On average there have been 66 months between economic peaks since World War II and in recent
years this has stretched to an average of 106 months. The last peak was in December of 2007 so
sometime over the next few years we are likely to hit an economic peak and then a decline so it
seems worthwhile to prepare now.
One of the most difficult problems companies face in an economic downturn is over capacity. As
demand slows they find they have more employees and productive equipment than they need. This
leads to layoffs, which are expensive and disruptive to those losing their jobs, and distressed sales of
equipment and real estate. Management, employees and shareholders all suffer.
But if we know a peak is likely over the next few years we can think twice about our growth
investments and maybe miss some of the potential upside at the peak in exchange for being more
ďright sizedĒ before the downturn happens. Of course many investments are so good itís better to
just do them but the more marginal investments that wonít hold up in a recession should be avoided
One way to accomplish this is to think differently about fixed and variable costs as we approach the
downturn. Although most companies strive to reduce their average cost run rate by making
investments that automate processes, they are in effect replacing a high variable cost with a lower
fixed cost. But in a downturn, fixed costs can cause average costs to rise while variable costs can
be shed often quite easily.
Another strategy is to embed cancellation and deferral options in contracts for large new capital
investments. In this way, management retains the option of reducing cash outflows which can prove
very valuable in a downturn. Sometimes there is a tradeoff on the price of the capital equipment to
get such an option but it can prove to be a very valuable option to have.
On a related note it is important to have adequate financial flexibility when the economy turns down.
This was especially true in our recent credit driven slump which followed an easy money period when
many companies levered up, often just to give the money to shareholders in a stock buyback. Those
that sold into the buyback made out well and those that held the stock suffered. Buybacks and
anything that drives leverage higher and liquidity lower are the worst when at or near a peak.
For companies with the ability to lease a substantial portion of their assets, they can enhance
financial flexibility and manage the potential for overcapacity by staggering the end points of these
leases. Whenever a downturn occurs they can simply not renew a share of the leases and voila!
financial flexibility is created and the overcapacity problem goes away.
Itís also important in advance to consider investments that might be quite attractively priced when
demand wanes. For example, the purchase and installation of capital equipment can be cheaper when
manufacturers and installers face tough economic times so considering such opportunities in advance
can help you prepare to seize the day while others hunker down. This can payoff quite well in the
A stellar example of this was Intelís February 2009 announcement that they would spend $6-8 billion
to accelerate their drive toward a 32nm processor. It was bold and beautiful in that it probably saved
them billions versus the cost during an up market.
The strategy of buying in a trough should apply to acquisitions as well. Acquiring during a downturn is
like buying companies at Wal-Mart. Why acquire companies at full retail (i.e. current prices) when
you can acquire them in a few years on sale (i.e. 25-50% cheaper than today).
But CFOs and other senior executives cannot wait until the downturn to start looking for targets,
they need to start planning now by preparing a list and beginning to track them. They will need to
distinguish those that are cheap simply because the market is down from those that are crippled by
the downturn and may never recover. And above all, itís best to avoid driving acquisition plans based
on which companies are for sale - probably because they have no choice. Buying in a downturn
requires a proactive strategy not a reactive one.
This whole topic may seem oddly timed to some. Sure there are many companies that continue to
build cash and even though we may be getting late in the growth cycle they still havenít stepped up
their growth investments much yet. Am I really suggesting these companies continue to cut
investment and build cash?
Well, yes I am. Every down cycle seems easy to see in the rear view mirror but when itís happening
most of us are faked out until it builds up some steam. Itís human nature. We extrapolate what we
are experiencing into the future and at the top we tend to think it will keep going up for a while. At
the bottom we think it will keep going down. Somehow, despite all of history we never seem to be
ready for each cyclical turn.
My goal is to make sure people are ready the next time it turns - whenever that turns out to be.