Corporations hoard cash as a precautionary measure

Visiting Asst. Prof. David McLean

Academic studies have shown that over the past few decades, public firms are increasingly holding large amounts of cash. Curiously, much of this build up in cash savings can be attributed to cash saved from seasoned share issues, which are sales of equity by already public companies.

I examined the share-issuance cash savings of a large number of U.S. firms over a 38-year period. In the 1970s, $1.00 of issuance resulted in $0.23 of cash savings, yet in more recent years, that same $1.00 of issuance resulted in $0.60 of savings. Over my sample period, the amount of cash saved from share issuance increased at an average rate of 2.5% per year.

So what is going on here? My initial reaction was that the firms were issuing shares because their stock was mispriced, thereby taking advantage of naive investors. However, after digging deeper, I found that this was most likely not the case. It turns out that there are good economic reasons for firms to hold onto cash and even to issue shares for the purpose of cash savings.

Consider an emerging pharmaceutical company with a promising pipeline of projects. The company is still early in its lifecycle so its profits are marginal and its cash flows are volatile. The company spends a large amount on R&D and plans to continue doing so in the future. Because the company generates little cash flow, it depends on capital markets to finance its R&D spending.

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U.S. corporate taxes: A strong incentive to move overseas

MIT Sloan Assoc. Prof. Michelle Hanlon

When a U.S. company owns a subsidiary overseas, it has a big decision to make when it comes to the earnings of that subsidiary. Does it send the money back to the parent company in the U.S. and pay U.S. corporate taxes or does it avoid the U.S. tax by permanently reinvesting the money abroad?

Given that the U.S. has one of the highest corporate tax rates of any country in the world, it’s not surprising that many companies choose not to repatriate the money.

Our current system in the U.S. — known as the worldwide tax system — is one where U.S. companies’ earnings are taxed in the U.S. even if earned overseas. However, companies are not required to pay the U.S. taxes on operating income of foreign subsidiaries until they bring cash home to the U.S. parent company.

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The U.S. needs an overhaul of the corporate tax system, not a temporary tax break

MIT Sloan Prof. Kristin Forbes

Today U.S. multinationals have more cash stashed overseas than ever before –according to several estimates, companies have more than $1 trillion in profits squirreled away in foreign subsidiaries. Many of the companies with the most money abroad – including powerhouses from Apple to Google to Pfizer – say they’d like to bring a large portion of it back to the U.S.

This comes with a catch, however. The companies want a temporary tax holiday – nearly identical to the one passed in 2004, and the subject of my recent paper – that would allow them to repatriate profits attributed to their foreign operations at a 5.25 percent tax rate instead of the usual 35 percent. Most of the funds returned to the U.S. will likely be paid to shareholders rather than used for investment and new hiring (as the companies lobbying for the holiday claim). But the tax break would raise billions of dollars for the government and bring cash back to the U.S., which is arguably a good thing. (It’s no secret that the Obama administration has recently made overtures to reboot its relationship with the business Read More »