Why Are Companies Holding So Much Cash?
Corporations around the world, and especially those based in the United States are currently holding
unprecedented piles of cash.
U.S. non-financial companies are now holding some $2 trillion is cash, 30 percent more than on the eve of the Great Recession in 2008 and twice what they held in 2000. In the euro zone, companies are holding 2.3 trillion euros, 15 percent more than in 2008.
The whys and wherefores of this phenomenon was the subject of a recent webcast sponsored by HSBC Bank.
“Some companies are holding the cash for M&A activity while others see it as an insurance policy,” said Zac Nesper, vice president and assistant treasurer at HP Inc.
The latter strategy might by pursued by companies having a negative outlook on their future operations or are having trouble managing their balance sheet, noted Ataman Ozyildirim, an economist at The Conference Board.
“They may have started holding cash when they were deleveraging,” said Ozyildirim, “and that may have evolved now to looking out for new opportunities. The motivation changes over the business cycle.”
The business cycle in the U.S. is maturing, according to Ozyildirim, as the economy has experienced seven years of expansion since the end of the recession. Under those conditions, he said, “the number of available projects with an attractive yield get fewer and competition increases.” That motivates companies to keep cash on hand for “firepower” when mergers and acquisitions opportunities present themselves.
At the same time, a mature business cycle sees inflation picking up and a diminishing labor supply putting upward pressure on wages. “As things get more expensive, corporations need to hold on to cash to be ready for that,” said Ozyildirim.
In other words, in today’s environment, companies may have multiple motivations to stockpile cash.
Technology firms are holding 40 percent of the cash and it is in that sector where most of the acquisitions opportunities present themselves. “There have been 173 private U.S. companies with a valuation of $1 billion or formed since 2011,” said Nesper.
Consumer goods and healthcare companies are also leaders in hording cash, noted Drew Douglas, regional head of payments and cash management at HSBC Bank USA.
“Shareholders are showing different attitudes toward who holds cash and who doesn’t,” he added. “In some cases they apply a premium to the cash and in others the cash is discounted heavily to valuation. This shows investors’ views of companies’ capabilities to redeploy that cash and find investment opportunities.”
Because of its greater potential for M&A opportunities, investors are exhibiting more tolerance toward cash hording in the technology space than in others, according to Douglas.
As for other sectors of the economy, it will be interesting to see whether, eventually, investors will want to see some of that cash returned to them.
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