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3 Companies With Heaps of Cash

Retail sales are soft, unemployment hit a 26-year high in August and a U.S. Treasury official warned Wednesday that millions more home foreclosures are likely. Oddly enough, though, most of Corporate America has never been flusher.

Financials, utilities and transport companies still carry plenty of debt, to be sure. According to Standard & Poor’s, though, all other members of its index of 500 of the nation’s largest companies collectively hold about $700 billion—more than ever before.

The reasons are several. First, companies were hoarding cash well before the recession; their stock tickerpile has topped $600 billion since 2004. Second, most companies responded to the past year’s sales downturn with a sharp reduction in spending. Third, as corporate lending dried up over the past year, many companies trimmed or halted dividend payments to store up funds. Fourth, most companies didn’t exactly buy low over the past year—share repurchases and cash takeovers all but disappeared.

I wouldn’t quite call the record cash holdings a positive sign. Companies are meant to return profits to shareholders, not sit on them. But investors who fear the economy will remain weak for several more quarters, or even years, can take comfort in knowing that the country’s biggest industrial companies (if not all of its banks) seem financially prepared.

Below are three companies that could use a business boost but that are sitting on heaps of cash. I’ve focused only on dividend-payers, since they might be able to increase their payments, and since companies with plenty of cash and no dividends are at risk for low returns on investment at best and overpriced acquisitions at worst.

Garmin

Net cash / market value: 14%
Dividend yield: 2.3%

Garmin (GRMN) makes navigation devices, like those that mount to windshields and give drivers turn-by-turn directions. A recession, market saturation and competition from Dutch rival Tom-Tom have caused sales to slide of late. Analysts are predicting a 23% sales decline this year. Meanwhile, the navigation ability of smart phones threatens to do to dedicated navigation devices what cell phones have already done to car phones. Tom Tom recently introduced a $99, turn-by-turn navigation program for Apple‘s (AAPL) iPhone. All that said, Garmin easily surpassed Wall Street’s earnings forecasts in its most recent quarter, and makes money from far more than car devices. It makes navigation gadgets for boats, airplanes and joggers, and recently introduced its first phone. Shares are up 65% this year, but still trade at a discount of about a quarter to the broad market.

Buckle

Net cash / market value: 13%
Dividend yield: 2.9%

Aeropostale (ARO) has lower prices than most of the other jeans-sellers at the mall. Largely for that reason, its sales are on pace to jump 15% this year. Buckle (BKE), meanwhile, sells jeans for $100 and more a pair. Remarkably, it’s expected to increase its sales by 13% this year. There are signs the 401-store chain’s fastest growth is behind it. Women are still clamoring for its jeans, but demand among men has cooled. Still, the stock ticker seems plenty affordable at 10 times earnings.

Lincoln Electric

Net cash / market value: 12%
Dividend yield: 2.4%

Based on earnings alone, Lincoln Electric (LECO) looks expensive, at 36 times the 2009 forecast. But demand for the company’s welding and cutting supplies has been crushed this year by a downturn in manufacturing. Sales are expected to decline 33%. Earnings are seen plunging to $1.32 a share from $5.36 last year. If we assume the company can reclaim just half of that profit decline in coming years, shares are selling at 14 times earnings. A full return to last year’s profit would put the price/earnings ratio in single digits. And while not all companies find worthwhile projects for their cash stock tickerpiles, Lincoln should have little trouble. It’s an acquisition-driven company, and there are plenty of beaten-down industrial suppliers at the moment waiting to be bought on the cheap.

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