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Sequester shadow play: the epilogue

We are near the end of the 17-month drama of sequester and the defense industry's special pleading, and its special planning, are in the highest gear. The theater has moved along nicely.

We have been through the Sequester Prologue -- the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Act 1 was the Super Committee, a terrifying, cliff-hanger drama with a predictable outcome: failure.

Act 2 was the primary campaigns for the Republican Party and, especially, the adjunct campaign conducted by the Aerospace Industries Association and their political travelling side show: the McCain-Graham-Ayotte tour of America's most loved defense locations. But the industry failed to scare Americans away from fiscal discipline for the Department of Defense. Predictable outcome, since defense was not an issue in the primaries: failure.

Act 3 was the general election campaign. The industry backed off its warning of layoff notices four days before the election when a savvy administration pointed out that they, of all industries, would be most protected from sequester because they have existing government contracts, already funded, that ensure business would continue. (And as a sweetener, the administration also said the legal costs for any contractor sued because no layoff notice was sent, would be allowable cost under the contract.) Predictable outcome: the political side show sponsors felt undercut when the industry pulled back from playing politics; the president carried all but one of the states in which the side show had opened a tent.

Epilogue: where we are today. Defense budgets are a residual item in a much bigger main event over revenues and entitlements. Likely outcome: the defense budget will go down below the level Panetta proposed last February, to make a deal on everything else happen.

The defense industry has not given up the fight, though. And they are also ready for what may come, because they anticipate the market for defense goods better than anyone. Still girded for battle, defense industry chief executives such as Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman, and David Hess, president of Pratt and Whitney (United Technologies), will make their case on December 3 at the National Press Club. Perhaps no threat of layoff notices, but doom and gloom likely to be the message.

At the same time, the defense industry has been preparing for a defense drawdown for two years -- a realistic move because the defense budget has already come down for two years. Layoffs at large contractors have already happened. Less promising businesses have been sold (including CEO Bush's spinning off its shipyards last year). And companies are searching for acquisition opportunities in niche businesses that may prosper in the defense downturn: equipment servicing, drones, information technology, and cyber research and development.

Best of all, the industry has been churning up large piles of cash to finance these activities. Brendan McGarry of Bloomberg reported this week that the five largest defense contractors (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics) have had operating margins that are at a record high, thanks to the generous defense budgets of the last ten years. More to the point, they used these margins to grow their cash holdings by 71% in the final quarter of the 2012 fiscal year, bringing their total cash holdings to more to nearly $21 billion. The average cash holding of the five was over $4 billion, nearly double what it was a year ago. These funds can be used for acquisitions, dividend payments, or held for a rainy day.

Smart thinking, corporate-wise. The rainy day is already on its way. The defense budget is headed down, even with a sequester-preventing deal, and, as Bloomberg's Kevin Brancato put it "Defense companies are likely to see cuts even if there's an agreement to avoid it." That doesn't stop the last-ditch epilogue battle we will see this month -- the show must go on!

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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