- Cost-cutting measures during the recession have paid off handily for non-financial US corporations, who are sitting on a record $1.84 trillion cash stockpile.
- Friday's May retail sales report showed a dip of -1.2% month-over-month, stirring concerns of economic weakness reminiscent of "tapped out consumer" fears
- But note, consumer spending held up well during the recession relative to more volatile economic metrics like business spending.
- While high cash balances aren't in and of themselves bullish, they typically lead business spending and investment—which is enormously positive.
The Fed announced Thursday there's $1.84 trillion of cash on the balance sheets of US corporations—up a record 26% year-over-year. That's the entire GDP of Greece—more than five times over!* If this cash were a nation's GDP, it would rank 11th in the world. Now, our hypothetical nation, Cashlandia, isn't in itself bullish—which pessimists are quick to point out. But increasing business spending is extremely bullish. And historically, rising corporate liquidity has been an accurate leading indicator of increasing business spending.
Investors may instead be tempted to focus (incorrectly, in our view) on US May retail sales, released Friday, which missed estimates and showed a -1.2% month-over-month decline. Headlines screamed the unexpected dip was a harbinger of negative things to come. We'd disagree, considering sales were still up almost 7% year-over-year and that retail sales dipped last September and then rose the next eight months. Further, data doesn't speak to an empty-pocketed consumer—US consumer spending fell just under 2% during the recession.
By contrast, business spending—a much more volatile metric—was a key contributor to the recession's depth. 2008's financial panic signaled to many business leaders that expansion plans and other deployments of cash held should be frozen—and freeze them they did, as US private investment (mostly business spending) fell over 27% during the recession. These cuts, while painful to endure at the time, have gradually built an exceptionally lean and mean Corporate America—one flush with cash—as Friday's news showed.
It doesn't seem to us firms are in batten-down-the-hatches mode anymore. In the past few quarters, businesses have begun to spend—a solidly positive contributor to US GDP's turnaround. The ongoing global economic revival is pushing CEOs to become increasingly antsy with cash yielding next to zero. Shareholders are highly likely to command more return than idle cash provides—and businesses are likely to comply by putting the cash to work in an array of means from investing in efficiency-generating newer technology, to expansion, all the way through increasing dividends and share buybacks—actions hard to interpret as anything other than positives.
Fat corporate wallets gradually opening is high octane fuel for economic expansion to continue—and it's easy to see the tank is not just full, but overflowing.
*Source: CIA World Factbook, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html