Overestimating Inflation

I’ve worked through a number of full economic cycles in the industry, including a number of recessions, that include:

  • The double-dip recession of 1980–1982 that was worsened by the Iranian revolution and the oil crisis.
  • A recession in 1990 was caused by accumulated consumer debt and another oil price spike.
  • The recession in 2001 was driven by the dot.com (and telecom) crash and worsened by September 11.
  • The great recession of 2007 – 2009 was the result of the subprime mortgage crisis and the meltdown of Wall Street.
  • A short recession in 2020 was caused by the COVID pandemic.

Most of these recessions were followed by periods of economic turmoil, which saw fluctuating interest rates and periods of inflation – like we are experiencing now as the delayed impact of the pandemic.

There are two interesting economic phenomena that recur in times of economic turmoil. The first is that people and businesses don’t believe that interest rates will rise. This current period of rising interest rates is a great example. Anybody that’s been paying attention has been hearing from the Federal Reserve for nearly a year that it would likely have to increase interest rates. With that much warning, people and businesses with adjustable-rate mortgages and loans had a lot of warning to refinance the debt to a fixed rate – and yet many did not do so. Mortgage rates recently hit 6% and are likely to increase further, and we’re soon going to be seeing stories of families and businesses defaulting because of the increased debt payments. For whatever reason, most people and businesses don’t refinance, even with persistent warnings that higher interest rates are on the way. This seems to be a recurring theme every time we enter a period of increasing interest rates.

The other phenomenon that I’ve seen repeated over and over is that businesses overact to inflation. Once they start seeing cost increases, they begin acting like inflation will be permanent and will continue to climb steadily. It has never done that in the U.S. economy. Costs spike, but the rate of inflation invariably slows down and goes back to normal. We’re already seeing inflation slowing due to falling fuel prices – which makes sense since escalating gasoline prices was one of the drivers of inflation.

What do I mean when I say that businesses overact to inflation? One way that I see it is in helping ISPs build business plans. I have clients that want me to build perpetual inflation into future forecasts. Building never-ending inflation into a forecast can quickly make a good idea look terrible. It is extremely unlikely that inflation will continue unabated – it never has in the U.S. economy. There are parts of the world where hyperinflation is normal, such as Nigeria that has seen inflation rates of 15% – 20% annually for many years. The country adjusts for this with currency manipulation, and businesses give big pay raises every year – and the real-life impact of inflation is barely noticed. It’s just how the economy works. But we have monetary policies in the U.S. and most of the top economies that are able to quash continuous hyperinflation.

The other overreaction to inflation also comes from vendors who raise prices in anticipation of inflation instead of reacting to actual cost increases. Economists will tell you that anticipation of inflation is one of the major drivers of inflation. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when enough of the players in an industry raise prices in anticipation of future higher costs, which then becomes a driver of continued inflation. There was a lot of recent talk about price gouging and excess profits, and at least some of that came from businesses and industries that raised prices in anticipation that underlying costs would increase. There is a fine line between raising prices to be safe and price gouging. This is a phenomenon that happens in every recession, and the good news is that this also self-corrects over time when people flock to sellers that didn’t raise prices, and market prices eventually stabilize and stop climbing.

One of the most interesting things about the current period of inflation is that I’m not seeing ISPs increasing to keep up with inflation. I’m sure some ISPs have raised rates, but most broadband prices have not climbed in the past six months, as might be expected from looking at prices in other industries.

There are good reasons for this that are not related to inflation. The biggest cable companies have suddenly stopped growing, and they are probably afraid that raising rates will push folks to competitive alternatives – we’ll find out for sure at the end of the year. And most smaller ISPs take direction from the behavior of their large competitors – nobody wants to raise rates if they are competing against a bigger company that isn’t raising rates.

The good news for the industry is that everything will return to normal in a year or two – it always does. Interest rates will reach a peak and then slowly drop when the Federal Reserve no longer needs to be tweaking borrowing. Inflation will slow and will return to normal trends, and everybody will forget about it until the next crisis. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be casualties. There will be ISPs that will get into trouble if they hold a lot of variable rate debt – and some may fold. There will be some new projects that get derailed when costs climb higher than expected. But overall, the broadband sector will hunker down and wait out the current trends.

 

 

The Community Reinvestment Act and Broadband

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) is a federal law that’s been on the books since 1977. The law encourages banks to reinvest some portion of their portfolio in their local communities. The law specifically wants banks to make loans that benefit low and moderate-income neighborhoods. Over the years banks have met the CRA thresholds by investing in assets like low-income housing.

Recently the Federal Reserve, which monitors CRA lending at member banks has suggested that improving local broadband would qualify as CRA investment as long as the projects benefit the target parts of the community. This decision will make it easier for banks to make loans to local broadband providers in their community.

It’s worth looking at the history of bank lending for infrastructure to put this announcement into perspective. There was a time when banks were a major lender for infrastructure projects. If you look  more than 50 years local banks lent to projects to build community infrastructure like cable TV networks, water systems, electric power grids, city halls, etc. These are considered as infrastructure loans if they have long loan terms of 20 to 30 years, much like home mortgages. Even then banks didn’t loan much for really long-life assets like roads, bridges and dams – but they were still a major lender to things we would consider as basic infrastructure.

But for various reasons banks stopped lending for infrastructure. Part of this was due to the turbulence in interest rates in the early 70s. All interest rates bounced around for a while and at one short period of time home mortgage rates were four times higher than today. While interest rates eventually settled back down, the swings in interest rates scared many banks from tying up high dollar loans for 25 or 30 years.

This same time period also saw requirements from the federal government for banks to hold more cash in reserve. Many local banks before then would loan out most of their cash, with the hope that most of the loans were solid. But there were enough loan failures in the 70s to shake the confidence of the banking system and to dissuade banks from lending most of their cash.

What really put the cap on this kind of lending was the massive bank consolidation that saw a significant portion of local banks get gobbled up by larger banks. Before all of the consolidation there was hardly a town or county in the country that didn’t have a local bank that was interested in making local loans. But as those banks disappeared, borrowing for local businesses of all types became harder.

What might this change by the Federal Reserve mean for broadband projects? At a minimum it means that local banks are a lot likelier to listen to the story of somebody that wants to borrow. Now that loans for broadband infrastructure will meet banks CRA obligations they are going to pay particular attention to such loans.

But this is unlikely to open up the floodgates of bank investment in broadband infrastructure. Even if it’s easier to talk about loans borrowers still need to deal with the fact that most banks have a lending limit for an individual loan, particularly for somebody who hasn’t borrowed from them before. Building fiber is expensive and if the bank’s maximum loan size is something under $1 M (could be a lot less), then such loans won’t go very far if trying to expand a fiber network. This is not to say it’s impossible. I know small ISPs that have a revolving line of credit that they can borrow for expansion as they pay off existing loan amounts. But this is almost the opposite of infrastructure financing since such loans generally are paid off in a few years, at most.

It’s probably going to become a lot easier, though for borrowing for smaller broadband projects. This might be building wireless networks to serve parts of a town. These loans might support public hot spots or broadband to low-income housing, as long as there is a revenue stream sufficient to repay the loans. Such loans might also fund small fiber builds needed to connect to a business park, to cellular towers or to a small segment of the community.

There is another avenue that borrowers ought to consider, which is a bank consortium. This is where a group of banks go together to make a loan that is larger than what any of them would tackle alone. This generally requires a bank that is local to the borrower to act as the broker and leader of the deal. This is a lot of work for the primary local bank, and so it takes a sympathetic and willing local bank partner. But the changes in the CRA rules means that it might now be easier to talk banks into joining a consortium. It’s worth a try for somebody that don’t have another path for borrowing.

Be a little bit leery of anybody that tells you that this a world changing decision. Banks are still incredibly conservative and this won’t change their expectation for the metrics they will want a borrower to meet or the collateral they will expect to support a loan. But it ought to open the doors to have conversations with bankers that might not have been possible a few years ago.

Watching Interest Rates Again

eyeballWe have had an amazing run of stable interest rates. This has meant that I could create a business plan and have good confidence that the interest rate that I used would still be good a year or two later when it’s time to finance a project. That took one big worry off the plate because it hasn’t always been like this.

Historically interest rates have gone up and down and this period of steady rates is the exception in the way that interest rates have bounced during my career. Just within the last decade there were times where the bond markets were in such turmoil that it was nearly impossible to float new bonds. For the past few years we’ve seen nearly the opposite and the bond houses I know have instead been decrying the lack of bond deals wanting to get financed.

It’s not surprising to see interest rates starting to swing a bit again. We are going through a big stock market correction that has investors spooked. And the first thing that spooked investors affect is the bond market. The municipal bond market sells almost entirely to wealthy individuals looking for a safe haven for money. And corporate bonds are sold to both wealthy individuals and big pools of money like pension funds and insurance companies. As those buyers liquidate stock holdings there is a big increase in demand for bonds. Bank rates are the last to change, but they react over time to changes in the corporate bond rates.

Interest rates really matter to fiber projects. A project that might be feasible at a low interest rate might become risky at a higher one. I can remember times in the past when floating a municipal bond deal was dependent on the interest rate that was being offered on the day the bonds went to market. Bond sellers would hire experts who would try choose the right time to sell new bonds. And on the morning when a bond was to go for market I’d be sitting waiting to plug in the interest rate and bond term being offered that day to make sure it was a good deal.

I certainly don’t hope for a return to those kind of crazy times because high or fluctuating interest rates can put the kibosh on many good projects that would have easily been funded in better times. But since the payment term for bonds is so long the interest rate matters a lot – fiber bonds might last for 25 or even 30 years and might not be able to be called and refinanced for 10 or 12 years.

This blog was prompted by reading an article about the widening spread between corporate bonds and US Treasury bills. The spread for the whole corporate bond industry has opened up to 770 points, meaning that the interest rate being charged for issuing corporate bonds is a full 7.7% higher than the rate being paid on T-bills. That different climbed 1.1% just during the month of January. We haven’t seen a full 1% change in interest rates during a month for quite a while. More worry came when I just read that a Federal Reserve survey of banks shows that the majority of banks see a tightening of credit for 2016.

Why do interest rates matter to a fiber project? Consider a $50M fiber project. I just did a calculation of a project of this size for a client. In that project an increase of 1% in interest rate cut long-term cash flows by over $5 million if funded with bank debt. But if funded by municipal bonds the impact was $15 million due to the longer payment term plus the fact that muni bonds usually borrow money to make the first few years of interest payments up front. While a 1% change in interest rates might not kill a project, it’s easy to see that changes of more than 1% can be deadly.

Maybe worse of all is that we have been sitting with interest rates at historic lows for a long time. This means that the only place that rates can go is higher. At least, when rates finally go higher, there is always a chance that they might drop. So I will start keeping my eyes on news of interest rates again. It seems one of our old worries is back on the plate again after a nice hiatus.