Friday, August 28, 2009

The Bill and Hold Stimulus

by the Sandwichman
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Consumer spending edged up in July with help from the popular Cash for Clunkers program, but household incomes, the fuel for future spending increases, were flat.

The slight rise in spending reflected a 1.3 percent jump in purchases of durable goods such as cars, a gain propelled by the clunkers program that started at the end of July. Purchases of nondurable goods such as clothing actually fell 0.3 percent last month.
"Bill and hold" is designed to shift sales from future quarters to current ones. It's O.K. when the government does it... Actually, it is perfectly legal for private companies, too. It's just that the consequences can catch up to you.

Some participants in the Cash for Clunkers and First Time Homebuyers Credit programs are people who would have bought cars or house now anyway. Another portion are people who otherwise wouldn't have bought. But how many sales have simply been brought forward to boost current sales at the expense of future sales?

At Sunbeam, "Chainsaw Al" Dunlop sold a lot of electric blankets in the summer of 1997 and outdoor grills in the fall. But in the first quarter of 1998 Sunbeam lost $44.6 million. On June 13, the Sunbeam directors fired Chainsaw Al, "the worst CEO of all time." From Business Week July 6, 1998:
It didn't take long for alarm bells to sound. After the company reported its results in the second quarter of 1997, Shore says he began "getting pangs in my stomach." The numbers showed that Dunlap was building what Shore considered abnormally high inventory levels and accounts receivable. His trade contacts confirmed his suspicions that Sunbeam was giving lucrative terms to dealers to ship products aggressively.

"BILL AND HOLD." "I said to myself: 'Let's play the game a little longer,"' remembers Shore. "No one [had] soured on him yet. Very few picked it up, only the smart shorts at the hedge funds. I thought it would take several more quarters to play out." Shore alerted his clients to the warning signs but continued to recommend the stock because he thought investors would keep bidding it up.

He was right. Sunbeam's shares kept climbing, even though the company's third-quarter results created even greater cause for concern. Shore noted in one of his reports that there were massive increases in sales of electric blankets, usually a fourth-quarter phenomenon. Then, in the fourth quarter of 1997, he was alarmed by enormous increases in sales of grills, at a time when virtually no one buys those products. Still, Shore says, "I didn't think the story was over just yet. The market hadn't caught it."

Although unknown at the time, Dunlap was aggressively trying to push out more and more product. As the company later acknowledged, he began to engage in so-called "bill and hold" deals with retailers in which Sunbeam products were purchased at large discounts and then held at third-party warehouses for delivery later. By booking these sales before the goods were delivered, Dunlap helped boost Sunbeam's revenues by 18% in 1997 alone. In effect, he was shifting sales from future quarters to current ones. The approach was not illegal, but the extraordinary volume made it unusual. Dunlap defended the practice, saying that it was an effort to extend the selling season and better meet surges in demand. Sunbeam's auditors, Arthur Andersen & Co., later insisted it met accounting standards.

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