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More buybacks, less capex in 2016: Goldman

Corporate America likely will continue to focus the greater share of cash it shells out in 2016 on buying back stocks and issuing dividends, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis.

Of the $2.2 trillion S&P 500 firms are expected to spend next year, more than $1 trillion will go to buybacks and dividends alone, Goldman chief equity strategist David Kostin and others said in a report for clients.

By contrast, capital expenditures likely will get $650 billion, just a 1 percent increase over 2015 levels that have been steadily declining. In the third quarter, capex plunged 5.6 percent to $153 billion, subtracting nearly a full point off gross domestic product, which grew a meager 1.5 percent in the quarter, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Capex, or gross private domestic investment, plunged during the financial crisis and has been on a mostly measured move higher.

Companies have preferred using cheap money courtesy of the Federal Reserve to reduce share counts and send money back to investors.

Despite surveys indicating that portfolio managers want companies to spend more on capex, Goldman said companies that returned cash to shareholders through buybacks and dividends have performed better in 2015. Goldman's basket of stocks with the highest combined level of buybacks and dividends has gained 5 percent this year, while those with the highest ratio of capex and research and development to market capitalization have lost 5 percent.

"We expect high cash return strategies to outperform given modest GDP growth, low rates, and slim equity returns," the Goldman note said. "A similar macro environment in 2015 rewarded stocks with high cash returns to shareholders while firms investing in capex lagged."

The corporate cash pile currently totals more than $1.43 trillion for S&P 500 companies, according to FactSet, with the number rising to $2.06 trillion for all companies, Fed data show. Cash balances have been growing, with the current level the second highest in 10 years.

The current capex slowdown is much the fault of the beleaguered energy industry, which posted a 23.8 percent drop in the category for the third quarter. Industrials showed a 13.5 percent decrease.

Excluding energy, capex will rise a more substantial 6 percent in 2016, Goldman said. However, tallying investments without the sector has limited benefits in drawing a full picture as energy is traditionally the biggest spender.

Goldman also predicted companies will decrease the amount of cash dedicated to mergers and acquisitions. During the first half of 2015, cash M&A totaled $191 billion, a $6 billion increase from all of 2014. All M&A in the U.S. has totaled a record $1.84 trillion this year, according to Dealogic.