Where's the Dow's Big Money Hiding?

Some Dow Jones members are richer than others -- and the division between haves and have-nots doesn't always fall where you'd expect it.

Anders Bylund
Anders Bylund
Apr 10, 2014 at 2:00PM

It's no secret that the large companies on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) are flush with cash. But they are most definitely not equally rich. And the real King Midases aren't always the ones you might assume.

I pulled data from S&P Capital IQ to shine some light on the Dow's cash reserves. This chart covers each of the 30 Dow members' cash equivalents, plus short-term and long-term investments:

The big banks at the top of this list had their cash bars chopped off, because they would make all the others look insignificant otherwise. Even so, the banks are very different. Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) holds almost all of its assets in the form of short-term investments, while JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) manages 27% of its total money reserve as long-term investments.

I was surprised to find Home Depot (NYSE:HD) at the very bottom of this list, with just $1.9 billion in liquid cash and nearly zero long-term investments. I have lauded and applauded Home Depot for showing fiscal discipline after the economy's 2008 meltdown, but there's no evidence of conservative cash management here.

There's a perfectly reasonable explanation, of course. Home Depot borrowed $5.2 billion last year and tapped into its cash reserves to fund a huge share buyback program. The company retired $8.5 billion's worth of shares in 2013.

So Home Depot is more interested in returning cash to shareholders than in funding rapid expansion of its store network -- or in sitting on a huge cash pile. Share buybacks aren't necessarily the best use of company cash, but at least Home Depot has the common shareholder's interests in mind.

On the other hand, Travelers (NYSE:TRV) sits near the top of this big-money list even though it's the smallest Dow stock as measured by market cap. Ninety-four percent of the insurance giant's money is invested in long-term papers.

Travelers runs a cash-rich business with minimal capital expenses. Like Home Depot, the company pays a reasonable dividend and invests in share buybacks. Unlike Home Depot, the buybacks don't come close to exhausting each year's cash flow. More often than not, Travelers sets aside some cash for a rainy day sometime in the far future.

TRV Total Net Change in Investments (TTM) Chart

TRV Total Net Change in Investments (TTM) data by YCharts.

This makes a ton of sense for an insurance specialist. You never know when the next natural disaster, terrorist strike, or crime wave might force Travelers to pay out an exorbitant amount in big claims. Better to be prepared for the worst, or else get ready to face the music when the cash runs out.

Do any of these figures come as a shock to you, dear reader? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.