Accounting Gimmicks Have Boosted The Collective S&P 500 Cash Balance By Over $150 Billion Since Start of the Crisis

Zero Hedge (20 Feb 10)

Much has been said lately about the record cash balance on the books of S&P 500 companies (ex. financials- those are a different story altogether). Bullish pundits claim that this money will be used for all sorts of M&A, stock buybacks, expansions, etc., to make the point that companies can’t wait to go out spending, so we should all front run them and buy whatever public companies may one day be on the auction block. We decided to take the inverse approach – by looking at the balance sheet and the cash flow statement of the S&P 500 companies (again, ex fins), we have attempted to understand just what the source of all this excess cash is. Listening to any of the permabulls on CNBC, one could easily get the impression that all this newly record cash comes simply from excess revenue which, courtesy of massive layoffs and a collapsing SG&A line, feeds an ever increasing retained earnings line, which in turn goes straight to cash. While this is certainly possible, our analysis indicates that the primary source of cash over the past year has really been a very generous cash “rotating” adjustment in some critical CapEx and Net Working Capital items. Our findings demonstrate that of the nearly $130 billion in additional cash on the books of S&P 500 companies from June 2008, through September 2009, two key sources, net working capital and a reduced capex spend, have generated over $150 billion, meaning organic operations have accounted for a whopping -$20 billion (yes, negative) of incremental cash.

We have used CapitalIQ data to analyze quarterly periods beginning in December 31, 2005 through September 30, 2009 (the data for the most recent quarter has not been fully compiled yet, with about 100 companies having yet to file a 10-Q. Once all the required data has been deposited into Edgar, we will update this analysis for data including the Q4 2009 period).

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