U.S. companies horde record amount of cash

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By Matt Egan

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Corporate America has so much cash sitting in the bank that it could purchase the Dallas Cowboys 437 times without borrowing a dime.

Or if these titans of business really love House of Cards they could splurge by acquiring Netflix 53 times. They could even buy Apple, Facebook and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hatahway and still have cash to play with.

In other words, big American companies literally have more cash than they know what to do with.

The mountain of cash in corporate vaults climbed to a record-high of $1.4 trillion during the fourth quarter, according to a FactSet analysis of S&P 500 companies.

The good news is that means companies like Microsoft and Oracle have extremely healthy balance sheets. That’s useful if another crisis comes along.

The bad news is that at least some of these corporate giants still aren’t willing to spend their cash on new equipment, new hires and new research. It would be a big economic boost if companies went on a spending spree. Shareholders would also like bigger dividends given all this cash companies have on hand.

A large part of the problem is the energy sector. The dramatic plunge in oil prices has caused Big Energy CEOs to scale back on spending. Capital expenditures at S&P 500 companies are projected to decline 3.5% over the next 12 months, FactSet said.

“Since we’ve come out of the recession, Corporate America has become much more cautious about spending,” said Mark Litzerman, co-head of real asset strategy at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

Oil fallout hits spending: Companies like Chevron and ConocoPhillips have disclosed plans to slash spending this year to offset shrinking cash flows. Many oil producers are simply pulling the plug on drilling rigs in response to the oil glut.

That’s why analysts believe the energy sector will slash capital spending by 13.5% over the next 12 months, easily the biggest drop in the S&P 500. That’s a very big deal because energy accounted for nearly one-third of S&P 500 capex over the past decade and during the fourth quarter it jumped by double-digits.

Not everyone is hoarding: The picture looks a bit better when you look beyond the oil patch. Six sectors in the S&P 500 are projected to boost spending for the next 12 months, led by technology and health care.

U.S. corporations more broadly are expected to increase spending between 3.5% and 6%, according to Liz Anne Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab.

“We’ve gone through two cycles where capex is growing but not sharply. It’s not been incredibly robust,” Sonders said referring to the recovery from the 2001 recession.

Stuff is getting old: There is a silver lining here: At some point companies will be forced to go on a shopping spree to replace their aging stuff.

At the same time, there’s no secret that the country’s infrastructure is badly in need of a face lift. Now that state and local budgets are in better shape, spending on roads and bridges may finally be in the works.

“We think the next recession is still a ways away largely because recessions come when you’ve built up excesses. It’s easy to argue there’s not a heck of a lot of excess built up in this economy,” Sonders said.

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