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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Despite historically low interest rates, U.S. companies are being unusually frugal, holding back on issuing new debt and pumping up their balance sheets with cash.

Why it matters: Historically, when interest rates are low and the economy is strong, companies have levered up to increase capital expenditures and buy assets in order to expand. The opposite is happening now.

  • In the short term, that means the country is less at risk for economic collapse, but it also shows that American businesses are investing less in the future.

What they're saying: "That is highly unusual, as being late cycle this is precisely when companies are supposed to lever up," credit strategists at Bank of America Global Research said in a recent note.

By the numbers: Net debt declined on a year-over-year basis in the fourth quarter of 2019 for the first time in nearly a decade, Bank of America's data show, meaning companies are issuing less new debt and reducing current obligations at an uncommon rate.

  • 25% of companies reduced their debt levels in 2019 by at least 7.8%.
  • Those numbers are rarely seen during economic booms, BofA strategists note, and are much more akin to "what we see on a more forced basis during and in the aftermath of recessions."

What's happening: Despite increased profits from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, CEOs and company leaders have told Axios the uncertainty of the U.S.-China trade war and fears of an imminent recession discouraged big-ticket spending during 2019.

  • Rather than use their tax savings for investment or expansion, they largely socked it away.
  • Data from accounting firm PwC shows company cash holdings rose to $2.4 trillion, the highest amount in decades, a company spokesperson said.

The intrigue: It's not just net debt: Companies have added very little gross debt, dating back to the second quarter of 2017, BofA's data show, the continuation of a "remarkable development."

  • "As we have argued, it is indeed different this time."

Between the lines: Investment grade companies that would be in the best position to issue very cheap debt to finance investment projects or mergers are pulling back in part because they spent so much between 2014-2017 pursuing large-scale M&A.

  • The data show that most companies are improving their fundamentals, but most are BBB-rated, the lowest end of the IG scale.

Go deeper

FDA limits use of Regeneron and Lilly COVID antibody treatments

A coldbox containing monoclonal antibody treatments at a Regeneron clinic in Pembroke Pines, Florida, in August. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The FDA said Monday it's limiting the use of two monoclonal antibody therapies as COVID-19 treatments because data indicates they're "highly unlikely" to be effective against the dominant Omicron variant.

Driving the news: The FDA revised the authorizations for Regeneron and Eli Lilly "to limit their use to only when the patient is likely to have been infected with or exposed to a variant that is susceptible to these treatments," per a statement from the agency.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Pentagon: 8,500 troops on high alert for possible deployment to eastern Europe

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has placed 8,500 U.S. troops on "heightened preparedness to deploy" to eastern Europe in case NATO activates its rapid-response force over tensions with Russia, the Pentagon announced Monday.

Why it matters: No decisions have been made to actually deploy U.S. forces, but the heightened alert level will allow the military to rapidly shore up NATO's eastern flank in the event that Russia invades Ukraine. The Pentagon warned that Russia has shown "no signs of de-escalating," and continues to amass troops on Ukraine's borders.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden calls Fox News reporter a "stupid son of a b---h" on hot mic

President Biden blasted Fox News' Peter Doocy on Monday after the reporter asked if the nation's soaring inflation is a political liability, saying, "what a stupid son of a b----h."

The latest: The president called Doocy Monday evening, the reporter told Fox's Sean Hannity. "He cleared the air and I appreciated it. We had a nice call," Doocy said when asked whether the president apologized, adding: "I don't need anyone to apologize to me."