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Large cash holdings to buoy tech companies during COVID-19 storm

As the novel coronavirus roils global markets, analysts note cash is king and large technology companies hold the crown.

Some of the biggest tech names including Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc. and Apple Inc. reported hundreds of billions of dollars in liquid assets, including cash and cash equivalents, short-term investments and marketable securities, for the earnings period prior to the global coronavirus pandemic.

While analysts expect current uncertainties to limit big tech's spending options in the near term, they said the companies' large cash holdings will enable them to weather headwinds and ramp up spending quicker than less-cash-rich companies once the outbreak subsides.

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"These guys are big and able to weather pretty big storms," noted Rob Kniaz, founding partner of venture capital firm Hoxton Ventures.

Kniaz also said there arguably has been "more of a push" specifically for Apple products and services for consumers who are self-isolating, and they may be more inclined to upgrade their devices as a result.

Apple ended the December 2019 quarter with $107.16 billion in liquid assets, up from $100.56 billion in the September 2019 quarter. The company, however, already warned that it will likely miss its March-quarter revenue guidance due to coronavirus-related impacts on production and demand in China, where the virus originated.

According to Kniaz, Alphabet's Google LLC unit, in contrast, could face more risk given its reliance on an advertising market that is especially vulnerable to economic volatility.

A recent survey conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an advocacy group that provides ad-related research for advertisers and agencies, asked 390 media planners, media buyers and brand executives about their U.S. ad spending plans for 2020. Those surveyed said digital ad spending for the March through June period is down 33% compared to original plans and traditional media is down 39%.

Notably, Google said it will provide $340 million worth of advertising credits to small businesses that routinely advertise on its platform.

Another behemoth in the digital advertising industry, Facebook Inc., acknowledged it already has seen some softness in its ad business from the coronavirus. Facebook will offer $100 million in both ad credits and cash grants to support up to 30,000 small businesses across 30 countries. The company will separately offer another $100 million in grants and advertising credits to publishers.

Both Alphabet and Facebook have plenty of dry powder to spend. As of the fourth quarter of 2019, Alphabet reported holding $119.68 billion in liquid assets, while Facebook had $54.86 billion.

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Rick Pendergraft, founder of independent investment research firm Pendergraft Research, noted that tech companies' "judicious" approach with their cash holdings gives them flexibility to conduct more M&A or make other business investments in the future.

"These companies have the cash on hand for emergency situations like the one we're in now," he said. "They have the cash on hand to pay their debts, [and] they don't have to take extreme measures."

Pendergraft expects tech companies with a strong focus on cloud computing, such as Microsoft, to do particularly well during the pandemic as more people rely on these types of services to work remotely.

For similar reasons, Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives called Microsoft a "golden cloud tech name" for investors in the current economic environment.

"The area of technology spending that continues to get the green light are cloud stacks/infrastructure build outs and applications tied to the work-from-home theme," Ives wrote in a research report.

Microsoft ended the December 2019 quarter with $134.23 billion in liquid assets.

Ives also remains bullish on Apple, saying its 5G iPhone launch expected for this fall could spur a "super cycle" of device upgrades. 5G is set to offer download speeds many times faster than the current 4G LTE wireless networks.