Stock Buybacks at Unprecedented Levels – Good, Bad or Ugly?

U.S. Public companies are giving cash back to investors at unprecedented levels. Companies in the S&P 500 index are expected to pay at least $300 billion in dividends in 2013, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices, which would top last year's $282 billion. Is it a good thing? Does it help or hinder economic recovery? Help or hinder the business?

Cash at Corporations. Save or Spend?

Companies are currently sitting on more cash than at any other time in the last 50 years. Cash and other short-term assets now account for 7% of all assets at non-financial US companies. If you exclude finance firms, US companies held $1.8 trillion in cash and short-term assets at the end of the first quarter, which is 26% higher than the same time last year and represents the biggest increase since the Federal Reserve started tracking cash levels in the 1950s. According to a recent CFO magazine survey and article, companies within the CFO Midcap 1500 (companies with $100 million to $1 billion in annual sales) are holding 15% more cash in 2010 than the same period two years ago.

Working Capital Needs: Bust to Boom

According to a recent CFO Magazine report, 2009 was one of the worst years ever for working capital performance, as companies were slow to adjust to the recession. Reviewing the 1,000 largest US public companies, average days working capital (DWC) jumped 8% in 2009 to 38 days, from 35 days in 2008. In round numbers, receivables were 10% higher in 2009, matched by an 11% increase in days payable. Coupled with companies replenishing inventories after 2008 and those holding unsellable product in 2009, days inventory outstanding (DIO) rose by 9%. This may not sound much, but further down the line to smaller privately held companies, less efficient financial management can exacerbate the problem.
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