Soon after the Federal Reserve’s March 23 assurance that it would make borrowing easier for American corporations, Sysco Corp. sold $4 billion of debt.
Not long after that, the food-service giant announced plans to cut one-third of its workforce, more than 20,000 employees. Dividends to shareholders would continue, executives said.
That process repeated itself in April and May as the coronavirus spread. The Fed’s promise juiced the corporate-bond market. Borrowing by top-rated companies shot to a record $1.1 trillion for the year, nearly twice the pace of 2019. Companies as diverse as Sysco, Toyota Motor Corp., international marketing firm Omnicom Group Inc. and movie-theater chain Cinemark Holdings Inc. borrowed billions of dollars -- and then fired workers.
The companies were under no obligation to behave any differently, but their actions call into question the degree to which the U.S. central bank’s promise to purchase corporate debt will help preserve American jobs.
While the Fed has yet to buy a single bond, its pledge threw a lifeline to the market that undoubtedly kept some people working. Retail chains such as Dollar General Corp., CVS Health Corp., Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., Lowe’s Cos. and Costco Wholesale Corp. said they’re adding personnel after tapping the bond market.
But unlike the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which has incentives for employers to keep workers on the job, the taxpayer-backed facilities that the Fed and Treasury Department created for bigger companies have no such requirements. To make sure the emergency programs help fulfill one of the Fed’s mandates -- maximum employment -- the central bank is essentially crossing its fingers that restoring order to markets will translate to saving jobs.
“They could set conditions, say to companies, hire back your workers, maintain your payroll to at least a certain percentage of prior payroll, and we will help,” said Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton who now teaches economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hardly clear that if you keep companies afloat they’ll hire employees.”
The lending programs -- credit for big companies and the so-called Main Street facilities for midsize firms -- are supported by the CARES Act, a law that passed the House with more than 96% of the chamber’s votes and cleared the Senate unanimously. For many supporters, putting conditions on the assistance was a step too far. If Congress had intended any, it would have made it explicit in the legislation, they say.
“Really it’s all about creating a context, a climate, in which employees will have the best chance to either keep their job, or go back to their old job, or ultimately find a new job,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said in a May 29 webinar hosted by Princeton University. “That’s the point of this exercise.” A spokesman for the U.S. central bank declined further comment.
Even as businesses around the country began reopening in May after months of stay-at-home orders, helping a battered U.S. economy add 2.5 million jobs in May, prospects remained grim for millions of Americans who’ve been let go since February. An extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits that Congress approved in March is slated to stop on July 31. The prohibition against firing workers in the $25 billion government rescue of U.S. airlines expires Sept. 30, and the biggest recipients have said they intend to shed employees after that date.
Reich’s view is echoed mostly by progressive Democrats and supporters of stricter regulatory oversight of the financial system.
“The Fed’s primary motivator in creating these lending facilities is not protecting workers,” U.S. Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, said in an email interview. “The American people should not be asked or expected to loan $500 billion with no strings attached.”
A letter, circulated by the Wall Street watchdog group Americans for Financial Reform and published May 27, urged Congress to attach conditions favorable to workers to any Covid-19-related rescue programs. It was signed by 45 organizations, including labor unions and religious and environmental groups.
Without provisions for employees, “the credit assistance will tend to boost financial markets, but not the broad economic well-being of the great majority of the population,” Marcus Stanley, Americans for Financial Reform’s policy director, said in an interview.
Stanley said the corporate-lending programs don’t have to require companies to keep or rehire workers, but they could give priority to those that do.
In its legislation, Congress did express an intent that workers benefit from taxpayer-funded assistance, but it left a lot of the details to Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“Our No. 1 objective is keeping people employed,” Mnuchin said during a May 19 Senate Banking Committee hearing after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, accused him of “boosting your Wall Street buddies” at the expense of ordinary Americans. “What we put in the Main Street facility is that we expect people to use their best efforts to support jobs,” Mnuchin said.
The phrase “best efforts” echoes the original terms for the Main Street program, which required companies to attest they’ll make “reasonable efforts” to keep employees. The wording was subsequently changed to “commercially reasonable efforts,” which Jeremy C. Stein, chairman of the Harvard University economics department and a former Fed governor, called a welcome watering-down of expectations that the central bank would dictate employment policies to borrowers.
“It was smart of them to weaken that,” Stein said. “You can’t expect companies to borrow to pay employees.”
Companies might not seek emergency help if too many strings are attached to the aid, Stein said. Others question the practicality of tying workers to their companies as economic realities shift.
“To go to great lengths to make companies keep employees that they don’t need, in light of new expectations that economic activity will remain below pre-Covid levels for a long while, doesn’t make sense,” said Mark Carey, a former Fed staff member and now co-president of the Risk Institute of the Global Association of Risk Professionals.
The Fed approached this crisis with the intent of keeping credit flowing everywhere, from municipalities to small businesses to big corporations to households. Powell said the programs are about lending, not spending -- in other words, they aim to ease a financing pinch rather than stimulate the demand companies need to keep workers on the payroll.
“For the Fed to second-guess a corporate survival strategy would be a step too far for them,” said Adam Tooze, a Columbia University history professor and author of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.” Putting explicit conditions on program beneficiaries would make the central bank “a weird hybrid of the Federal Reserve, Treasury, BlackRock and an activist stockholder.” BlackRock Inc. is the world’s biggest money manager and was hired by the central bank to assist with bond programs.
Through the Main Street facilities, which are scheduled to begin operations any day, the Fed will buy as much as $600 billion in four-year loans made to companies by commercial banks with principal and interest deferred for one year. The program is aimed at midsize businesses, with 15,000 or fewer employees or annual revenue of $5 billion or less in 2019.
The central bank’s credit backstop for larger companies is split in two. The $500 billion primary program is designed to buy slices of syndicated loans or new bonds from companies with investment-grade credit scores or one notch below. It’s available to corporations that can prove they can’t borrow elsewhere. The $250 billion secondary facility buys individual corporate bonds already on the market and exchange-traded funds that include investment-grade and junk bonds. The Fed kicked off the program last month; its balance sheet as of June 2 listed ETF holdings valued at $4.3 billion.
European countries are charting a different policy course by paying workers directly. The U.K., for example, is offering 80% of salaries up to 2,600 pounds ($3,207) a month. The Netherlands and Denmark have effectively nationalized private payrolls.
The U.S. government paid adults who make less than $75,000 a year a one-time sum of $1,200, with $500 for every dependent child. The cost was $239 billion.
The S&P 500 has jumped 38% since March 23, the day the Fed intervened. Observers of the stock market wonder how it could be so bullish at the same time as the country faces an avalanche of joblessness unsurpassed in its history. The choices companies are making provide an answer.
Since selling $4 billion in debt on March 30, Sysco has amassed $6 billion of cash and available liquidity, enabling it to gobble up market share, while cutting $500 million of expenses, according to Chief Executive Officer Kevin Hourican. Sysco, which is based in Houston, will continue to pay dividends to shareholders, Chief Financial Officer Joel Grade said on a May 5 earnings call.
Movie theaters were one of the first businesses to close during the pandemic. Cinemark, which owns 554 of them, shut its U.S. locations on March 17. Three days later, the company paid a previously announced dividend. It has since said it will discontinue such distributions. Cinemark borrowed $250 million from the junk-bond market on April 13, the same day it announced the firing of 17,500 hourly workers. Managerial staff were kept on at reduced pay, according to company filings. Cinemark, which is based in Plano, Texas, said it plans to open its theaters in phases starting June 19.
The theater chain opted to go to the bond market over seeking funding from the government because “it didn’t come with any of the strings attached that government-backed facilities can include,” CEO Mark Zoradi said on the April 15 earnings call. It “was really no more complicated than that.”
Sysco and Cinemark declined to comment for this story, and referred to their executives’ previous remarks.
Omnicom issued $600 million in bonds on March 27. In an April 28 conference call to discuss quarterly earnings, CEO John Wren said the company was letting employees go but didn’t say how many. He said the company was extending medical benefits to July 31 for employees furloughed or fired.
Wren added: “Our liquidity, balance sheet and credit ratings remain very strong and we have no plans to change our dividend policy.” Omnicom didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Toyota borrowed $4 billion from investors on March 27. Three days later, the Japan-based car company said it would continue paying dividends to shareholders. Eight days after that it said it would drop roughly 5,000 contract workers who helped staff its plants in North America. Scott Vazin, a Toyota spokesperson, declined to comment.
In a March 24 letter, 200 academics, led by Stanford University Graduate School of Business Professor Jonathan Berk, called lending programs aimed at corporations “a huge mistake.” Better to focus help directly on people living paycheck to paycheck who lost their jobs, it said.
“Bailing out investors who chose to take high-risk investments because they wanted the high returns undermines capitalism and makes it an unfair game,” Berk said in an interview. “If you don’t have a level playing field in capitalism, it doesn’t work.”
© Copyright 2023 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.