By Matt Krantz, USA TODAY
Anyone wondering where all the economy's jobs are might want to look into piggy banks of the world's biggest companies.
Cash is gushing into companies' coffers as they report what's shaping up to be the third-consecutive quarter of sharp earnings increases. But instead of spending on the typical things, such as expanding and hiring people, companies are mostly pocketing the money and stuffing it under their corporate mattresses.
Non-financial companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 have a record $837 billion in cash, S&P says. That's enough to pay 2.4 million people $70,000-a-year salaries for five years. For context, 2.2 million to 2.8 million jobs were saved or created by the $862 billion stimulus that President Obama signed into law in February 2009, according to a report released in April from the Council of Economic Advisers.
Rather than investing in their future, companies are piling up cash and collecting practically zero interest on the money, hoping there will be a better time to invest later.
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The stockpiling of cash is troubling to some, who say that if companies keep hoarding money instead of investing in new facilities and products, it will put a lid on what the economy really needs to get going: new jobs. "Managers are being overly conservative until they're positive the crisis is over," says Kathleen Kahle, professor of finance at the University of Arizona. "They don't want to invest and add jobs, so they're delaying and don't want to be the first movers."
Meanwhile, there's concern companies have starved expansion so long, and focused merely on cutting costs to boost short-term profit, many might have difficultly boosting their top lines. "Reducing costs is a one-trick pony," says George Christy, principal of financial advisory firm Oakdale Advisors and author of Free Cash Flow. "You can only hold down headcount so much without hurting the quality of your products."
A shocking buildup of funds
The level of cash being built up by companies is staggering. Companies' cash piles are:
•Bigger than ever. The $837 billion in cash and short-term investments non-financial S&P 500 companies hold as of the first quarter, the latest data available, is not only a record, but up 26% from $665 billion a year ago, says Howard Silverblatt of S&P.
•Massive compared with companies' market values. Companies are holding cash equal to 10% of their total value, Silverblatt says. That's up from normal levels: Since 1999 companies held cash equal to 6.6% of their value on average.
•Dwarfing money spent on investments. Non-financial S&P 500 companies invested $130 billion on new facilities and equipment in the fourth quarter of 2009, the latest data available from S&P. That's an improvement from the previous three quarters, but down 12% from the levels a year earlier.
And it's not as though companies are rapidly boosting dividends or buying back their stock. S&P 500 companies paid $50.4 billion in dividends in the second quarter, up 5.9% from a year ago but up just 2.3% from the first quarter and well below the $67 billion paid in late 2007, S&P says.
Merger and acquisition activity, another major use of corporate cash, is also slow to recover. Companies spent more than $411 billion buying U.S. companies this year through the second quarter, down 9.5% from the same year-ago period, Dealogic says.
Scared to spend
Companies continue to stockpile cash, in part, because they don't want to be caught in a bind like many were when credit markets froze in late 2007 through 2009, says Lee Pinkowitz, finance professor at Georgetown University. "Companies want cash for a rainy day," he says. "People didn't realize how rainy it could get."
Meanwhile, cash is ballooning as technology companies have a more significant presence in the economy, Kahle says. Most of the biggest holders of cash are technology firms, including Cisco Systems (CSCO), Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), Oracle (ORCL) and Intel (INTC), which routinely hold big cash piles to prepare for a sudden shift in technology.
Meanwhile, investors are being more patient than usual with cash-rich companies.
Investors don't want companies to rush out and invest and hire just because they have cash, says Marc Gerstein, research consultant for market data provider Portfolio 123. "Getting a low return on cash is the second-worst thing companies can do. The worst thing is to waste the cash."
Waiting for right opportunity
Some companies say they're ready to use their cash as soon as there are opportunities. Intel, the massive computer chipmaker, ended its most recent quarter with more than $18 billion in cash and investments that can quickly be turned into cash, up from $11.6 billion a year ago, which puts it in the top 10 of cash-rich S&P 500 companies. "Intel is a cash-generating machine," says Patrick Wang of Wedbush Securities.
Intel is holding cash so it's ready to build manufacturing plants, which cost upward of $4 billion, when needed, spokesman Tom Beermann says. The company also pays a 3% dividend yield, which is higher than the average paid by other technology firms. Intel also stands ready to make investments.
And online retailer Priceline (PCLN), which ended its most recent quarter with $1.2 billion in cash, paid down $500 million in debt the past several years, spent hundreds of millions of acquisitions, including recently TravelJigsaw, and bought back $100 million in stock in the first quarter.
Once companies get more comfortable about the economy's future, the hoarding mentality might ease a bit, Kahle says. "Cash can't increase indefinitely. If cash is 100% of assets, then firms aren't doing anything."
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