Accounting Gimmicks Have Boosted The Collective S&P 500 Cash Balance By Over $150 Billion Since The Start Of The Crisis

Much has been said lately about the record cash balance on the books of S&P 500 companies (ex. financials- those are a different story altogether). Bullish pundits claim that this money will be used for all sorts of M&A, stock buybacks, expansions, etc., to make the point that companies can't wait to go out spending, so we should all front run them and buy whatever public companies may one day be on the auction block. We decided to take the inverse approach - by looking at the balance sheet and the cash flow statement of the S&P 500 companies (again, ex fins), we have attempted to understand just what the source of all this excess cash is. Listening to any of the permabulls on CNBC, one could easily get the impression that all this newly record cash comes simply from excess revenue which, courtesy of massive layoffs and a collapsing SG&A line, feeds an ever increasing retained earnings line, which in turn goes straight to cash. While this is certainly possible, our analysis indicates that the primary source of cash over the past year has really been a very generous cash "rotating" adjustment in some critical CapEx and Net Working Capital items. Our findings demonstrate that of the nearly $130 billion in additional cash on the books of S&P 500 companies from June 2008, through September 2009, two key sources, net working capital and a reduced capex spend, have generated over $150 billion, meaning organic operations have accounted for a whopping -$20 billion (yes, negative) of incremental cash.

We have used CapitalIQ data to analyze quarterly periods beginning in December 31, 2005 through September 30, 2009 (the data for the most recent quarter has not been fully compiled yet, with about 100 companies having yet to file a 10-Q. Once all the required data has been deposited into Edgar, we will update this analysis for data including the Q4 2009 period).

First, we present the cash holdings for all companies, ex. fins, that make up the S&P 500. It should come as no surprise to anyone that companies have been hoarding cash: whether this is due to uncertainties about the future, or some other reason, is irrelevant. Again, our focus here is whether this cash was accumulated fair and square, or whether it was some simple accounting fudge of balance sheet/cash flow items.

So once we know that S&P500 balance sheets are replete with cash, the next question is not where it is going, but where did it come from. In other words, is this merely a transfer from one asset/liability to another?

We analyzed the Capital Expenditures and Depreciation and Amortization data of the universe under observation. What we noticed was a dramatic reduction in cash outflow patterns, coupled with a substantial increase in the depreciation and amortization, beginning with the Q1 2009 quarter, or just after the economy went to hell in H2 2008. As the chart below demonstrates, CapEx which has historically trended not only higher, but represented an average $26 billion differential to Depreciation and Amortization over the past 4 years, took a sudden and dramatic leg down beginning in Q1 2009. At precisely the same time companies, no doubt in order to get the benefit of a D&A tax shield, ramped up their asset depreciation activities. The net result: for the first time in many years, the differential between CapEx and D&A turned negative: companies were depreciating more than they were adding to their PP&E, in Q1, Q2 and Q3 (although in Q3 the number turned just slightly positive). This is the definition of asset stagnation, as normal asset-intensive businesses (remember, this exercise excludes financial companies), need to add to their PP&E by more than they traditionally depreciate due to the unequal GAAP amortization schedules. In other words, in the first three quarters of 2009, the S&P 500 asset base depreciated by much more than it was repleted, thus substantially impairing its cash-generative powers. This can be seen on the chart below.

It is no wonder then that companies managed to "generate" substantial cash - instead of investing in their asset base, they simply let PP&E (unadjusted for various GAAP gimmicks) decline, while building the cash and cash equivalents portion of the balance sheet.

What will be the impact of this going forward as the PP&E has to be renormalized? In the LTM period CapEx - D&A was negative $42 billion, while the average LTM differential over the past 4 years has been positive $13 billion. This means that companies will have to spend an incremental $55 billion over time just to catch up to the PP&E trendline, let alone to add incremental cash generating assets. And since the immediate IRR for organic capex is traditionally much higher than for external acquisitions (with some notable exceptions), it is only after this catch-up has been accomplished, that the S&P500 companies will be truly seeking M&A opportunities, as opposed to what the mainstream media will have you believe. The topic of how much less in taxes S&P 500 companies paid in 2009 due to the tax shield nature of the incremental D&A boost is a topic for another day.

In addition to cash retention through asset deterioration, another favorite trick of company CFOs is to boost cash at the expense of Net Working Capital (ex. cash), i.e. the difference between current assets (Accounts Receivable and Inventory) and current liabilities (Accounts Payable). Therefore, the next analysis we did was to analyze the Net Working Capital status of S&P 500 members. The results were as expected: from a peak of $520 billion in June of 2008, NWC (ex. cash) has declined to the current almost three year low of $430 billion. In other words, as companies have accelerated their cash collections via declining AR balances, they have also pursued inventory liquidations, coupled with flat or expanding Accounts Payables. The chart below shows this accounting gimmick in vivid color:

Following the cash generated by this decline in NWC, leads to the following chart: as pointed out above, roughly $90 billion has been generated simply as a function of squeezing cash out of other current net working capital, and simply rotating this into the cash & cash equivalents balance sheet item.

So what does combining all this data conclude? As was pointed out initially, the non-financial S&P500 companies boosted their cash holdings by roughly $130 billion from June 30, 2008 through September 30, 2009. This would have been great if this was cash attained in the traditional way, whereby sales get converted into retained earnings, and cash, all else equal. However, a dig through several hundred balance sheets and cash flow statements, indicates that of this $130 billion cash increase, about $90 billion was due to Net Working Capital Changes, and another $55 billion was due simply to underfunding capex by an amount required to preserve maintenance cash generation from existing asset bases. Which means that of the cash boost, operations generated a whopping...($15) billion in cash! Had companies not been using accounting gimmicks to boost cash on a one time basis, current cash would likely have been about $15 billion lower than June 30, 2008, or $688 billion. The adjusted cash balance, normalizing for Net Working Capital shifts and normalizing CapEx spending since June 30, 2008 is shown below:

The conclusion is that one should be very wary of generalizations such as those by JP Morgan which claim that companies, sitting on huge cash war chests, are now ready to go out and spend, spend, spend. The truth is that had companies not been using various accounting fudge factors, their real cash position would have been much more precarious. Should companies revert to their mean Net Working Capital and CapEx exposure over the past 4 years, we will see $155 billion of cash disappear merely to plug the hole that was dug over the past 3 quarters merely to make S&P 500 balance sheets more palatable.

We will update this analysis with Q4 data as soon as it is available in its entirety.


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