Are U.S. technology companies fast-growing enterprises or are they banks? In a time when banks are enduring federal stress tests of their ability to withstand a crisis, the tech sector seems to be rolling in money.
An IBTimes survey of a dozen top technology companies including International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), the No. 1 chipmaker, and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), found they held cash and investments exceeding $360 billion in the last quarter.
That didn't include the $16 billion Facebook (Nasdaq: FB), the No. 1 social networking site, took in via its $16 billion IPO last month.
By contrast, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), the No. 1 U.S. bank reported first quarter total assets of $2.3 trillion, followed by Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) with $2.19 trillion.
Still, what are these top companies doing with so much cash, especially when it requires more than $4 billion to build a new semiconductor fabrication plant and maybe an equivalent to develop a new OS like iOS or Windows 8?
Buy other companies. Having a cash pile is one reason why Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) last month finally acquired Motorola Mobility Holdings for $12.5 billion to move into the smartphone business and acquire 17,500 valuable patents.
It's also why IBM, which reported only $12.4 billion, has acquired Tealeaf Technologies, Vivisimo and Varicent Software just in this quarter while Oracle, with $49.6 billion, has bought Vitrue and Collective Intellect not long after completing the $1.9 billion purchase of Taleo Technologies.
Acquisitions add muscle and fill gaps, while allowing the prior management to assume the execution risk seeing if its strategy is viable.
Pay decent dividends. As its $110 billion pile swelled, Apple came under pressure to resume paying dividends as it did between 1987 and 1995. New CEO Timothy Cook announced a $2.65 a share dividend to begin in the company's fourth quarter starting July 1.
Last week, Dell (Nasdaq: DELL), with $17.2 billion in cash, announced it will pay its first dividend, 8 cents, in the third quarter starting Oct. 26.
Last year, Warren E. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK/A) acquired an 8 percent stake in IBM because he liked its management, performance and dividends. He wrote shareholders that he hoped IBM's share price would stay the same so the dividend yield would grow due to share buybacks. This quarter he was rewarded when the No. 2 computer maker boosted the dividend 13 percent and announced a $7 billion share buyback.
IBM's activity will cost the company an additional $117.4 billion each quarter. Buffett is smiling.
Other technology leaders like Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), the biggest designer of mobile chips; Intel and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), the No. 1 telecommunications carrier, pay dividends, too.
Buy back shares. Just about all the technology companies buy back their shares. By rights, that ought to boost the share price when fewer are outstanding.
Seed new companies. A handful of technology companies have venture capital divisions that have scored occasional home runs. The most successful is Intel Capital, which has investments exceeding $2.2 billion in hundreds of global innovators.
Dell, in Round Rock, Texas, has Dell Ventures. Chipmaking equipment leader Applied Materials Inc. (Nasdaq: AMAT) owns Applied Ventures, which looks at new companies in nanomaterials, chemicals, semiconductors and clean tech.
Cypress Semiconductors (NYSE: CY) for decades has invested in subsidiaries either to later acquire them or exit via an initial public offering, such as with SunPower Technologies (Nasdaq: SPWR). That was a good bet: CEO T.J. Rodgers last month said Cypress invested $143 million in SunPower, sold shares for $677 million and distributed $2.52 billion to shareholders in 2008.
The gain from our SunPower success is factors larger than the losses of all our startup failures added together, Rodgers said last month. It was game-winning grand-slam home run.