Photographer: Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg

Cash-Stuffed Balance Sheets No Match for U.S. Company Debt

  • Near-term debt coverage drops below 100%, Moody’s says
  • Record $1.68 trillion on hand versus $1.8 trillion owed

There’s more cash sitting on company balance sheets than ever before. For the first time since 2012, that’s not enough.

Combining all of the corporate cash in the U.S. wouldn’t cover the $1.8 trillion of corporate debt that’s coming due in the next five years, according to a report by Moody’s Investors Service on Friday. That’s because U.S. companies have been borrowing more quickly than they’ve built up the record $1.68 trillion of cash on their balance sheets. And more of that debt comes due sooner.

"You’re seeing more and more borrowing," Richard Lane, a senior vice president at Moody’s, said by phone. "The increase in leverage has been notable."

Cash coverage of near-term maturities hasn’t fallen below 100 percent since 2012, and hasn’t been as low as its current 93 percent since the year before that, according to Moody’s.

Sluggish Growth

One reason may be that companies are making less money from running their businesses. Cash flow from operations declined 0.2 percent to $1.54 trillion in the 12 months ended in December 2015, the first time the metric declined in Moody’s data going back to 2007. 

To cope with sluggish global growth, companies went to the bond market to raise cash at rock-bottom rates. They issued a record $1.4 trillion of bonds last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That helped lead to a 17 percent increase in the amount of company debt outstanding that matures in the next five years.

In contrast, cash holdings only increased by 1.8 percent among U.S. non-financial companies at the end of 2015, according to Moody’s. The credit rater’s definition of cash includes short-term investments and liquid long-term investments.

Looking only at the aggregate cash figure camouflages another phenomenon. Most of the $1.7 trillion of cash on corporate balance sheets is being hoarded by only 50 companies, the bulk of which are in the technology and health-care sectors.

Apple Inc. kept its crown as cash king -- a superlative it earned in 2009 -- and has $216 billion on its balance sheet. That’s more than the amount held by energy, automotive and manufacturing companies combined.

Microsoft Corp., which is one of only two non-financial U.S. companies that still have the highest corporate credit rating from S&P Global Ratings, had $103 billion of cash on its balance sheet at the end of 2015. Google Inc. came in third, with $73 billion of cash.

A lot of that cash was stashed overseas, presumably to avoid having to pay taxes to repatriate it into U.S. dollars, according to Moody’s. In 2015, $1.2 trillion, or 72 percent of total cash holdings, was held overseas.

Rather than repatriate money, many U.S. companies borrowed in the domestic bond market to fund mergers and acquisitions, or to return money to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks.

The rampant borrowing has caused corporate leverage to spike among even the highest quality companies. Debt at investment-grade companies rose to 2.35 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization last year, the highest since before the financial crisis, compared with a level of 1.57 in 2007, the report shows.

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