There have been several cases in recent years—most notably, Chrysler—in which shareholders have objected to the level of companies' holdings of cash and other liquid assets. This paper describes the authors' study of the determinants of liquid asset holdings by publicly traded U.S. firms and how these holdings change over time. For those companies that appear to hold excess cash, the study also attempts to investigate whether such companies have a tendency to reduce value by “overinvesting”—a tendency described in the academic finance literature as the “free cash flow problem.”
According to the study, the most important determinants of corporate cash holdings are size, risk, and the extent of the firm's investment opportunities, with smaller, riskier, and high-growth firms holding larger amounts of cash as a percentage of total (noncash) assets. These results are consistent with corporate decisions to hold liquid assets in order to preserve the firm's ability to make strategic investments when operating cash flow turns down and outside funds are expensive.
The authors also report that most companies with large amounts of excess cash tend to acquire it mainly by accumulating internally generated cash flows, and not by issuing securities. Perhaps surprising, the study also finds that spending on new projects and acquisitions is only slightly higher for firms with excess cash—and that such firms also tend to have higher payouts to shareholders in the form of dividends or stock repurchases. Thus, there is little evidence in this study of a free cash flow problem, as well as some indication that managers are aware of and attempt to address the problem.