When the corporate cash dam bursts, everything will be ok, right? Well, maybe.
Investors betting that the past year of more than 20 percent gains in western stock markets can be echoed, or at least sustained, through 2014 have long assumed that a corporate spending revival will nurture a building economic recovery.
The argument is simple. Years of banking crises, credit droughts and economic uncertainty have prevented businesses investing for the future. Instead, they have clipped costs, wages and jobs and built up huge stockpiles of cash rather than investing in new plants, staff, updated technology, equipment or acquisitions.
As the economic fog lifts, this idle, near zero-yielding cash will surely be put back to work eventually, they argue, creating a potentially virtuous circle of greater demand, higher growth, earnings and employment all round.
The problem, however, is that assumes cash stockpiling has all been due simply to a hiatus in the economic cycle. Many argue the hoarding is instead driven by more durable demographic trends and political reforms that are stirring corporate anxiety about exposure to soaring pension and healthcare costs as workforces age and government coffers shrink.
If that's true, then this brewing economic recovery may not release pent-up business cash on any scale close to that suggested by the eye-popping cashpiles.
(Read more: US companies hold record cash)