Excluding banks, the Standard and Poor's 500 stock index has 216 companies that are sitting on $1 billion or more in cash or short-term equivalents. If each of those took just 5% of its cash hoard and gave it to employees, each employee would get more than $3,000 -- but don't hold your breath.
It's no secret that many companies are sitting on enormous amount of cash – a total of $1.25 trillion in companies in the S&P 500, according to Standard and Poor's Capital IQ. That number, incidentally, eliminates banks and other financial services companies, which are highly cash-intensive.
The five companies with the largest cash holdings – Microsoft, Cisco, Apple, Google and Pfizer – have a combined $247 billion in cash. Microsoft's stash alone is $76.2 billion, and Cisco has $50.6 billion in cash in the coffers.
The nonfinancial companies in the S&P 500 have 20,254,000 employees in the U.S . and abroad, according to Howard Silverblatt, S&P Dow Jones Indices Senior Index Analyst. Splitting the S&P 500's cash hoard among them would give each employee $61,000.
No company would give away all its cash. Companies need cash for unexpected events, acquisitions, building new plants and buying new equipment. By and large, companies have favored using excess cash to buy back shares or pay out special one-time dividends to shareholders.
What they haven't been doing is giving extra cash to employees, despite a year of solid – and often record – profits and huge cash hoards. A survey by Aon Hewitt on compensation trends for 2014 shows that companies plan to raise salaries by just 3% this year – the highest since 2008, when the average raise was 3.7%. Economist Ed Yardeni notes that employee compensation and capital spending as a percentage of GDP has been the lowest since the mid-1950s.
But suppose each company with $1 billion in cash took 5% of that stash and give it to employees as a bonus. Unlike a raise, which is an ongoing cost, a bonus is simply a one-time payout – a way of thinking workers for a good year. What would each employee get?
Employees would get an average $3,086 apiece if all the S&P 500 companies gave a bonus equal to 5% of their cash holdings. For someone earning $51,017 a year -- the median household income, that's the equivalent of 6% of salary. But the amount would vary widely according to company, because it's a function of the size of the company's cash stash and the number of its employees.
For Microsoft, 5% of cash and short-term equivalents would be $3.8 billion. Spread among its 99,000 employees, the software company could pay a bonus of $38,492 per worker. For Apple, 5% of its cash would be about $2 billion, spread among $80,300 workers. Bonus: $25,274.
Some companies with many workers would be able to distribute a relatively modest amount. Five percent of McDonald's $2.3 billion in cash would be $117 million. Spread among Mickey D's 440,000 workers, that's just $266 apiece. Still, an average McDonald's crew member gets $7.72 an hour, according to glassdoor.com. A five-day, eight-hour salary would be $309.60, so a $266 bonus would be 6/7ths of a week's pay.
Walmart workers wouldn't get much, either: 5% of the company's $7.8 billion in cash would be $390.5 million. But it would be spread among the retail giant's 2.2 million employees. Bonus: $178. On the other hand, Delta Airlines, which has gotten concessions on pensions and salaries from its workers, could distribute $2,167 to each of its 78,000 workers.
Nevertheless, companies like McDonald's could give their employees the equivalent of a few tanks of gas.
Companies say that slack demand and economic and political uncertainty have made them reluctant to hire or expand. Nevertheless, nonfinancial S&P 500 companies scored $698 billion in profits last year, says Howard Silverblatt, S&P Dow Jones Indices Senior Index Analyst. They paid investors $270 billion in dividends last year. If companies gave a bonus to employees equal to the amount of dividends paid out to shareholder, each employee would get about $13,331.
Will it happen? Don't hold your breath. One-time bonuses to all employees are unusual, and because unemployment levels are high, few companies feel the need to pay up to retain employees. Nevertheless, a one-time bonus of equal to 5% of the cash from companies that have $1 billion or more could be an immediate benefit to the economy and the employees that get the bonus. A McDonald's worker could get a few tanks of gas and a Happy Meal. An Apple worker could get a new car -- and maybe an iPad or two.