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Tech Companies Amassing Cash Billions, But Spending Frugally

According to the Financial Times, the ten largest U.S. tech companies have added $65 billion to their cash reserves over the last year. What are they doing with the money? Not a lot, it would seem.

The FT pins the growth at something like a 40% increase in the "cash mountains" the big tech companies own, and it's all during the last year. Importantly, this apparent gain in fortune has occurred even while really big, established names like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco Systems are reporting financial results that aren't quite up to the levels that Wall St analysts were expecting. These "handful" of companies have between them a fighting fund of some quarter-trillion dollars, which is such a fantastically huge sum that it's barely possible to imagine it. This cash-acquisitive habit is typified by Apple: It's a company undeniably on the ascendant, and its marketplace successes have translated directly into cash reserves of $42 billion. 

Such funds result in all sorts of market speculation, of course, and that's really where notions like the recent one suggesting Apple may be interested in buying chip-designers ARM come from. And really, mergers and acquisitions are one easy-gain way to spend surplus cash reserves—since buying a company, lock stock and barrel brings in both expertise, new products, and a ready-made market. But the FT notes that these same big ten companies have been spending cash only very carefully on M&A activities, wary of embracing the promise of the upswing before the greater market is ready. And instead of large one-off partnership buy-outs, the trend has been toward smaller company purchases—like Google's buy-out of Web entertainment company LabPixies (to boost its application development rates, for platforms like Android.) Consequently, we may be unlikely to see Apple shell out billions of its hard-earned dollars on ARM...and, indeed, that company's execs have poured cold water on the idea.

Meanwhile, spending cash on research and development, while absolutely vital (and which, arguably, has been conspicuous in its absence at some companies like Nokia) results in a much more medium- to long-term gain. And this, as well as share buy-back schemes which bring more control back to the center of a public company, is an excellent way to ensure a company's future in the post-upswing world (just check out Apple's plethora of patents to see how busy its lab worker bees have been).

As consumers, this likely means that we can expect a bunch of very novel devices to arrive over the next year or two...starting with the tablet PC, which itself may be considered a child of the recession. 

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