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Despite the waves of economic trouble, U.S. companies are earning enormous amounts of money these days, and they're keeping much of it in cash. For example, at the end of last year, Google had nearly $35 billion in cash on its balance sheet. All that money was one of the reasons Google was able to buy Motorola Mobility this week.
But as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, many companies are being especially cautious with their cash.
JIM ZARROLI: The U.S. economy may be slowing to a crawl, but a lot of individual companies are richer than ever. Rick Lane is a senior vice president at Moody's.
RICK LANE: Companies are generating and maintaining more cash than they have aggregate uses for.
ZARROLI: Moody's recently put out a report about the 1,600-plus U.S.-based companies it rates. It said they had $1.2 trillion in cash at the end of 2010, which was 11.2 percent more than they had the year before. Companies that have a lot of cash can use some of it to invest in higher. That's what Caterpillar is doing, says spokesman Jim Dugan.
JIM DUGAN: In 2011, our plan for CAPEX is $3 billion, which would be an all-time record for us, about 1.5 billion in the United States. And the focus cash for Caterpillar is growth.
ZARROLI: But a lot of other companies right now are sitting on their cash, using it sparingly, if at all. Apple, Cisco and Microsoft had each amassed $40 billion or more in cash by the end of last year. Rick Lane of Moody's notes that many companies were unable to get credit during the last financial crisis, and they're trying to be more prudent about how they spend money now.
LANE: So I think one of the reasons that is contributing to many companies holding onto cash would be the very vivid memories of the severity of the downturn that commenced in mid-2008.
ZARROLI: And companies can borrow money very cheaply right now, so instead of paying off their debts, they can sit on cash as long as possible. But there's a more basic reason companies are hoarding money: The U.S. economy simply isn't growing enough. The labor market is weak, says Charles Biderman of the investment research firm TrimTabs.
CHARLES BIDERMAN: So without growing income, where's the money to buy more stuff? Absent a change in demand, the fact that companies have all this cash, well, good for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIDERMAN: It's not going to help us.
ZARROLI: And with the economy limping along, companies are more reluctant to invest and hire in the United States.
ANANT SUNDARAM: The bottom line is a large number of very successful U.S. companies are on a wait-and-see mode with the U.S. economy in particular.
ZARROLI: Anant Sundaram, who teaches at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, says that during recessions, companies usually try to rebuild their balance sheets. They lay people off, they pay off debts, and they emerge healthier and ready to invest their money again. Not this time.
That is something we're not seeing a great deal of, and that is leading to the cash increase.
And this means companies are also not hiring, at least in the United States. Moody's Rick Lane says a lot of American companies make more and more of their profits in fast-growing countries like China, Brazil and India.
LANE: What we're finding is that a higher percentage in dollar amount of cash among many parts of the corporate universe is being generated and maintained overseas.
ZARROLI: And U.S. companies that earn profits abroad have to pay taxes when they bring it home, so they tend to like to keep money overseas as long as possible. Business leaders in the United States regularly complain that this discourages domestic investment. But even if tax laws were changed, the boom in foreign markets means companies have an incentive to keep money abroad. And when they get ready to spend the cash they're holding onto, that's where a lot of it will go. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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