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Cash piles up as CEOs play it safe

Unwilling to invest as economy lags

Any lament that U.S. executives are sitting on a record $1.73 trillion at their companies instead of investing in plants and equipment may be about to get louder.

The buildup of cash and marketable securities accelerated in the first quarter on a year-over-year basis after slowing in early 2012. At the same time, capital spending in the most recent quarter rose by the least since March 2010, when the U.S. was still emerging from a financial crisis.

The trends, based on data from about 2,300 U.S. companies compiled by Bloomberg, suggest executives’ lack of need or confidence to invest deepened with threats of federal spending cuts and the economic slowdowns at home, in Europe and China.

Without a pickup in spending, the U.S. economy loses a driver of job creation and risks staying locked in below-average growth, giving even more cause to hold tight.

“What concerns me is that companies have all of this excess cash and they are not deploying it into their long-term operations,” said Nick Raich, chief executive officer of the Earnings Scout, an independent economic research firm based in Cleveland. “Public outcry will erupt if companies do not spend and create jobs.”

The cash hoard reached a record in part because of rising corporate profits, aided by cost-savings imposed during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. Europe’s recession, China’s slowing economy and a 35 percent tax awaiting companies when they bring money earned overseas back to the U.S. all provide little incentive to invest, economists and money managers said.

“If the economy were growing rapidly and more consistently, companies would be investing like crazy,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial Holdings in Chicago. “We’re just not there yet.”

The buildup, one point of contention in last year’s U.S. presidential contest, remains an interest of Congress.

Sen. Levin, D-Mich., took Apple to task at a May 21 hearing for practices that he said allowed it to avoid $9 billion in U.S. taxes last year, in part by keeping money overseas. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said the U.S. should change tax policies to make it less costly for companies to repatriate overseas profit to put to use at home.

The cash is piling up at home in part as companies such as General Electric and chemical maker PPG Industries sell assets and Caterpillar cuts capital spending.

“When uncertainty is rearing its head, you want to preserve cash,” said Walter “Bucky” Hellwig, who helps manage $17 billion at BB&T Asset Management in Birmingham, Ala.

Among his wealthy clients who own businesses, he said, “it’s all about cost management and a reluctance to invest. They’re not laying people off, but when somebody quits they don’t replace them. That goes into building cash.”

Among 2,267 non-financial members of the Russell 3000 Index, corporate cash increased about 13 percent in the latest quarter from a year earlier, according to the data compiled by Bloomberg. The increase to a record $1.73 trillion was the most since a 16 percent gain in the second quarter of 2011.

As for capital expenditures, the most recent quarter’s year-over-year gain of about 3.1 percent was the smallest increase since March 2010. The spending declined 21 percent when compared with the final three months of 2012, marking the biggest quarter-to-quarter drop since the depth of the financial crisis in March 2009.