Money Matters: The $2 trillion corporate cash hoard

By David G. Wilson Jr.

The Daily Record Newswire

Since the onset of the financial crisis, corporations have been preserving cash to ensure their survival. Now, more than two years later, corporate giants have built a war chest of almost $2 trillion in cash. This, according to a December issue of the Wall Street Journal, represents 7.4 percent of company assets -- the highest level in more than half a century. But those tight purse strings may finally be loosening in 2011. Cash is earning virtually nothing and as economic conditions improve and cash reserves grow even stronger, companies may finally be willing to part with some of that cash. Following are a few likely scenarios for 2011:

With the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the tax on dividends remains at a maximum of 15 percent. This alone should help boost corporate willingness to pay more dividends. In 2010, dividends increased 8 percent, and with strong profits continuing and cash flows increasing, dividends could reach 9 percent in 2011.

More importantly, I believe shareholders are hungry for higher payouts because yields on fixed-income instruments are paltry and dividend payout ratios are still very low. So if companies gain more confidence, they could easily surprise investors with more generous payouts. In my opinion, large corporations have an advantage because they have easier access to capital markets and are in better position to aggressively increase dividends in 2011.

Abundant cash, available credit and improved confidence could make 2011 an active year for mergers and acquisitions. According to leading investment bankers, this activity has already picked up significantly. Worldwide merger activity increased 25 percent in 2010 and could jump another 15 percent in 2011. In addition, shareholders may also begin pressuring boards to start doing something with all that cash.

Following the financial crisis, valuations were hard to determine given the dislocations in the market, and companies were reluctant to part with cash until confidence returned. With domestic growth rates still below normal recovery levels, corporations should look for new growth initiatives and strategic mergers.

Private-equity firms may be eager to jump-start the acquisition trail and bankers may now be more willing to fund deals. A new source for deals also has arrived: Emerging countries such as China and Russia are becoming much more active in major transactions. 2011 could bring increased international acquisitions, particularly in emerging markets.

Strong balance sheets and higher confidence levels should make companies more willing to invest in their future through new equipment, research and development, and new manufacturing and processing facilities. According to a January issue of the Wall Street Journal, in the third quarter of 2010, capital spending on software and equipment by U.S. companies increased 15 percent to over $1 trillion, nearing pre-recession levels.

And now after year-end legislation, corporations can deduct 100 percent of expenditures for certain types of equipment. Probably the biggest reason to increase capital spending is to stay ahead of the competition and increase productivity and margins, because most companies have already squeezed out about as much as they can without hindering growth.

If these scenarios pan out, how might an investor take advantage of the situation? First, look for companies that have significantly increased their cash position and are in solid position to raise their dividend.

Second, find companies that might be good acquisition candidates - minimal sales penetration overseas, struggles to obtain credit or refinancing during the financial crisis, and openness to a merger partner. In my opinion, investors should "follow the money."

And as always, consult with a financial adviser before making any investment decision.

David G. Wilson Jr. is senior vice president of investments with the Wilson Financial Group of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. Inc. in Portland. Contact him at 503-499-6260 or wilsond@stifel.com. Information herein is from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. Investment involves risk and may result in losses.

Published: Tue, Feb 22, 2011

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