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News : EU Economy Last Updated: Mar 14, 2013 - 4:10 AM

Europe's top 1,000 nonfinancial companies have over €1 trillion in cash in 2013
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Mar 13, 2013 - 4:45 AM

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Europe's nonfinancial companies have over €1 trillion on their balance sheets in cash and equivalents (as measured over the last 12 months to Jan. 10, 2013). In real terms - - adjusted for EU-27 inflation  - - the aggregate cash balance has retreated from 2010's peak (€1,056bn). This is still 21% higher than the cyclical trough in 2008 and, at face value, a €1 trillion cash-pile suggests significant financial firepower at the disposal of Europe's corporate sector.

Fourth-quarter profit at European companies fell 5.2% from a year earlier, while revenue inched up just 0.5%, according to Thomson Reuters while companies paid out about $289bn in dividends for 2012, down 0.8% from a year earlier -  - in contrast to the US, where companies increased their dividends by 18%.

Using Standard & Poor's Capital IQ data analysts calculated [pdf] aggregate cash trends (see chart 1) for Europe's 1,000 largest nonfinancial companies in terms of total debt outstanding - - a universe they call the Europe Debt 1000. This includes both publically listed companies and private companies with public debt, and constituents are recalibrated annually.

They say it's important to keep in mind that the macroeconomic measures that point to weak capex (capital expenditure) are only indicative of domestic expenditure. This ignores the large and growing share of European corporate capex that is now directed to emerging markets. Even if capex growth were to pick up strongly, this shift in destination means that the marginal contribution to domestic economic growth will be more modest than it used to be.

In S&P's view, there are three main reasons to be skeptical about the potential for European corporates running down their cash balances to the benefit of Europe's economies any time soon:

  • First, there is evidence of a strong precautionary motive in the amount of cash being held that is unlikely to fade in the face of the hard grind of austerity. This is most acute in southern Europe;
  • Second, many of the industries that hold most of the cash are not those likely to bring capital expenditure swiftly on stream in Europe;
  • Third, pressure on operating cash flow is increasing. Cheap debt capital has been used to bolster balance sheets but trends in the sources and uses of cash point to a high degree of corporate caution.

The analysis of capex by geography suggests that 42% of the capex spent by European nonfinancial companies goes outside of Europe - - up from 28% in 2007. This helps explain the puzzle of why economic data are so gloomy in contrast to bottom-up data, which show that capex spend in real terms over the past 12 months is only 4% below the 2008 peak.

Market fears with regard to the euro's future may have eased, but the Eurozone (European Economic and Monetary Union) remains trapped in a quagmire of austerity, high unemployment, and political uncertainty. This has given corporates a strong motivation to hold cash on a precautionary basis, a striking example of which is visible in the cash balance trends of Spain and Italy.

Chart 3 shows cash and equivalents to total assets for the Spanish and Italian constituents of the Europe Debt 1000. It shows that, over the last 12 months, there has been a dramatic closing of the gap between these two countries and the 'core' Eurozone economies in terms of how much cash is held on the balance sheet. Both Italy and Spain are now close to 9% on this measure, the highest value seen from 2001 onward (see chart 3).

What is striking is that the top seven industries (roughly one-third) have 77% of the cash held by our Europe Debt 1,000. In most cases, they also hold current balances that are significantly higher than their inflation-adjusted average.

However, the analysts say that the nature of the sectors suggests that any uplift in capital spending is likely to be gradual. This is because:

  • Utilities, transport, and telecommunications all have long lead times and often significant political hurdles in relation to capital spending. This is not to say that there is not the potential for a major upsurge in capex in these sectors to meet, for example, Europe's pressing energy needs and the arrival of fourth-generation (4G) telecoms networks. Nevertheless, absent government intervention, these are likely to be long-term programs that are less sensitive to near-term movements in the economic cycle;  
  • Energy and materials are essentially global sectors, meaning that much of their incremental capital spending would take place outside Europe. Shale gas fracking might be one area of rapid domestic expansion, but this would still be a relatively small proportion of the total capex of these industries;
  • The car industry in Europe is already suffering from significant overcapacity.

That leaves capital goods -- a sector that would certainly have the potential to boost spending as economic recovery gains traction - - but this is only one of the top seven.

Finfacts: Company cash hoards rise to $8tn; Taxes, squeezed labour and 'trapped' cash

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