OFR Working Paper Finds Cash Biases Measurement of the Stock Return Correlations

[from the U.S. Office of Financial Research]

Today, the U.S. Office of Financial Research published a working paper, “Cash-Hedged Stock Returns” [archived PDF], and an accompanying blog (below), regarding firms’ cash holdings and the implications for asset prices and financial stability.

Cash holdings are important for financial stability because of their value in crises.  Corporate cash piles vary across companies and over time. Firms’ cash holdings typically earn low returns, and their cash returns are correlated across firms.  Thus, the asset pricing results are important for investors managing a portfolio’s risk and policymakers concerned about sources of vulnerability.

The working paper [archived PDF] shows how investors can hedge cash on firms’ balance sheets when making portfolio choices.  Cash generates variation in beta estimates, and the working paper decomposes stock betas into components that depend on the firm’s cash holding, return on cash, and cash-hedged return. Common asset pricing premia have large implicit cash positions, and portfolios of cash-hedged premia often have higher Sharpe ratios, used by investors to understand a return on investment, because of the correlation between firms’ cash returns. The paper shows the value of a dollar increased in 2020, and firms hold cash because they are riskier.

Read the working paper [archived PDF].

OFR Finds Large Cash Holdings Can Lead to Mismeasuring Risk

[from the OFR blog, by Sharon Ross]

Cash is necessary for companies’ operations. Firms use cash to make payments, finance investments, and manage risk. But holding cash comes at a cost: its low pecuniary return. Published today by the OFR, the working paper, “Cash-Hedged Stock Returns” [archived PDF], shows that the cash returns of publicly traded, non-financial firms are correlated. Since cash returns are a part of equity returns, investors that are using equity return correlations to measure risk can mismeasure risk.

We show the importance of cash for systemic risk by documenting the value of cash in crises, showing that firms hold cash in part due to risk management and studying how cash biases the measurement of the interconnectedness of stock returns. The consequences of cash are important for policymakers monitoring aggregate risks, and sources of market vulnerability and for investors making portfolio choices.

Cash holdings are important for financial stability because of their value in crises. Several papers document a “dash for cash” during the initial panicked stages of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic when firms rushed to hold cash in their coffers. The dash for cash was driven by firms drawing down on lines of credit from banks, which in turn affected bank lending. The dash for cash highlighted the critical role of firms’ cash holdings and returns in understanding risk in the financial system.

We show the value of a dollar increased in 2020. Moreover, our results show that firms may hold cash because they are riskier, as opposed to firms with high cash shares being less risky due to their cash holdings. Our results are consistent with a precautionary savings motive for holding cash. In other words, firms hold cash for risk management, in part to weather bad times.

Cash is a growing share of public firmsassets. The value-weighted U.S. stock market held 22% of its assets in cash in December 2020 compared to 8% in the 1980s. An investor buying the market in 2020 ends up with an implicit cash position three times larger than in 1980. Individual firms vary in how much cash they hold. As cash holdings increase, it is important to understand how cash holdings affect returns, which in turn impacts who chooses to invest in the firms.

Cash returns are correlated across firms, and cash biases measurement of the interconnectedness of stock returns, making it a risk for financial stability. As a result, the asset pricing results are important both for investors managing portfolio risk and for policymakers concerned about interconnected returns.

We argue that the value of corporate cash is distinct, and we can separate the value of cash and the value of the firm’s primary business. We show how investors can explicitly account for the effect of corporate cash holdings when forming a portfolio. When an investor owns stock in a company with substantial cash, the investor has an implicit cash position managed by the company—something the investor might not intend. We argue that investors should account for the effect of corporate cash holdings in the portfolio decision to measure a portfolio’s risk. Firms’ cash management is not consistent across firms, and investors may want to manage their cash positions themselves. Policymakers should be aware of investors’ choices in cash because of investorsportfolio risk and the implications for aggregate risk.

We separate a company’s stock return into its cash and non-cash components, and we show that using the non-cash return gives a more informative correlation structure across stocks. In other words, if investors take out the correlated cash returns, the remaining return is less correlated, yielding portfolios that provide better diversification. We show how cash holdings and returns affect the returns of standard asset pricing strategies and asset pricing models like the capital asset pricing model (CAPM).

As cash holdings of public firms increase, it is important that policymakers understand how these increases impact stock returns for both individual firms and the aggregate market. Cash returns are correlated across firms, and cash biases the measurement of the interconnectedness of stock returns. This correlation is important both for investors who are managing a portfolio’s risk and policymakers concerned about sources of vulnerability stemming from interconnected returns.

Economy Watching: Philadelphia Fed

from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia:

Fed President Patrick Harker Says It Will “Soon” Be Time to Taper Asset Purchases

Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker told a virtual audience at the Prosperity Caucus in Washington, D.C., that the asset purchases once necessary during the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic are no longer effective as a tool for supporting the economy. He also said the U.S. economy created millions of jobs in recent months, but “we just can’t fill them.”

Economic Outlook: Growth Despite Constraints

Good evening! Thanks so much for having me. I understand that when this group meets in person there is usually pizza involved — so I intend to collect on that debt next time we do this in the flesh.

I plan to offer a few remarks about the state of the national economy and the path of Federal Reserve policy. Then we can move to our Q&A, which I’m really looking forward to.

But before I do that, I need to give you the standard Fed disclaimer: The views I express today are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) or in the Federal Reserve System.

Fed Structure

I know this group encompasses a very diverse crowd — we have everyone from House staffers to Senate staffers here. So, just in case anyone doesn’t know, I want to begin by giving you a very brief explanation of what, exactly, a regional Federal Reserve Bank is. Our nation’s central bank, after all, is quite unusual — unique, even — in its design.

The configuration of the Federal Reserve System — a central bank with a decentralized structure — owes its existence to the 1913 Federal Reserve Act. It is something of a testament to old-fashioned American compromise and reflects the unique demands of the United States and our economy.

The System consists of a Board of Governors, which sits in Washington, and 12 regional Banks around the country.

The Board seats seven governors, including the Chair. Each regional Bank has its own president and board of directors, which is made up of business, banking, and community leaders from the area. Fundamentally, this provides the Fed with a perspective — within each District — of the sectors and issues that make the region tick. Mine is the Third District, which encompasses eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and the state of Delaware. We’re the smallest District geographically, but I like to think we punch above our weight.

The FOMC, which is responsible for monetary policy, is composed of the Fed’s governors and regional Bank presidents. Regional Bank presidents don’t always get to vote. Most of us rotate into a voting position every three years, but the governors always vote, as does the president of the New York Fed. New York, owing to the presence of Wall Street, enjoys something of a “first among equals” status within the System.

While the rest of us don’t always vote, we do always represent our Districts and play a part in the discussion. If you were at a normal FOMC meeting, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell a voting member until the end of the meeting when it’s time to raise hands. Everybody contributes.

The Fed’s decentralized nature is, in my view, a unique strength. We’re making national policy, but we’re doing it for an enormous country, and the averages of economic data can obscure realities on the ground. Conditions look very different in Philadelphia, Dover, or Washington than they do in Dallas, Salt Lake City, or Honolulu. This System gives a voice to a range of localities and sectors. It also allows us to focus on regional issues within each Bank’s District.

The United States has a unique set of needs. It’s easy to forget that we’re an outlier because we’re such a massive country: Only Russia and Canada are bigger geographically, only China and India have larger populations, and no one country has a bigger economy, at least for now. And that economy is vast, spreading across sectors and natural resources in a way that is not typical of other nations.

So, it makes sense that we have a System that feeds back information from around the country.

The State of the Economy

And what that information is telling us is that, for the past 18 months, the economy has moved in tandem with the waxing and waning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During periods when case rates and hospitalizations have declined, the economy has surged as American consumers have voted with their wallets. When COVID-19 risks abate, more Americans dine out at restaurants, check in to hotels, and fill up airplanes. Those are important categories of spending in a country where consumption makes up about 70 percent of total economic activity. In the second quarter of this year, for instance, GDP grew at a very healthy annualized rate of around 6.7 percent as case rates plummeted.

And, of course, the opposite occurs during periods when the virus spikes. When the Delta variant of COVID-19 erupted, fomenting the country’s fourth major wave of the pandemic, things started moving sideways. Consumer confidence tanked, and large industries like hospitality and leisure stagnated at best. So for this quarter, we can expect growth to come in at an annualized rate of around 3 percent, a sharp slowdown from earlier this year. 

But there are reasons to be sanguine that the country’s recovery from this wave of COVID-19 may prove more durable than in the past and that we can avoid a fifth wave. And that is because more than half of the country is fully vaccinated. Getting more shots into arms will save lives and aid the recovery by reducing the size and severity of future spikes. The Delta variant has also concentrated minds: It seems to have not only persuaded more Americans to get shots on their own, but it also pushed more corporations and institutions to mandate their employees to get vaccinated. That is cause for optimism.

Filling me with less optimism is the persistent constraints the economy is operating under.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how fragile many of our supply chains are. We’re now experiencing shortages of crucial parts like computer chips, which has hobbled not only the production of cars and trucks, but also comparatively smaller durable goods like home appliances. My recent experience attempting to purchase a printer — there were essentially none at my local electronics store — testifies to that. And good luck trying to find a new washing machine or dishwasher.

These supply chain constraints are rippling through the entire economy. Manufacturers in our region have reported having to curtail production because of difficulties securing raw materials. We’re also seeing low inventory of everything from shoes to backpacks to even chicken wings, which is a particularly troubling development as the NFL season is picking up. Unfortunately, there are indications that these constraints could persist for a couple of more years.

There’s another input lacking in supply as well, further constraining the economy: labor. It isn’t true, as was widely reported, that the economy only created 194,000 jobs in September. In reality, the U.S. economy has created many millions of jobs in recent months — we just can’t fill them. Indeed, job openings are at record highs, hitting nearly 10.5 million at the end of August. Simultaneously, more people are quitting their jobs, and the rate at which open positions are being filled is continuing to slow.

It seems that a combination of factors — trouble accessing childcare or eldercare, lingering fears about the virus, the rise in equities and home values spurring people to retire, and perhaps a general revaluation of life choices — is persuading a lot of Americans to stay on the sidelines even as the economy has reopened. And notably, the elimination of extra federal unemployment benefits has not — at least not yet — appeared to nudge people back into the workforce. I do expect that will change eventually and especially as other forbearance programs run out.

So, where does all of this leave us? For 2021, I would expect GDP growth to come in around 5.5 percent, which is a downward revision from before Delta took hold. Growth will then moderate to about 3.5 percent in 2022, and 2.5 percent in 2023. Inflation, meanwhile, should come in around 4 percent for 2021, though I do see upside risk here. After that, our modal forecast — that is, the average of all of our forecasts — calls for inflation of a bit over 2 percent for 2022 and right at 2 percent in 2023.

Fed Policy

In terms of monetary policy, I am in the camp that believes it will soon be time to begin slowly and methodically — frankly, boringly — taper our $120 billion in monthly purchases of Treasury bills and mortgage-backed securities. This comes down to the efficacy of these purchases as a tool.

They were necessary to keep markets functioning during the acute phase of the crisis. But to the extent that we are still dealing with a labor force issue, the problem lies on the supply side, not with demand. You can’t go into a restaurant or drive down a commercial strip without noticing a sea of “Help Wanted” signs. Asset purchases aren’t doing much — or anything — to ameliorate that.

After we taper our asset purchases, we can begin to think about raising the federal funds rate. But I wouldn’t expect any hikes to interest rates until late next year or early 2023, unless the inflation picture changes dramatically.


Given the strong headwinds facing the economy, it is a testament to its underlying strength that growth continues at a relatively robust pace. That is a tribute, as always, to the ingenuity and tenacity of our people, especially in the face of huge challenges.

Thank you very much again for having me. And now let’s move on to questions.

Climate Policy: Loss and Damage from Climate Change

(from Social Watch and Global Policy Watch’s UN Monitor)

Loss and Damage from Climate Change: How Much Should Rich Countries Pay?

(Download UN Monitor #10 [archived PDF])

“The wealthy countries must begin providing public climate finance at the scale necessary to support not only adaptation but loss and damage as well, and they must do so in accordance with their responsibility and capacity to act.” This is the main message of a technical report titled “Can Climate Change-Fueled Loss and Damage Ever Be Fair?” launched on the eve of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) to be held in Madrid from 2 to 13 December.

The U.S. and the EU owe more than half the cost of repairing future damage says the report, authored by Civil Society Review, an independent group that produces figures on what a “fair share” among countries of the global effort to tackle climate change should look like.

“The poorer countries are bearing the overwhelming majority of the human and social costs of climate change. Consider only one tragic incident—the Cyclones Idai and Kenneth—which caused more than $3 billion in economic damages in Mozambique alone, roughly 20% of its GDP, with lasting implications, not to mention the loss of lives and livelihoods” argues the report. “Given ongoing and deepening climate impacts, to ensure justice and fairness, COP25 must as an urgent matter operationalize loss and damage financing via a facility designed to receive and disburse resources at scale to developing countries.”

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has defined loss and damage to include harms resulting from sudden-onset events (climate disasters, such as cyclones) as well as slow-onset processes (such as sea level rise). Loss and damage can occur in human systems (such as livelihoods) as well as natural systems (such as biodiversity).

Eight weeks after Hurricane Dorian—the most intense tropical cyclone to ever strike the Bahamas—Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, spoke at the United Nations Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit. She said: “For us, our best practice traditionally was to share the risk before disaster strikes, and just over a decade ago we established the Caribbean Catastrophic Risk Insurance Facility. But, the devastation of Hurricane Dorian marks a new chapter for us. Because, as the international community will find out, the CCRIF will not meet the needs of climate refugees or, indeed, will it be sufficient to meet the needs of rebuilding. No longer can we, therefore, consider this as an appropriate mechanism…There will be a growing crisis of affordability of insurance.”

An April 2019 report from ActionAid revealed the insurance and other market based mechanisms fail to meet human rights criteria for responding to loss and damage associated with climate change. The impact of extreme natural disasters is equivalent to an annual global USD$520 billion loss, and forces approximately 26 million people into poverty each year.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently warned that the climate crisis is the greatest ever threat to human rights. It threatens the rights to life, health, housing and a clean and safe environment. The UN Human Rights Council has recognized that climate change “poses an immediate and far reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.” In the Paris Agreement, parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) acknowledged that they should—when taking action to address climate change—respect, promote and consider their respective obligations with regard to human rights. This includes the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, the empowerment of women and intergenerational equity. Tackling loss and damage will require a human-rights centered approach that promotes justice and equity.

Across and within countries, the highest per capita carbon emissions are attributable to the wealthiest people, this because individual emissions generally parallel disparities of income and wealth. While the world’s richest 10% cause 50% of emissions, they also claim 52% of the world’s wealth. The world’s poorest 50% contribute approximately 10% of global emissions and receive about 8% of global income. Wealth increases adaptive capacity. All this means that those most responsible for climate change are relatively insulated from its impacts.

Between 1850 and 2002, countries in the Global North emitted three times as many greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as did the countries in the Global South, where approximately 85% of the global population resides. The average CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) of citizens in countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts, for example, Mozambique (0.3), Malawi, (0.1), and Zimbabwe (0.9), pale in comparison to the average emissions of a person in the U.S. (15.5), Canada (15.3), Australia (15.8), or UK (6).

In the 1980s, oil companies like Exxon and Shell carried out internal assessments of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, and forecast the planetary consequences of these emissions, including the inundation of entire low-lying countries, the disappearance of specific ecosystems or habitat destruction, destructive floods, the inundation of low-lying farmland, and widespread water stress.

Nevertheless, the same companies and countries have pursued high reliance on GHG emissions, often at the expense of communities where fossil fuels are found (where oil spills, pollution, land grabs, and displacement is widespread) and certainly at the expense of public understanding, even as climate change harms and risks increased. Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell together are behind more than 10% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1966. They originated in the Global North and its governments continue to provide them with financial subsidies and tax breaks.

Responsibility for, and capacity to act on, mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage varies tremendously across nations and among classes. It must also be recognized that the Nationally Determined Contributions (climate action plans or NDCs) that have thus far been proposed by the world’s nations are not even close to being sufficient, putting us on track for approximately 4°C of warming. They are also altogether out of proportion to national capacity and responsibility, with the developing countries generally proposing to do their fair shares, and developed countries proposed far too little.

Unfortunately, as Kevin Anderson (Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and a former Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research) has said: “a 4°C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation,’ is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”

Equity analysis

The report assess countries’ NDCs against the demands of a 1.5°C pathway using two ‘fair share’ benchmarks, as in the previous reports of the Civil Society Equity Review coalition. These ‘fair share’ benchmarks are grounded in the principle-based claims that countries should act in accordance with their responsibility for causing the climate problem and their capacity to help solve it. These principles are both well-established within the climate negotiations and built into both the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.

To be consistent with the UNFCCC’s equity principles—the wealthier countries must urgently and dramatically deepen their own emissions reduction efforts, contribute to mitigation, adaptation and addressing loss and damage initiatives in developing countries; and support additional sustainable actions outside their own borders that enable climate-compatible sustainable development in developing countries.

For example, consider the European Union, whose fair share of the global emission reduction effort in 2030 is roughly about 22% of the global total, or about 8 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2eq). Since its total emissions are less than 5 GtCO2eq, the EU would have to reduce its emissions by approximately 160% per cent below 1990 levels by 2030 if it were to meet its fair share entirely through domestic reductions. It is not physically possible to reduce emissions by more than 100% domestically. So, the only way in which the EU can meet its fair share is by funding mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage efforts in developing countries.

Today’s mitigation commitments are insufficient to prevent unmanageable climate change, and—coming on top of historic emissions—they are setting in motion devastating changes to our climate and natural environment. These impacts are already prevalent, even with our current global average surface temperature rise of about 1°C. Impacts include droughts, firestorms, shifting seasons, sea-level rise, salt-water intrusion, glacial retreat, the spread of vector borne diseases, and devastation from cyclones and other extreme weather events. Some of these impacts can be minimized through adaptation measures designed to increase resilience to inevitable impacts.

These measures include, for example, renewing mangroves to prevent erosion and reduce flooding caused by storms, regulating new construction so that buildings can withstand tomorrow’s severe weather, using scarce water resources efficiently, building flood defenses, and setting aside land corridors to help species migrate. It is also crucial with such solutions that forest dwelling and indigenous peoples be given enforceable land rights, for not only are such rights matters of basic justice, they are also pragmatic recognitions of the fact that indigenous peoples have successfully protected key ecosystems.

Tackling underlying social injustices and inequalities—including through technological and financial transfers, as well as though capacity building—would also contribute to increasing resilience. Other climate impacts, however, are unavoidable, unmanageable or unpredictable, leading to a huge degree of loss and damage. Experts estimate the financial damage also will reach at least USD$300-700 billion by 2030, but the loss of locally sustained livelihoods, relationships and connections to ancestral lands are incalculable.

Failure to reduce GHG emissions now—through energy efficiency, waste reduction, renewable energy generation, reduced consumption, sustainable agriculture and transport—will only deepen impacts in the future. Avoidable impacts require urgent adaptation measures. At the same time, unavoidable and unmanageable change impacts—such as loss of homes, livelihoods, crops, heat and water stress, displacement, and infrastructure damage—need adequate responses through well-resourced disaster response plans and social protection policies.

For loss and damage financing, developed countries have a considerable responsibility and capacity to pay for harms that are already occurring. Of course, many harms will be irreparable in financial terms. However, where monetary contributions can help restore the livelihoods or homes of individuals exposed to climate change impacts, they must be paid. Just as the EU’s fair share of the global mitigation effort is approximately 22% in 2030, it could be held accountable for that same share of the financial support for such incidents of loss and damage in that year.

The table below provides an illustrative quantification of this simple application of fair shares to loss and damage estimates, and how they change if we compute the contribution to global climate change from the start of the industrial revolution in 1850 or from 1950.

Table 1: Countries’ Share of Global Responsibility and Capacity in 2019, the time of Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, as illustrative application of a fair share approach to Loss and Damage funding requirements.

Country/Group of CountriesFair Share (%) 1950 Medium BenchmarkFair Share (%) 1850 High Benchmark
European Union23.9%23.2%
Rest of OECD7.4%8.8%
Rest of the World20.6%12.3%

The advantage of setting out responsibility and capacity to act in such numerical terms is to drive equitable and robust action today. Responsible and capable countries must—of course—ensure that those most able to pay towards loss and damage repairs are called upon to do so through domestic legislation that ensures correlated progressive responsibility. However, it should also motivate mitigation action to ensure that harms are not deepened in the future.

In the Equity analysis used here, capacity—a nation’s financial ability to contribute to solving the climate problem—can be captured by a quantitative benchmark defined in a more or less progressive way, making the definition of national capacity dependent on national income distribution. This means a country’s capacity is calculated in a manner that can explicitly account for the income of the wealthy more strongly than that of the poor, and can exclude the incomes of the poorest altogether. Similarly, responsibility—a nation’s contribution to the planetary GHG burden—can be based on cumulative GHG emissions since a range of historical start years, and can consider the emissions arising from luxury consumption more strongly than emissions from the fulfillment of basic needs, and can altogether exclude the survival emissions of the poorest. Of course, the ‘right’ level of progressivity, like the ‘right’ start year, are matters for deliberation and debate.1

The report acknowledges “the difficulties in estimating financial loss and damage and the limited data we currently have,” but it recommends nevertheless “a minimal goal of providing at least USD$300 billion per year by 2030 of financing for loss and damage through the UNFCCC’s Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM).” Given that this corresponds to a conservative estimate of damage costs, the report further recommends “the formalization of a global obligation to revise this figure upward as observed and forecast damages increase.”

The new finance facility should provide “public climate financing and new and innovative sources of financing, in addition to budget contributions from rich countries, that can truly generate additional resources (such as air and maritime levies, Climate Damages Tax on oil, gas and coal extraction, a Financial Transaction Tax) at a progressive scale to reach at least USD$300 billion by 2030.” This means aiming for at least USD$150 billion by 2025 and ratcheting up commitments on an annual basis. Ambition targets should be revised based on the level of quantified and quantifiable harms experienced.

Further, developing countries who face climate emergencies should benefit from immediate debt relief–in the form of an interest-free moratorium on debt payments. This would open up resources currently earmarked for debt repayments to immediate emergency relief and reconstruction.

Finally, a financial architecture needs to be set up that ensures funding reaches the marginalized communities in developing countries, and that such communities have decision making say over reconstruction plans. Funds should reach communities in an efficient and effective manner, taking into account existing institutions as appropriate.

Currently, the Paris Rulebook allows countries to count non-grant instruments as climate finance, including commercial loans, equity, guarantees and insurance. Under these rules, the United States could give a USD$50 million commercial loan to Malawi for a climate mitigation project. This loan would have to be repaid at market interest rates—a net profit for the U.S.—so its grant-equivalence is $0. But under the Paris Rulebook, the U.S. could report the loan’s face value ($50 million) as climate finance. This is not acceptable. COP25 must ensure that the WIM has robust outcomes and sufficient authority to deliver a fair and ambitious outcome for the poorest and most vulnerable in relation to loss & damage.

  1. For more details, including how progressivity is calculated and a description of the standard data sets upon which those calculations are based, see the reference project page.  For an interactive experience and a finer set of controls, see the Climate Equity Reference Calculator. (return to text)

Download UN Monitor #10 [archived PDF]