More U.S. companies hoarded cash again in the third quarter, according to the latest Corporate Cash Indicators data from the Association for Financial Professionals, and their finance leaders expect to continue to maintain high levels of liquidity in the final quarter of 2016.
The difference between the percentage of corporate treasury and finance professionals whose firms increased short-term cash holdings quarter over quarter and those that depleted cash balances was +19, up 11 percentage points from the second quarter. The percentage of firms that increased cash holdings year over year as of the third quarter was up 7 percentage points, to +21.
(To calculate its cash scores, the association subtracts the percentage of respondents who report “decrease” from those that report “increase” in their cash and short-term investment hoardings.)
“The October CCI shows that corporates are taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to cash deployment, likely because of concerns over political uncertainty at home and abroad,” said a statement from AFP President and CEO Jim Kaitz. “Absent a strategic priority, organizations are holding on to their cash.”
The year-over-year change in cash holdings was the highest since July 2014, when global oil prices began their plummet, and the quarter-over-quarter change in cash holdings was the largest since January 2014.
AFP’s CCI also measures the change in their cash balances that finance professionals expect to see in the current quarter (see chart, above).
In the October measurement, 27% of finance executives told AFP that they expect their company’s cash balances to increase in the fourth quarter, while 23% said their cash balances would decrease, resulting in an index of +4. (Fifty percent indicated cash balances would be unchanged.) That result was down from +16 in the second quarter and +8 one year ago, suggesting companies will continue to build their short-term cash balances in the fourth quarter but at a slower pace.
The index for the expected change in cash holdings has only been negative about a third of the time since AFP started tracking quarterly cash levels of U.S. companies in January 2011. Indeed, only once, in January 2015, did more than 30% of finance professionals say they would be depleting their cash reserves in the current quarter. The last time finance executives indicated they would be eating into their cash balances was in January 2016.
According to the AFP, all other things held constant, optimistic companies are more likely to deploy their cash holdings, and spending on increased capital expenditures, mergers & acquisitions, hiring, and increased dividend payouts and share repurchases. Conversely, pessimistic executives are likely to retain their cash holdings. However, sustained low interest rates and a favorable corporate bond market have enabled many companies to issue debt instead of tap cash reserves.
The top 30 companies in the S&P 500 hold the bulk of corporate cash, according to Standard & Poor’s, and a couple of trillion dollars of that is overseas. Experts are speculating that some companies are awaiting a federal tax holiday that would enable them to repatriate their foreign profits at a lower tax rate. That happened in 2014, when companies were allowed to bring back foreign cash at a 5.25% tax rate.
In early October, S&P proposed a solution to the idle foreign cash on company balance sheets: a rule requiring companies to commit a portion of any overseas profits they bring back for infrastructure improvements.
“Companies would get a zero tax rate on repatriated earnings in exchange for committing 15% of the returned money to investments in, for example, interest-bearing infrastructure bonds issued by state and local governments,” said S&P.