Companies’ Stated Cash Intentions Merit Skepticism

Treasury and finance professionals say they'll deploy more of their cash this quarter — but they've said that before, and often.
David McCannJanuary 29, 2019

Will companies at long last begin to spend down their cash holdings rather than let their piles continue to swell, as they’ve been doing for several years?

If you believe what a majority of companies are saying, the answer is yes. But should you believe them? Not necessarily.

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In the Association for Finance Professionals’ latest quarterly AFP Corporate Cash Indicators survey, which included 194 participants, the index reading for the first quarter of this year was -5.

The index reflects the percentage of senior treasury and finance professionals who said they expected their cash and short-term investment holdings to increase in the current quarter (26%), minus the percentage who anticipated such holdings to decrease (31%).

But as AFP’s historical data shows, companies frequently misgauge their short-term future cash positions.

For example, when asked the same question in January 2018, survey participants collectively registered a -1 index reading. But three months later, when asked what in fact happened in the first quarter, their result was +18.

It was the sixth time in the seven years AFP has been conducting the survey that a majority of finance professionals in January signaled their intention to deploy cash — and then a majority did the opposite.

Similarly, in advance of each quarter last year, companies in AFP’s survey collectively overestimated their upcoming quarterly cash usage.

“Although it is encouraging that senior practitioners are looking to mobilize their cash, an action long awaited, we can expect that they might not do so,” AFP noted in its first-quarter 2019 survey report. Specifically, the association speculated that the government shutdown could deter their plans.

Indeed, AFP added that the relative willingness to loosen purse strings was “surprising,” given the stock market’s recent turbulence and “political tensions running high” in Washington. Likely contributing to the positivity were strong employment numbers and positive effects from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, AFP speculated.

For the recent fourth quarter of 2018, the index reading for actual cash usage was +13, compared with a +7 forecast at the beginning of the quarter. For full-year 2018, the index reflecting actual usage was +12.

Still, companies did become progressively more conservative with the cash they did invest as last year unfolded.

Each quarter, treasury and finance professionals were asked whether their company’s investment selection for their cash and short-term investments became more aggressive, more conservative, or remained unchanged. For the four quarters of 2018, the index readings (i.e., “more aggressive” percentage minus “more conservative” percentage) declined from +11, to +9, to 0, to -1.