09/05/2012 06:31 EDT | Updated 11/05/2012 05:12 EST

Canadian Public Companies' Dead Cash May Be A Myth: Analysis

MONTREAL - Canadian companies have been upbraided for sitting on billions in so-called "dead money" in recent weeks, but a new analysis from National Bank suggests there's little evidence to support that criticism.

"Despite some claims that companies are sitting on vast amounts of 'dead money,' we could find no strong evidence that this is the case for publicly listed Canadian companies," said chief economist Stefane Marion.

Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have both called on Canadian companies to either put cash stockpiles to work or give the money back to shareholders through dividends.

The value of that dead cash pile was pegged at some $526 billion by the Canadian Auto Workers' union last month.

On Wednesday, National Bank Financial said the 327 companies its analysts track are holding more than $55 billion in cash. But few of them, the bank says, are sitting on that money "unproductively."

The bank says the combined debt of the 327 companies is more than $350 billion, and more than 55 per cent are already returning money to investors.

It also notes more than 20 per cent have share buyback programs.

"Our analysis suggests the vast majority of equities in a position to return cash to investors are already doing so," the bank said.

"Those holding large amounts of cash do so for the right reasons: to fund growth, manage debt and maximize the value of its capital structure."

The $526 billion estimate, the bank said, was taken from the Canadian National Balance Sheet Accounts, a Statistics Canada publication.

The bank points out the StatsCan figures used "only provides an aggregate measure for the domestic operations of both privately and publicly-owned companies."

"This report cannot be used to analyze the situation of S&P/TSX constituents."

The analysis, however, did find there are some companies in a position to return cash to shareholders. Those include, Agrium (TSX:AGU), TransCanada (TSX:TRP), Enbridge (TSX:ENB), Suncor Energy (TSX:SU), SNC-Lavalin (TSX:SNC), CIBC (TSX:CM), and National Bank (TSX:NA).

Carney's "dead money" comments followed a speech the central bank governor delivered to the Canadian Auto Workers in August.

"Their job is to put money to work," Carney said. "If they can't think of what to do with it they should give it back to their shareholders."

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