In this credit-starved economy, cash has become a badge of honor.
Last week, Apple chieftain Steve Jobs trumpeted his company’s $25 billion in cash reserves, dramatically one-upping Rupert Murdoch‘s boast about News Corp.’s $5 billion war chest a week earlier.
These well-timed brags, which echo Microsoft’s oft-stated commitment to maintaining substantial cash reserves, might in more buoyant times come under fire by Wall Street bulls. But when rival execs are losing company stock due to margin calls, such reserves are being positioned as a sign of strength.
Murdoch and Microsoft have both signaled their interest in acquiring companies during the downturn, while Jobs promised to pour some of his company’s coin into R&D, as it had during the dot-com bust.
“This economy might present tremendous opportunities for people who have cash,” Jobs told analysts Oct. 21 after Apple presented healthy quarterly earnings gains. “Cash is already king, and it may get more so.”
Murdoch, whose company was so highly leveraged at one point in the early 1990s that he narrowly averted bankruptcy, recently suggested his company’s reserves would make it easier for News Corp. to swoop in and buy companies that cash-poor rivals could not.
Another benefit for those with money to spend: lower prices. According to Microsoft chief financial officer Chris Liddell, the biggest constraint his company faces isn’t the cost of acquisitions but the ability to integrate them.
“We will continue to buy,” Liddell assured Wall Street analysts on Oct. 23. “Clearly, relatively speaking, we are cash rich.”
Sumner Redstone and Lionsgate’s Michael Burns, meanwhile, have been caught in margin calls for their holdings. Both have lost a portion of their personal stakes in recent weeks. Redstone, who earlier this month had to sell $233 million in non-voting shares of CBS and Viacom to pay down debt in National Amusements, his holding company, is now trying to renegotiate National Amusements’ debt to avoid further sell-offs.
Burns, who has a finance background, lost almost half his stock in Lionsgate when Merrill Lynch forced the sale of the shares, which had been put up to back a loan. Burns told the Wall Street Journal it was the first time since 1987 that he’s faced a margin call, and suggested that the market has reached bottom.
Given the sobering indicators — company after company, even those reporting healthy profits, revised their forecasts downward last week, as the financial markets continued to gyrate — Burns’ prediction might be premature. In the meantime, the bargain hunters will pick up the slack for those lacking the coin.