Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Google Plays the Yield Curve

Click on graphic to enlarge.

I was fascinated a story in today's Wall Street Journal.  Apparently, Google is sitting on $37 billion in cash, but nonetheless decided to sell $3 billion worth of bonds.  Why?  To take advantage of low interest rates.

It is like reverse maturity transformation.  The banking system borrows short and lends long.  Google is borrowing long and lending short.  (Or maybe I should call it reverse quantitative easing, as Google is also doing exactly the opposite of what the Fed has been doing.)

Does this make sense for Google?  I have no idea, and I am ready to concede that those guys are a lot smarter (and financially successful) than I am.  But there is reason to be skeptical. 

The chart above shows the spread between the ten-year Treasury bond and the three-month Treasury bill.  The yield spread is now high by historical standards.  The empirical literature on the expectations theory of the term structure (in which I have sometimes played) suggests that this is a good time to borrow short and lend long--the opposite of what Google is doing.

Maybe this time is different, and past empirical regularities will not hold going forward.  But ponder this question: If you had a friend with a paid-up house, would you suggest that he now take out a long-term mortgage in order to deposit the proceeds in a money-market fund?  If not, does it make sense for Google to be doing much the same thing?


1. A smart reader sends in the following plausible explanation:
While it's true that Google has $37 billion in cash and equivalents, almost all of that $37 billion is in non-U.S. accounts (an artifact of funneling most of their profits through low-tax Ireland). They cannot spend that $37 billion in the U.S. without incurring a tax rate of 35 percent; thus, the borrowing is to finance spending in the U.S. (as opposed to abroad). All the big tech companies do the same thing (Microsoft was in the news for the same thing some 6 months ago).  Thus, Google is not trying to play the yield curve so much as intertemporally arbitrage the U.S. tax code. By not repatriating the $37 billion now, they are betting that the U.S. corporate tax rate on repatriated foreign profits will be appreciably lower in the future than it is now.
2. On the other hand, another loyal reader points me toward this source, which says:
The firm doesn't have the same issue with overseas cash that many of its large-cap technology peers do. Of Google's $37 billion in cash, only about $17 billion is sitting outside the U.S. Microsoft, by contrast, has no net cash remaining in the U.S., while nearly 90% of Cisco's cash is sitting outside of the country.