If you're like me, and you look in my Fridge you'll see a carton of Almond Milk, and not the quart from Bessie the cow that used to be there. That's because my doctor and I decided some time ago, that at my age I didn't need the cholesterol that comes with the real stuff.
Apparently I'm not alone. Americans by the literal millions have been doing the same. Its all in our effort to eat healthier.
This is a trend which has really taken off this decade. After milk sales peaked in 2010, its been all down hill since then. With milk sales down almost 7% in the latest reported numbers.
Now a 7% decline may not seem like much. And in fact there was a time when a 10% decline or so, was considered part of a normal business cycle.
But today, American companies operate quite differently.
Back in the day, American corporations were financed primarily through the sale of stock. And shareholders, as owners of the company, understood that they might have to take a reduction in their dividend, for instance, when times got tough. But that way the company could survive.
All that began to change a little more than a decade ago. It was then that the Central Bank elected to use historically low interest rates, to fight the Great Financial Crisis (the GFC) of 2008 and 9.
Now we can argue whether or not, this strategy by the Fed has been entirely successful. But one thing we can't argue about is that this extended period of historically low interest rates made corporate debt extremely attractive.
In fact I believe that corporate debt is now the preferred way for companies to finance themselves.The short hand of this change, is that the American companies are no longer able to look across the table at a co-owner of the company. Who is willing to pass on a dividend, just to keep the cash flow going.
Instead they generally have a large commercial bank, or a room full of bond holders, who be law and right are entitled to receive their interest payment.
Those payments are scheduled by contract, and payable when due.
Can't make the payment? We'll see you in bankruptcy court.And that's just where the nation's two largest milk producing companies are right now: in bankruptcy. Dean Foods, the distributor of the popular “Land O Lakes” Dairy Products and Borden's the 150 year old privately owned milk company are currently in bankruptcy.
And a quick check of their respective balance sheets will tell you why. Dean Foods, has 3 times more debt than it has shareholder equity. And for Borden's the debt level is 5 times greater than their equity.
Now when times are good, and sales are rising, this much debt can be manageable (although I would never suggest it!).
But when times turn down, and sales falter: That's when the debt burden becomes overwhelming, and you end up like Dean Foods or Borden.
To paraphrase Warren Buffett: It's when the tide goes out, that you find out who doesn't have swim trunks.