At the end of 2004 total U.S. corporate cash holdings reached an all-time high of just under $2 trillion—an amount equal to roughly 15% of the total U.S. GDP. And during the past 25 years, average cash holdings have jumped from 10% to 23% of total corporate assets. But at the same time their levels of cash have risen, U.S. companies have paid out dramatically increasing amounts of cash to buy back shares.
This article addresses the following questions: What accounts for the dramatic increase in the average level of corporate cash holdings since 1980? And why do some companies keep so much cash (with one fourth of U.S. firms holding cash amounting to at least 36% of total assets) while others have so little (with another quarter having less than 3%)? Why do companies pay out excess cash in the form of stock repurchases (rather than, say, dividends), and what explains the significant increase in repurchases (both in absolute terms and relative to dividends) over time?
The author begins by arguing that cash reserves provide companies with a buffer against possible shortfalls in operating profits—one that, especially during periods of financial trouble, can be used to avoid financial distress or provide funding for promising projects that might otherwise have to be put off. Such buffers are particularly valuable in the case of smaller, riskier companies with lots of growth opportunities and limited access to capital markets. And the dramatic increase in corporate cash holdings between 1980 and the present can be attributed mainly to an increase in the risk of publicly traded companies—an increase in risk that reflects in part a general increase in competition, but also a notable change over time in the kinds of companies (smaller, newer, less profitable, non-dividend paying firms) that have chosen to go public.
At the other end of the corporate spectrum are large, relatively mature companies with limited growth opportunities. Although such companies tend to produce considerable free cash flow, they also tend to retain relatively small amounts of cash (as a percentage of total assets), in part because of shareholder concern about the corporate “free cash flow problem”—the well-documented tendency of such companies to destroy value through overpriced (often diversifying) acquisitions and other misguided attempts to pursue growth at the expense of profitability.
For companies with highly predictable earnings and investment plans, dividends provide one means of addressing the free cash flow problem. But for companies with more variable earnings and less predictable reinvestment, open-market stock repurchases provide a more flexible means of distributing cash to shareholders. Unlike the corporate “commitment” implied by dividend payments, an open market stock repurchase program creates what amounts to an option but not an obligation to distribute funds. The value of such flexibility, which increases during periods of increased risk and uncertainty, explains much of the apparent substitution of repurchases for dividends in recent years.