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Recession fears are making companies more responsible

A man giving a presentation to people at his company
Photo: Getty Images

Fears of a global recession are scaring U.S. companies, pushing them to use excess capital to reduce debt and add to cash reserves, rather than levering up and making risky bets as they have in the past.

Why it matters: This newfound corporate responsibility, motivated largely by fear, could help insulate the economy from another damaging recession.

Driving the news: A "floodgate" of $25.5 billion of investment grade corporate debt unrolled yesterday, representing the highest number of issuers and the second highest amount of debt ever issued in a single day, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch data.

  • The recent bond rush has been led by Apple, Deere and Disney, which each issued 30-year bonds with yields below 3%, a first for the corporate bond market
  • The record low yield on long-term U.S. Treasuries has companies bringing new debt to market, particularly well-known companies that can price bonds with historically low interest rates.

Between the lines: The difference between Wednesday and previous high issue days is many companies are using the new issues to refinance existing debt rather than make new purchases or spend, BAML notes.

  • "The bond boom is the corporate version of the refinancing rush that hit the mortgage market last month as homeowners moved to lock in cheaper loans," per WSJ.

Details: The investment bank's data also shows S&P 500 companies, especially in tech, have slowed the pace of stock buybacks this year, with share repurchases in the third quarter down 12% year over year so far.

  • The kind of profligate spending that was prominent ahead of the global financial crisis has been pared back significantly in recent months, with companies preparing for the economy to slow, Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group, told Axios in August.

Don't forget: The Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from the biggest companies in the U.S., recently issued a statement on “the purpose of a corporation,” arguing that companies should no longer advance only the interests of shareholders. Rather, they must also invest in their employees, protect the environment, and deal fairly and ethically with their suppliers.

The bottom line: The combination of lower debt, higher cash balances and less risky investments may not be exciting news for the stock market, but could well give the U.S. economy another leg to stand on in the face of rising global uncertainty and weakening growth.

Go deeper: Markets provide an unambiguous signal that investors expect recession