Why are companies hoarding cash?

Tim Cook, Apple CEO (AAP)
Tim Cook, Apple CEO (AAP)

Some of the world's biggest companies have massive piles of spare cash, far more than they know what to do with.

MarketWatch reports that the top five cashed up companies are dominated by tech names.

The fifth-biggest hoarder of cash is Cisco Systems, with NZ$96 billion. That is almost half of its total market valuation.

Next up is Alphabet (Google), which has cash and bonds totalling NZ$119 billion. That is despite Google buying about one company a week.

Sitting at third is Microsoft. It has cash and bonds totalling NZ$170 billion, about 25 percent of its market capitalisation.

General Electric has reserves of around NZ$185 billion, almost half of the company's total value. It has recently been simplifying its operations, and that is why it is sitting on so much money right now.

The company with the biggest cash pile is Apple. It is sitting on around NZ$323 billion -- a third of its total value.

It used to be that companies would reinvest their spare cash, or pay it out to investors in dividends. But over the past 15 years more and more global giants have opted to save the cash.

The reasons are varied. Some are saving it for tougher times. Some want to have cash ready to invest in the next big thing.

There are tax gains to be made for US companies by holding onto the money. Under US tax law as soon as a company brings cash back from overseas it triggers tax payments, but companies can invest in US government bonds without triggering those payments. Some opt to keep their cash in tax havens.

One option, suggested by investor Charles Gave, is to pass laws that would allow these giant corporations to pass their profits on to shareholders as tax-free dividends, but be taxed 100 percent on retained earnings.

The idea is that shareholders could then decide for themselves whether to reinvest the cash, save it in a bank account or spend it.

Another idea is for the US, European and Japanese governments to follow the example set by the New Zealand and Australian governments.

Both countries have 'franking credits'. Investors are taxed at a discounted rate, receiving a credit for tax already paid by the company. This ensures profits are not taxed twice.

Financial writer Alan Kohler says franking credits might encourage US, European and Japanese corporations to pay out more of their profits, leaving their shareholders to do the work currently being done by the central bankers.

He argues that instead of the central banks printing money to stimulate the economy, dividend payments could do the heavy lifting.