexibility, and this crisis has reaffirmed the value of flexibility.

Flexibility across the Business Model
Simply put, the flexibility of an organization measures the speed and cost with which it responds to changed circumstances, with more flexible firms adjusting faster and at lower cost than less flexible firms. That definition, though, encompasses a range of actions that stretch across every aspect of business, covering everything from how investments are made, to how the business is operated, to how it is funded, and finally to how much cash is returned to owners (in the form of dividends and buybacks).

a. Investment Flexibility
To grow, businesses have to reinvest and investment flexibility measures how much they have to reinvest to deliver a given growth rate, and how long it will take for the investment to pay off

While it is true that companies that are in businesses that require heavy infrastructure investment (toll roads, telecommunications, automobiles) have low investment flexibility, and service and software firms generally have high investment flexibility, the divide is not necessarily on whether the investments are in tangible or intangible assets. Pharmaceutical companies, for instance, have low investment flexibility because they have to spend large amounts in R&D, with significant leakage (as some R&D will not pay off) and have to wait long periods before commercial success. Over the last decade, disruption in many businesses with a history of low investment flexibility has come from new entrants with business models that allow them to scale up quickly, with relatively low investment. Uber and Airbnb are examples of sharing economy companies that have had a decisive advantage this dimension over their established competitors. To see how this crisis has played out on the financial flexibility dimension, I classified all non-financial service companies listed globally, based upon the ratio of sales to invested capital, on the (questionable) assumption that invested capital (computed from the accounting balance sheet values of debt, equity and cash) measures reinvestment, into ten deciles:

Note that companies that can generate the most revenues per dollar of invested capital are signaling the highest investment flexibility and they have done far better during this crisis than firms that are in lowest decile of this measure. Some of this may be spurious correlation, but it is an interesting first take on how investment flexibility has been treated by the COVID market.

b. Operating Flexibility
During the course of operations, businesses will be hit by shock that cause their revenues to unexpectedly increase or drop, and operating flexibility measures how those revenue changes flow through into operating profitability. The key to decoding this effect is to break down the operating expenses of a company into fixed and variable, with the latter moving up and down with revenues, while the former stays fixed:

Companies with high fixed costs, as a percent of revenues, will see much more dramatic swings in operating income, as revenues change, than companies that have more flexible cost structures. It is not surprising, therefore, that airlines have wild swings in profitability from good years to bad ones, whereas online retailers and service businesses have more muted effects. To see how operating flexibility has played out in this market, I would have liked to have broken costs down into fixed and variable for all companies, but lacking clean accounting measures of either, I settled for gross profit margins, on the assumption that companies with high gross margins have far more flexibility in dealing with revenue shocks than companies with low margins. Breaking down companies based upon gross margin into deciles, here is what I find:

With a full admission that gross margin is a flawed measure of operating flexibility, companies with higher gross margins have done better than companies with lower gross margins, as this crisis has unfolded.

c. Financing Flexibility
As revenues go up and down, and operating income tracks those changes, financial flexibility measures how much net income (to equity investors) is altered, with firms with low financial flexibility showing much bigger swings in net income for a given change in operating income. The key drivers of financial flexibility are debt obligations and cash holdings, with the interest expenses on the former pushing up net income volatility, and the interest income from the latter dampening that volatility:

If net debt, as a percent of cash flows or value, is the driver of financial flexibility, we can see how financial flexibility has played out in this crisis by breaking companies down into deciles based upon Net Debt as a multiple of EBITDA:

Download data
Companies with high net debt ratios have low financial flexibility and they have been damaged far more than companies with low net debt ratios. Note that the lowest decile of net debt ratios includes firms that have negative net debt, i.e., cash balances that exceed the debt, and they show an increase in market capitalizations between February 14 and June 26.

d. Cash Return Flexibility
The end game, when investing in publicly traded company stocks, is to collect cash flows from that investment, and companies have two choices when it comes to returning cash. The conventional approach has been to pay dividends, but over the last three decades, US companies in particular have turned to returning cash in the form of buybacks. Both dividends and buybacks have to be funded by cashflows to equity investors, and cash return flexibility measures how quickly companies can adjust their cash returns to reflect changes in cash flows to equity:

Obviously, companies that return little or no cash, relative to their free cash flows to equity, are not only accumulating cash, but have far more cash return flexibility than companies that return a large proportion of their cash flows. Since dividends still remain the primary mechanism for returning cash across the world, I start by looking at dividend yield, classified into deciles, and looking at the market action in each decile for global companies:
Download data

Clearly non-dividend paying stocks and stocks with low dividend yields have done much better than companies with high dividend yields. Among companies that do return large portions of cash, those that return the bulk of their cash flows in the form of dividends have far less flexibility than those that buy back stock, mostly because dividends are sticky, since once they are initiated and set, companies are reluctant to change them. To examine whether the mode of cash return has been a factor in the market action, I break companies into four groups based upon whether they pay dividends and/or buy back stock:

While companies that pay both dividends and buybacks have been worst affected and companies that use neither have performed the best over the period, isolating only companies that pay only dividends or buy back stock, companies that pay only dividends have under performed companies that buy back only stock. While the results are only indicative, they do suggest that making buybacks the bogeyman in this crisis is not backed up by the evidence.

Implications and Conclusion
During this crisis, markets have rewarded flexible companies, a continuation of a trend that predate the crisis to the last one. If the last decade has been a disruptive one, that disruption has been largely driven  by companies that have not only built flexible structures, but also used that flexibility to gain competitive advantages over their status quo competitors. As companies get pushed to increase flexibility, it is worth noting that this quest comes with costs, and these trade offs have to be acknowledged:
  1. Compressed Corporate Life Cycle: Earlier in this post, I argued that one of the benefits of having high investment flexibility is that companies can scale up faster; Uber and Airbnb have been able to go from start ups to large companies (at least in terms of operations and value) in very short time periods. However, the same forces that allow these companies to scale up faster also create business models which are more difficult to defend against new competitors, leading to shorter periods of maturity and more speedy decline, with important consequences.
  2. Losses on the upside: With operating and financial flexibility, the trade off is much simpler, since companies with greater operating and financial flexibility will be more protected on the downside, but at the expense of giving up some of the upside. Having large fixed costs and/or high net debt will result in bigger losses when times are bad, but it will also create larger profits on the upside.
  3. Social costs: As new business models are built to have motor flexibility, some of the actions that increase flexibility come with costs that are borne by society, rather than the company. For instance, Uber's business model of treating drivers as independent contractors rather than employees gives the company a more flexible cost structure, but it does pass on the costs of providing a safety net (health care and pensions) to society. As a society, we need to debate whether the benefits we gain by having a more nimble economy outweigh the social costs. 
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