Roughly one-third of the world's largest non-financial companies, including Apple, Microsoft and Google, are hoarding $2.8 trillion in unspent cash, preventing much-needed funds from entering the global economy and stalling our recovery from the 2008 recession.
The Financial Times reports that a Deloitte analysis found 32 percent of non-financial companies listed in the S&P Global 1200 index are holding 82 percent of the total unspent cash — a level of reserves not seen since 2000. According to FT, the study emerges as companies face pressure to spend:
An influential survey of fund managers conducted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch released on Tuesday showed a record 58 per cent of investors polled want companies’ cash piles spent on capex [capital expenditures]. A record 67 per cent said companies were “underinvesting” and less than a third of asset managers surveyed want companies to return more money to shareholders – the usual complaint of investors.
These companies have been carefully stowing money away since the economic collapse, which is exactly what you're not supposed to do if you care about growing the economy. And, apparently, holding on to this much cash might not be great for the companies either. Larry Popelka opines on Bloomberg Businessweek that the "presence of excess cash is a distraction that can cause companies like Apple to veer off track by pursuing wrongheaded acquisition strategies." He brings Hewlett Packard as an example of a company brought down by excessive cash reserves:
During the 1980s and 1990s, HP was a leader in innovation, and its stock price increased thirtyfold from 1980 to 2000. In the late 1990s, as its balance sheet improved, the company shifted course and began a more aggressive M&A strategy, pursuing large targets such as Compaq, 3COM, Palm, EDS, Autonomy, and others. Many of these deals failed, and the company has declined in value.
It might not be that easy for companies to spend their cash reserves, however. University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Ira S. Weiss told the Wall Street Journal that companies with cash overseas will have tax concerns that prevent them from unloading funds in the U.S.:
Wharton professor Wayne Guay added:
To know whether a firm has too much cash, you need to know their tax situation, where all that cash is and what the tax would be if they brought it back. You need to know what the firm is planning for the next five years in terms of research and development, expenditures and other items. It is a tricky thing for shareholders to figure out when a firm has too much cash.
So companies save money by skirting U.S. taxes, but then they can't spend the money, because that would mean paying U.S. taxes, so instead it just stays abroad and doesn't help kick the world out of a massive recession and none of it turns into jobs or schools or new gadget factories.
Luckily, the demands of corporate shareholders (who want to make money, not sit on it) will likely lead these companies to stop hoarding cash soon. Per FT, "Deloitte’s study reveals though that hoarding cash has hit companies’ share prices and revenue growth in recent years, as companies with low cash balances have done better on both measures than companies with large cash reserves." So come on, Apple, haven't you ever heard that you have to spend money to make money?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.