What Should Apple, Google, Microsoft Do With Billions Parked Abroad?

NEW YORK (The Street) -- Technology companies account for almost half the cash held overseas by U.S. companies, according to a new report by Moody's Investor Services, holding 49%, or $540 billion, of the total.

Four companies -- Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), and Cisco - have parked $369 billion (or, approximately 86%) of their cash reserves overseas. That was up from $308 billion, or 82%, in 2013. Along with Pfizer, the top five companies accounted for 25% ($439 billion) of the total cash balance in the list.

The report, which examines cash positions for U.S.-based publicly listed companies, says overseas cash reserves for companies will continue to grow unless tax laws are changed to encourage companies to repatriate money. Companies currently pay 35% tax to repatriate overseas earnings back home. President Barack Obama proposed to shave off more than half of that rate to a one-time 14% levy and a 19% tax on future profits in a plan unveiled in February.

According to estimates, Apple, which has $158 billion parked overseas, would end up paying $10 billion in taxes, if the plan was passed. Since this is a bipartisan issue with both major parties at opposite ends of the spectrum, there is little chance of the plan passing in the near future.

Meanwhile, tech companies have limited options for putting their overseas cash to work. Domestic cash reserves can be used to pay out dividends or initiate share buybacks.

But the best way to use overseas cash may be to invest it in foreign acquisitions.

With increased appetite for U.S. technology products in foreign markets, technology companies could use their overseas cash hoard to make acquisitions and ramp up their presence. Such acquisitions serve the twin purposes of a ready customer base in foreign markets without significant effort and enable technology and talent acquisitions. For example, Amazon (AMZN) used this strategy to enter China's currently burgeoning e-commerce market.  

The top four tech companies have a mixed record on this front.

In a May filing last year, Google said it would spend $20 billion to $30 billion for "potential acquisitions of foreign targets." The Mountain View-based behemoth, which has been an aggressive buyer of U.S. startups in the last few years, has yet to make an offer that rivals its 2013 acquisition of Israeli tech company Waze for $966 million. It spent more than $500 million to acquire British startup DeepMind last year for its technology.  

Other than that amount, the company has not forked out much cash. For example, the company bought Imperium, a cybersecurity firm with offices in Bangalore and California for a paltry $9 million. Apple, which has a relatively conservative record of acquiring companies, has yet to make an overseas acquisition.

On the other hand, Microsoft has made a number of notable high-profile acquisitions, such as telecom carrier Nokia, communications platform Skype, and the wildly-popular gaming startup Minecraft in the last few years. Cisco has doubled down on its headcount in India, Israel, and France to spend its overseas cash.

A number of other tech companies have outpaced the top four in making acquisitions in foreign markets.

Facebook (FB) has made an impressive number of overseas acquisitions in Israel and India to boost its technology chops and local presence. Similarly, Twitter (TWTR) acquired an Indian company earlier this year to help expand its reach there. Even troubled Valley veteran Yahoo (YHOO) acquired an Indian company - BookPad - earlier this year to "strengthen its Yahoo Mail experience."

The acquisitions have helped companies refine technology for their core products or make targeted products for the markets. For example, Facebook used its technology from SnapTu, an Israeli startup that it bought in 2011, to redesign and redeploy its mobile app.

Similarly, the Menlo Park-based company will use technology from British startup Ascenta that it acquired in 2014 to bring Internet to developing countries. As another example, Twitter acquired ZipDial, an Indian startup that makes missed marketing calls to consumers, to ensure that the service "reaches every Indian with a mobile device."

As the share of overseas earnings in tech companies' balance sheets rises, acquisitions (and investments) in such markets with foreign cash could boost their growth and profits.

More from Emerging Markets

Wall Street Looks To Extends Gains After Goldman Earnings Beat, China Data

Wall Street Looks To Extends Gains After Goldman Earnings Beat, China Data

China's President Xi Jinping Tells Boao Forum He Supports Opening Markets

China's President Xi Jinping Tells Boao Forum He Supports Opening Markets

U.S. Stock Futures Steady; Asia Stocks Mostly Lower

U.S. Stock Futures Steady; Asia Stocks Mostly Lower

Jim Cramer: There Are Plenty of Shorts in Constellation Brands

Jim Cramer: There Are Plenty of Shorts in Constellation Brands

Renault Shares Hit 10-Year High on Nissan Merger Report

Renault Shares Hit 10-Year High on Nissan Merger Report