The Economy

Five Ways to Profit from Ultra-Cheap Debt

A treasurer lays out the options for a CFO who wants to take advantage of the extremely low interest rates for investment-grade borrowers.
Patrick GuidoOctober 26, 2012

Although the subject matter below is based on real-world experience, all characters, figures, and settings are fictitious and are not based on the financial situation or strategy of any specific company.

From: CFO, Any U.S. Investment-Grade Company
To: Treasurer
Priority: High
Subject: Anything we can do to take advantage of such low borrowing costs?

From: Treasurer
To: CFO
Priority: High
Subject: Re: Anything we can do to take advantage of such low borrowing costs?

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Good Morning, Boss:

I am almost certain that borrowing costs for investment-grade companies have NEVER been lower. I have maxed out the most reliable data sources and cannot find a time when U.S. corporations could issue debt at lower interest rates. The driving force behind this low-rate environment is investor demand for both yield and safety.

Investment-grade debt has become the best game in town for investors, as it offers reasonable safety and return at a time when the stock market is one bad headline away from a crash and U.S. Treasuries offer paltry yields. This high demand for quality corporate paper, combined with such low Treasury rates, has greatly compressed corporate credit spreads, pushing all-in bond coupons to unprecedented levels (bond coupons = reference Treasury rate + corporate credit spread).

So, without further delay, I give you five great ways to take advantage of cheap debt:

Capital expenditures. It may seem like the global economy is doomed forever but we should be optimistic. Now is the time to open that new plant, purchase that new fleet, and develop that new product. We can borrow at 2%, 3%, or 5% for 5, 10, or 30 years, respectively. Let’s reinvest in the business in anticipation of better times; when demand returns, we will be thanking ourselves for recognizing and seizing a great opportunity.

Acquisitions. Another great way to invest in our business is via acquisition. Let’s go after those targets we have been eyeballing the past few years. We can justify paying a full valuation with the low hurdle rate set by borrowing costs. While other companies sit on the sidelines and wait for Congress to save the economy, or destroy it, we can be proactive in growing our business.

Pension contributions. Defined-benefit pension plans remain grossly underfunded. Falling discount rates and government regulation have created the perfect storm, inflating pension liabilities so much that pension asset returns have no chance of closing the gap. By issuing low-cost debt and contributing the proceeds to pension assets, we can finally catch up and get our funded status closer to 100%. As an added bonus, a debt-financed pension contribution is both tax deductible and leverage neutral (rating agencies treat unfunded pension liabilities as debt).

Share repurchases. With very low leverage and anxious shareholders, now would be a great time to send a bullish signal by issuing debt to repurchase shares. First, a debt-financed share buyback is accretive to stock price and earnings. Using debt costing 2% after tax to take out equity costing more than 10% (required return + dividend), we can reduce our cost of capital, potentially increasing the value of the company. Also, fewer shares outstanding means an earnings-per-share boost at the end of the year. Second, such a bold move of using debt to repurchase shares sends a very strong message to the market that our shares are undervalued. Third, with looming tax increases on capital gains, now would be a good time to offer shareholders a way out at a 15% capital-gains tax rate. That rate can only go higher next year.

Prepaying future cash dividends. Tax increases on dividends are also looming, with the upcoming expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts at the end of this year. Congress’s failure to act, a high probability, will result in the tax on dividends moving from 15% to more than 40% in some cases.

We can do our shareholders a big financial favor now by borrowing to prepay the dividend for the next two years, helping them avoid a much higher potential tax bill. So instead of paying our shareholders the annual dividend of $2.00 per share, we would pay a $6.00 dividend this year. The incremental $4.00 today would be taxed at 15% and net the shareholder $3.40 per share. Paying the $2.00 dividend the next two years would net the shareholder only $2.40 per share should the dividend tax go up to 40%.

It is important to mention that this environment will not last forever and we will regret not taking advantage of this opportunity someday soon. Interest rates will reverse course, and when they do, the moves will be quick and significant.

The Treasurer

Patrick Guido is vice president and treasurer of publicly held VF Corp., a $10 billion global apparel and footwear company with brands that include The North Face®, Vans®, and Timberland®. Patrick has more than 17 years of experience in corporate finance. He earned an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and an MBA from Vanderbilt University.