The Golden Age Of US Corporations Is Ending: S&P 500 Cash Has Peaked And Is Now Declining

One of the biggest “givens” of the New Normal was that no matter what happens, US corporations would build their cash hoard come hell or high water. Whether this was a function of saving for a rainy day in a world in which external liquidity could evaporate overnight, whether it was to have dry powder for dividends and other shareholder friendly transactions, or to be able to engage in M&A and other business transformations (but not CapEx, anything but CapEx), corporate cash swelled to over $2 trillion (the bulk of it held in deposit accounts, or directly invested in “cash equivalents” i.e. risk assets, in banks in the US and abroad). Whatever the use of funds, the source was quite clear: ever declining interests rate which allowed corporate refinancings into ever lower cash rates, a “buyer’s market” when it comes to employees, the bulk of which have been transformed into low paid geriatric (55 years and older), part-time workers: the only two categories that have seen a steady improvement in employment since the start of the second great depression, and low, low corporate taxes (for cash tax purposes; for GAAP purposes it is different story altogether). So some may be surprised that the great corporate cash hoard build appears to have finally tapered off. As the chart below from Goldman shows, after hitting an all time high of 11.2%, the ratio of S&P500 cash to total assets has once again started to decline.

The implications of this chart may be innocuous, or, more likely, they may be very profound.

Recall that it was about 2 quarters ago that corporate profit margins peaked and have since declined steadily. Add to that the decline in revenues and EPS, and one can see that the natural cash generation capacity of US companies is also declining in parallel. Of course, as this is a ratio, the question is what other assets are rising to compensate for it.

We know what assets are not rising: Net P,P&E for one has been flat at best if not declining, as the rate of Depreciation and Amortization has been far greater than CapEx investments in recent years. While this has been a benefit for cash flow creation (lower taxes), it has also meant that future revenues will continue contracting as absent reinvestment in a business, absent renewing the capital base of businesses, there can be no organic growth.

Which means the offset may be rising goodwill, which is possible with the recent increase in M&A, although as the H&P – Autonomy transaction showed, goodwill on balance sheets is one fraudulent reports away from being fully written down.

It could also be Net Working Capital, which however means that more and more corporate liquidity is locked up in Net-30/60/ or 90 terms, which while indicative of some easing in counterparty confidence, means that should companies need full access to their cash, they won’t have it.

Finally, it may well be a pure and simply outflow of cash as more and more is dividended to shareholders, or as retained earnings are built up following stock repurchases, following urgent shareholder demands to boost returns.

We hope to have a far more detailed answer to the question what is offsetting the drop in Corporate cash after the earning season is over, when we can analyze the full S&P500 balance sheet on a sequential basis. 

But what is certain is that the days of the inexorable corporate cash growth are now over, and cash is now declining. What is also declining is the future growth of corporations, as well as their general profitability, even as their capex spending remains at near all time low depressed levels, while the asset base is aging faster and faster, generating lower and lower ROAs. One thing that will certainly be rising for US corporations, are cash tax rates, meaning even more cash outflows.

Which leads us to square one: now that corporate cash is once again declining, as it did in the period from the early 2000s until 2007 when the Great Depression 2.0 hit, only to soar afterward, does this mean that any hope of aggressive corporate EPS growth is now limited at best, and any future growth in the S&P is solely due to multiple expansion driven by the Fed’s dilution of money in circulation. And since the answer is yes, the problem with the latter is that multiple expansion works, until it doesn’t – i.e., until such time as the pace of input cost increase overwhelms the rise in revenues, and the only way for corporate profitability, and shareholders returns, is down.

That will be the time to get out of corporate Dodge.

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