Where's All That Idle Cash, and What's It Worth?

For those who thought record levels of idle cash were limited to the coffers of corporate America, think again.


According to data compiled by Standard & Poor's Valuation Strategies, the top 50 cash hoarders hold some $1.1 trillion in cash on their balance sheets, but only one-third of these names are US-based.

Companies like Toyota , with $48 billion, China Mobile, with $47 billion, and Petrobras , with $35 billion, have helped regions like Japan, China and Brazil whittle away at the U.S.'s share of this cash stash.

Europe boasts 17 companies on the list as well, with cash-heavy anchors like Total SA , Volkswagen and Vodafone .

Richard Peterson, director at Standard & Poor’s Valuation Strategies, said the abundance of capital abroad will not only lead to higher earnings, but it will also lead to more cross-border deal activity.

"If you're only getting 1 to 2 percent on short term or mid term paper, maybe that money is better put to use elsewhere." -Director, Standard & Poor's Valuation Strategies, Richard Peterson

"If you're only getting 1 to 2 percent on short-term or mid-term paper, maybe that money is better put to use elsewhere," Peterson said.

Companies that aren’t using cash for deals still have options, like paying out dividends or buying back shares. Many investors are betting that, since cash on a company’s balance sheet eventually gets returned in one of those ways, they can discount it from the company’s stock price. For instance, buying Microsoft—with shares at around $28, and cash at $4.80—would mean the stock only costs $23.20.

But it might not be a case of simple subtraction. If management holds to promises to reinvest the capital in the business, returns could be boosted, according to Howard Silverblatt, a strategist at Standard & Poor’s.

Microsoft , for instance, earns only 2.35 percent interest on the $40.2 billion cash it has on hand, but it’s managed to score a 40.6 percent return on equity, according to data provided by Standard & Poor's. (The S&P 500 index earns average interest of 1.48 percent on the $903 billion its companies are sitting on.)

Not all companies have Microsoft’s reinvestment capability. "Investors are going to become less patient with (companies) holding cash,” says Milton Ezrati, chief strategist at Lord, Abbett. If companies wait more than three quarters to start using their reserves, it becomes “a question of whether management knows what it’s doing and if it has a plan for the future. And if it has a plan, it should be executing that plan.”

Both Silverblatt and Ezrati agreed: Whether these plans are in the form of cross-border deals or a bump to the dividend, it needs to hit the bottom line as soon as possible.