A recent survey of economists puts the odds of a U.S. recession within the next 12 months at 1-in-3. Historically, a recession causes less credit lending and declining profitability for companies, which often lead to layoffs that further depress the economy. But this time is different -- at least for cash-rich companies.
Companies traditionally use cash to invest in growth, pay dividends, or buy back stock. But that all changed when large corporations began socking away cash to safeguard against an uncertain economic future. Companies with heavy amounts of cash on their balance sheets are better suited to sustain capital spending no matter what happens to the economy.
Tech companies are among those with the most cash and short-term investments on the books, with Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) combining for about $119 billion. Microsoft weighs in with $51.4 billion, followed by Google with $39.1 billion and Apple with $28.4 billion. Cash in hand is the most liquid asset a company can hold.
Google's $39 billion in reserves could help the search giant avoid layoffs should the economy take another turn for the worse. Google's in a far better place than it was during the recessionary drop of 2008 and 2009, when it laid off hundreds of employees and reduced its capital spending to $263 million in the first quarter of 2009 -- down from $842 million in the year-earlier quarter.
This time around, Google seems immune to broader market volatility. In fact, this year Google pledged to increase its tech-savvy workforce by almost 25% -- which would put the company's headcount at about 30,000. Even more shocking to investors was Google's decision to give all of its current employees a 10% raise in salary for 2011 -- an apparent bid to keep its talent.
Technology changes at the speed of light, which explains why tech companies are in a constant battle to recruit and retain talent. Powered by a fat stack of cash, Microsoft took after Google, giving raises and more stock upfront to employees earlier this year.
Microsoft generates more than $1 billion in cash flow each month. If the economic outlook remains cloudy, the extra cash could help the software giant make strategic acquisitions, helping it better contend with competitors like Google and Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO ) .
Cisco is another tech player that can retain cash flow in a down market. The computer-networking firm currently holds $44.6 billion in cash and short-term investments. Cisco spends a modest $5 billion to $6 billion annually in research and development, which is critical to the ever-changing tech industry. The company also uses its cash to make smart acquisitions, particularly those with the potential to reach billion-dollar markets.
But many of these cash-rich companies offer shareholders little or no dividends. Remarkably, Apple's seen record profits pour in without issuing a cent of debt. It reported twice as much revenue in its most recent quarter as it did for the entire fiscal year in 2005. Still, the tech titan has never paid a dividend, despite having enough money to pay a one-time dividend of roughly $81 a share if you include cash as well as short-term and long-term investments.
Instead of paying dividends, Apple uses its cash to create an edge over the competition -- like the company's advance payment in 2009 of $500 million to Toshiba on future flash chips that power iPhones and iPods. This helped Apple avoid potential chip shortages or price swings resulting from poor economic conditions.
Whether or not you agree with the way public companies are managing their cash flow, this is certain: These profit-building tech stocks will succeed regardless of the economy's direction. Learn where the tech industry is headed, and which two companies will reap the profits in this free video report: The Two Words Bill Gates Doesn't Want You to Hear. To get the video now, while it's still free, simply click here.