“Google plays the yield curve”

Here is Greg Mankiw’s very interesting post, but with an open comments section:

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?

The usual explanation for this kind of apparently strange financial behavior is that shareholders wish to force the managers into accepting the scrutiny of outside capital markets; see Easterbrook 1984.  That seems less plausible in the case of Google, where concentrated delegated monitoring by major shareholders remains strong.  An alternative explanation is that Google has a very high option value for the cash, which more or less implies they see a lot of acquisition and investment opportunities in their not so distant future.  A lot.


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