It’s like an episode of “Hoarders.” Corporate America can’t stop collecting cash.
“I think most CFOs would not admit they’ve hoarded too much cash,” says John Graham, finance professor at Duke University.
He estimates that companies have about 50 percent more cash on their balance sheets than they did 10 or 15 years ago.
Is it time for an intervention?
“They did just live through the financial crisis,” he says. “They think they're being prudent, you want to hold your cash, in case it becomes difficult to borrow down the road.”
Non-financial companies — like Microsoft and Merck — had a total of $1.6 trillion in cash at the end of 2013, according to Moody’s.
“A lot of money is effectively just sitting there.” says Richard Lane, a senior vice president at Moody’s. “And, where it’s sitting increasingly is offshore.”
It’s locked up overseas, mostly to avoid U.S. taxes.
“I don’t need Apple to save money. My local bank or credit union will handle it for me just fine,” says David Cay Johnston, a lecturer at Syracuse University’s College of Law. Corporate hoarding affects the economy.
“What you’re not seeing them do with this cash is invest in new factories and research operations, which would create jobs and fundamentally grow the business,” Johnston says.
There are signs companies are loosening up a little. Apple just made its biggest-ever acquisition, spending $3 billion to acquire headphone maker Beats.
And activists are increasingly pressuring companies to give more of their profits back to investors.
In a recent survey of CFOs, about half said their companies are going to invest in their businesses soon. But the other half? They’re not budging.