On Corporate Cash

In human terms, we are most often best off with the via media, that is, the middle way.  So it is with corporate cash.    The first article I wrote on the internet (in 2003) argued for the value of excess cash in the hands of intelligent management teams.

But there is a limit to that, and more so when many companies build up large slack cash balances.  Think of the converse: only one really intelligent company has a lot of slack cash.  That company starts buying up other companies like a clever private equity buyer, but taking account of synergies with existing companies in the process.

Such a buyer would understand the value of each company purchased, and how much fat could be cut out, synergies realized, etc.  But even as that one company acted, valuations would rise with each purchase, until the “intelligent company” stopped buying, because it was no longer reasonable to buy at the higher valuations.

If this is true with one clever buyer, it is true with many not-so-clever-buyers, but it takes longer, and there will be errors, failures even, and more.

It is hard to deploy cash effectively as a corporation, aside from the simple routes of dividends and buybacks.   But companies that are good at doing small acquisitions that improve organic prospects can do far better than companies that blindly acquire for reasons of scale.

The company with a lot of cash will look for a scale acquisition, and will overpay, or, will overpay for an acquisition in an unrelated industry, creating a conglomerate that is hard to manage.

It would be far better to pay it out as a dividend, or buy stock back.  The shareholders as a group have a better idea of what is valuable in the public markets than the management team does, particularly aas public valuations get high.

Thus, I agree with Michael Santoli of Barron’s in his recent article.  The additional cash in the hands of many growth companies is depressing valuation measures, and should be paid out as dividends, or with an eye to the price, buy back stock.

And, I disagree with the fellow who wrote this article, that large corporate cash hoards are a reason to buy equities.  That might make sense if one knew what companies would get bought  out, but no one knows that.  In general, it is hard to pick acquisition targets profitably.  If major corporations can’t do it, odds are you can’t do it either.

For one more point on corporate cash generally, don’t pay much attention to it, because corporate cash often serves as collateral for futures positions, and other derivatives.  Cash on the balance sheet is often encumbered.  Maybe accounting standards should be modified to reflect that, because knowing the true liquidity of a company is valuable.