Corporate Finance

Companies May Spend a Bit More This Quarter

But overall they remain conservative about using their cash reserves, an Association for Financial Professionals survey shows.
David McCannJanuary 29, 2018
Companies May Spend a Bit More This Quarter

Companies on average are expecting their cash and short-term investment holdings to decrease this quarter — but barely, according to the Association for Financial Professionals’ latest quarterly survey.

The survey data suggest that U.S. companies aren’t in a hurry to spend their newly won tax savings courtesy of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, although that could change as the year wears on. Companies “continue to be skeptical about the economy but are showing some signs of optimism,” AFP says.

Whether corporate America will actually, finally start spending down some of its considerable cash reserves is questionable. In each of the first three quarters of 2017, companies held onto cash at a far higher rate than they expected to entering the quarter, according to AFP’s research. That trend flipped around in the fourth quarter, however, with fewer companies increasing their holdings than the percentage that had said they would three months earlier.

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At the beginning of each quarter, AFP asks treasury and finance professionals to report on the direction of their cash and short-term investment holdings in the just-concluded quarter and their expectations for the current quarter.

The association’s “corporate cash indicators” indexes are based on a simple calculation: the percentage of companies reporting an increased level of such holdings minus the percentage reporting a decreased level. The higher the index reading, the more companies reporting an increase.

The expectation index for the first quarter of 2018 is -1, suggesting a small bump up in cash usage.

In January 2017 the index reading for the current quarter was -7, indicating that more companies expected to be spending down their cash. But the index reading for the quarter’s actual results proved to be +15. For the second and third quarters the expectation indexes were +3 and +8, respectively, while the actual results were +16 and +25, respectively.

The fourth-quarter indexes showed a closer alignment between expectations and reality, with the expectation index at +13 and the results index at +15. (Thirty-seven percent of participating organizations held larger cash and short-term investment balances at the end of Q4 2017 than they did three months earlier, while 22% of the participants reported reduced holdings.)

Will that alignment hold now? Perhaps, but the new 21% corporate income tax rate likely won’t have an effect anytime soon, according to AFP.

“The very recent passing of the tax reform bill and the lowering of the corporate tax rate has done little to sway U.S. businesses to loosen their purse strings,” the association says. “Business leaders are still analyzing the [new tax law] and aren’t ready to commit to any aggressive spending.”

Only 11% of companies said they were more aggressive with their short-term investments in the recent fourth quarter than they had been previously, compared with 5% that said they were more conservative.