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.

Education and “Then and Now” Thinking: Zola’s Novel L’Argent

It is amazing to see how certain nineteenth century phenomena, such as Émile Zola’s novel L’Argent (“Money”), eerily echo with our own times. The novel has fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, international financial chicanery, anti-Semitism, the signs of full-blown “casino capitalism” convulsing the whole of society, global technical innovations. The historical background as all this unfolds is explosive and complex.

L’Argent is the eighteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola. It was serialized in the periodical Gil Blas beginning in November 1890, before being published in novel form by Charpentier et Fasquelle in March 1891.

The novel focuses on the financial world of the Second French Empire as embodied in the Paris Bourse and exemplified by the fictional character of Aristide Saccard. Zola’s intent was to show the terrible effects of speculation and fraudulent company promotion, the culpable negligence of company directors, and the impotency of contemporary financial laws. (Think of Dodd-Frank in our time and how insiders have “noiselessly” dismantled it.)

The novel takes place in 1864-1869, beginning a few months after the death of Saccard’s second wife Renée (see La Curée). Saccard is bankrupt and an outcast among the Bourse financiers. Searching for a way to reestablish himself, Saccard is struck by plans developed by his upstairs neighbor, the engineer Georges Hamelin, who dreams of restoring Christianity to the Middle East through great public works: rail lines linking important cities, improved roads and transportation, renovated eastern Mediterranean ports, and fleets of modern ships to move goods around the world.

Saccard decides to institute a financial establishment to fund these projects. He is motivated primarily by the potential to make incredible amounts of money and reestablish himself on the Bourse. In addition, Saccard has an intense rivalry with his brother Eugène Rougon, a powerful Cabinet minister who refuses to help him after his bankruptcy and who is promoting a more liberal, less Catholic agenda for the Empire. Furthermore, Saccard, an intense anti-Semite, sees the enterprise as a strike against the Jewish bankers who dominate the Bourse. From the beginning, Saccard’s Banque Universelle (Universal Bank) stands on shaky ground.

In order to manipulate the price of the stock, Saccard and his colleagues in the syndicate, which he has set up to jumpstart the enterprise, buy their own stock and hide the proceeds of this illegal practice in a dummy account fronted by a straw man.

While Hamelin travels to Constantinople to lay the groundwork for their enterprise, the Banque Universelle goes from strength to strength. Stock prices soar, going from 500 francs a share to more than 3,000 francs in three years. Furthermore, Saccard buys several newspapers which serve to maintain the illusion of legitimacy, promote the Banque, excite the public, and attack Rougon.

The novel follows the fortunes of about 20 characters, cutting across all social strata, showing the effects of stock market speculation on rich and poor. The financial events of the novel are played against Saccard’s personal life. Hamelin lives with his sister Caroline, who, against her better judgment, invests in the Banque Universelle and later becomes Saccard’s mistress. Caroline learns that Saccard fathered a son, Victor, during his first days in Paris. She rescues Victor from his life of abject poverty, placing him in a charitable institution. But Victor is completely unredeemable, given over to greed, laziness, and thievery. After he attacks one of the women at the institution, he disappears into the streets, never to be seen again.

Eventually, the Banque Universelle cannot sustain itself. Saccard’s principal rival on the Bourse, the Jewish financier Gundermann, learns about Saccard’s financial trickery and attacks, losing stock upon the market, devaluing its price, and forcing Saccard to buy millions of shares to keep the price up. At the final collapse, the Banque holds one-fourth of its own shares worth 200 million francs. The fall of the Banque is felt across the entire financial world. Indeed, all of France feels the force of its collapse. The effects on the characters of L’Argent are disastrous, including complete ruin, suicide, and exile, though some of Saccard’s syndicate members escape and Gundermann experiences a windfall.

History itself is of course “bubbling along” and does not go away:

Because the financial world is closely linked with politics, L’Argent encompasses many historical events, including:

By the end of the novel, the stage is set for the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and the fall of the Second Empire.

The twentieth century world and the twenty-first century one do resonate with Zola’s novel. That tells you, the student, that there are deep structures underlying endless changes.

The arrival of cars and planes, computers and lasers, internet and AI have not altered these substructures entirely and that is educational, since “then and now” thinking is part of a meta-intelligent (i.e., perspectival) education process.