History's most prosperous nation is nearing default on its debt, not because it can't afford to pay, but because a handful of top policy makers can't agree on how to cut spending and whether to raise revenues. Here's hoping reason defeats bluster before something big breaks. In the meantime, have a look at a handful of companies that have been more successful than Washington of late in slashing debt.
Corporate debt isn't all bad, of course. The right amount can amplify returns, and competition for yield is so fierce that corporate bonds rates have sunk to historic lows. But debt also increases risk, and while much mention is made of record cash balances held by U.S. corporations, less is said about their much larger record debt.
The companies below should benefit from lower interest payments and the virtuous circle that brings, with more money available for future debt payments. They're also gaining financial flexibility, allowing them to choose among shareholder perks like dividends and stock buybacks and return enhancers like marketing and expansion.
Ford Motor Company
U.S. car sales plunged from more than 16 million vehicles in 2007 to fewer than 11 million in 2009, before rebounding to 11.8 million last year. Ford's (F) financial rebound was sharper than those numbers suggest. Last year it earned $6.6 billion, the most since 1999. Market share rose for the second straight year. The company has ditched poor-selling vehicles, improved its remaining lineup and won pay and benefit concessions from workers. (Hourly workers got an average profit-sharing check of $5,000 last year, the most since 2001.) It has also cut its debt load from frightening to merely large. Gross automotive debt is estimated to have fallen to $14 billion at the end of June from more than $33 billion in 2009. Part of that reduction came the easy way -- by selling more shares. But much of it came from operating cash. As a result, the company's credit rating, which was cut by Standard & Poor's to CC ("highly vulnerable") in early March, is now BB- ("less vulnerable in the near term"). Management's goal is to achieve investment grade, two notches higher, before the middle of the decade and to reintroduce a dividend payment after that.
Procter & Gamble
Procter & Gamble (PG), maker of Gillette razors, Pampers diapers, Tide laundry detergent and much else, turned up recently on a search for safe dividends. It hasn't missed a payment for more than a century and has increased payments each year for more than half a century. It has also slashed debt. For a company that generates around $10 billion in yearly free cash from operations, that's as easy as not making major purchases. P&G spent massively on Gillette in 2005, but used stock to finance the deal and has since repurchased shares. Acquisitions in recent years have been minor. Net debt as a percentage of capital has fallen from 47% in 2005 to 27% last year. Meanwhile, the stock carries a 3.3% dividend and management has recently spent more on share buybacks than on dividends.
Constellation Brands (STZ) distributes wine (Robert Mondavi), spirits (Black Velvet whisky) and beer (Corona). The company went a bit acquisition-happy several years ago, and its stock suffered for it during the recent financial crisis. Management late last year sold its Australian and U.K. wine business for around 15% of what it paid for it in 2003, calling the business at the time of the sale a producer of "quality wines," but noting in its annual report that the deal was part of an effort to "premiumize" its portfolio. The good news is that the company has paid down more than $600 million in debt for two years running, and has started this year with a $244 debt reduction. Free cash last year hit a record $530 million, and management says it's on track to reach $600 million to $650 million this year. The company still owes plenty: $2.7 billion, roughly equal to its yearly sales, but interest expense has fallen 9% over the past year.