Apple, Google and Microsoft are sitting on a mountain of cash – and most of it is stashed far away from the taxman.
Those three tech behemoths held a total of $464 billion in cash at the end of last year, according to a Moody’s report published Wednesday.
Apple alone had a stunning quarter-trillion dollars of cash thanks to years of gigantic profits and few major acquisitions. That’s enough money to buy Netflix three times. It’s also more cash than what’s sitting on the balance sheet of every major industry except tech and health care.
All told, non-financial U.S. companies studied by Moody’s hoarded $1.84 trillion of cash at the end of last year. That’s up 11% from 2015 and nearly two and a half times the 2008 level.
Roughly $1.3 trillion – 70% of the total – is being held overseas, where the money isn’t subject to U.S. taxes. Apple, Google owner Alphabet, Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle hold 88% of their cash overseas.
Moody’s: US corporate cash pile grows to $1.84 trillion, led by tech sector
The full announcement from Moody’s:
The amount of cash held by US non-financial companies totaled $1.84 trillion at the end of 2016, up 9.2% from $1.68 trillion at the end of 2015, Moody’s Investors Service says in a new report. The top-five cash hoarders all come from the technology sector, with Apple holding a record high of $246.1 billion.
“The technology sector today holds the most cash among US non-financial companies, accounting for 47% of the total, followed by healthcare/pharmaceuticals, consumer products, and energy,” said Richard Lane, Moody’s Senior Vice President. “The top five most cash-flush companies — Apple, Microsoft, Google, Cisco and Oracle — now hold 32% of the total, with Apple by itself accounting for 13.4%.”
The latest increase in cash comes despite an overall decline in revenue and cash flow from operations, adds Lane. Reflecting a low growth global economic environment, still-challenging conditions in the energy, metals, and mining industries, and modest foreign-exchange headwinds, revenue fell 5.3% to $10.2 trillion in 2016. Meanwhile, cash flow from operations dropped 5.8% to $1.45 trillion.
However, capital spending declined by 18% to $727 billion, dragged down by the beleaguered energy sector. Acquisition spending fell by 2% to $393 billion last year, while net share buybacks slid 21% to $212 billion, helping corporate cash to pile up. At the same time, dividend payments decreased 4.5% to $386 billion on the back of a 35% decline in energy sector payouts.
Joining the list of 50 most cash-flush companies requires $6.12 billion of cash, about even with last year, but up from $6.07 billion in 2014 and $2.9 billion in 2007, Moody’s says. Investment-grade companies today hold $1.6 trillion in cash, or 87% of the total, up from $1.4 trillion, or 87%, in 2015. Issuers with single-A ratings represent 29.5% of the total, the largest percentage among all rating categories.
Moody’s estimates cash held overseas amounted to $1.3 trillion, or 70% of the total cash pile in 2016, up from its estimate of $1.2 trillion, or 72% of the total in 2015. This amount reflects the negative tax consequences of permanently repatriating money to the US, as well as the use of domestic cash for dividends, share buybacks and the majority of acquisitions.
Moody’s said the tower of money stashed abroad reflects the “negative tax consequences of permanently repatriating money to the U.S.”
The Trump administration has proposed a one-time tax holiday to encourage companies to bring that cash home. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in March that the fact Apple has “all this cash” is a symptom of the high U.S. corporate tax rate relative to foreign rates.
“Why would they bring cash back onshore and pay huge amounts of money?” Mnuchin said at an Axios event at the time.
That American companies are flush with cash shows how much healthier they’ve become since the Great Recession.
But corporations’ reluctance to spend that money is holding the recovery back. Cash sitting on the balance sheet is money that isn’t being put to work on job-creating investments like new factories.
Despite their swelling coffers, capital spending by U.S. companies plunged by 18% last year to $727 billion, according to Moody’s.
Much of that decline was because of a downturn in the oil industry, which forced energy companies to preserve cash by delaying investments.
Spending on dividends, stock buybacks and even acquisitions also declined last year, Moody’s said.
Wall Street is hoping Congress will go along with the administration and give companies an incentive to bring their huge sums of overseas cash back to America.
Proponents of a tax holiday argue that bringing the money home could unleash the U.S. economy by promoting hiring and investment. Critics say Main Street wouldn’t feel the effect because many companies would opt to reward shareholders with dividends and stock buybacks.
Of course, tax reform would be extremely complicated given the countless competing interests and the gridlock in Washington. The challenge is only more complicated by this week’s collapse of Senate Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Some analysts say a deal between President Trump and Congress on tax reform now appears less likely.
“The health care failure increases the level of desperation. But it makes the process, policy, and politics harder … of an already really hard issue,” Chris Krueger, senior policy analyst at Cowen Washington Research Group, wrote in a report on Wednesday.
So the mountain of cash companies like Apple have been hoarding may continue to grow.