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Why did Google just borrow $3 billion?

A Google employee walks across the campus at Google headquarters on February 2, 2011 in Mountain View, California.

Kai Ryssdal: Here's your corporate story of the day: Google has gone to the debt markets. The company -- which has giant mounds of cash sitting in the bank -- borrowed $3 billion in a bond offering, its first one ever.

And Google's by no means alone in deciding there's never ever been a better time to borrow. Here's our senior business correspondent Bob Moon.


Bob Moon: Just like a homeowner looking to re-finance at historically low rates, American businesses are rushing to take advantage of easy money. They can use it to expand, buy other businesses, repurchase their own stock, or in some cases, issue attractive dividends to loyal stockholders.

At Envision Capital Management, bond expert Marilyn Cohen says money comes so cheap these days, big corporations don't even need a reason to borrow -- even if, or perhaps because, the economic future is uncertain.

Marilyn Cohen: There's a lot of them that are just sitting with tons of cash on the balance sheet, waiting to see what's going to happen.

Google says it plans to re-pay some short-term debit, and use the rest for yet-to-be-determined purposes. At Thornburg Investments, fund manager Lon Erickson says companies could be trying to lock in low rates.

Lon Erickson: If you look out maybe six months and you're going to need some capital, some cash down the line, the debt market looks like a pretty attractive place to go ahead and raise that money, and it's not going to cost you all that much because the cost of the money is so low.

Investors are hungry for better returns in what the government offers even though corporate returns are also at historic lows. And bond expert Marilyn Cohen worries investors have been willing to buy riskier and riskier corporate bonds.

Cohen: As you go down the food chain from investment-grade, like Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway and Google, down to high-yield and really "junkety-junk," the buyers are also being unbelievably forgiving, in order to get a little bit extra yield in the junk bond market.

Indeed, the first three months of this year were the biggest quarter on record for junk bonds. And that, Cohen warns, has signaled a big tumble in the past.

Cohen: We're back to history, we didn't learn anything from it, and when that rubber band snaps, I think it's going to be a stinger.

In Los Angeles, I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.
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