Corporations are stowing away cash at record rates, reluctant to invest in their businesses or hire new workers as uncertainty clouds the future.
Amid a lackluster earning season that has featured many companies missing sales expectations, cash balances have swelled 14 percent and are on track toward $1.5 trillion for the Standard & Poor's 500, according to JPMorgan. Both levels would be historic highs.
The buildup contrasts with an earnings picture in which 61 percent of the 127 companies that reported through last week have missed revenue expectations though more than half have beaten estimates.
With unemployment mired at 7.8 percent, economic growth at 1.3 percent and the stock market getting no lift from earnings, the larger question is when companies will start putting that money to work. (Read More: What the Jobs Report Really Says About the Economy)
"Companies aren't making the capital investments because they don't see the growth to make the investment," said Jim Paulsen, chief market strategist at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis. "They're not making long-term investments without a feel for sales growth. That's what's got to come."
Since the 2008 financial crisis, investors had been content to watch companies use government stimulus to build up liquidity in case the economy should double-dip back into recession. But with the S&P 500 breaching important support levels and an economy hungry for a growth engine, it's only a matter of time before that patience wears thin.
"It's going to take on more significance for investors. They're going to get more and more upset about sitting on hoards of cash. You may be hearing more activist investor calls," Paulsen said.
"People are getting less concerned about financial risks and more concerned about growth," he added. "If you're not going to grow, at least pay it back in returns. It's going to go from a badge of honor (for accumulating cash) to representation of poor management."
CEOs have a variety of concerns to keep them from deploying cash. Chief among them is the much-discussed "fiscal cliff," which is Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's term for the series of spending cuts and tax increases that will kick in if Congress and the White House fail to reach deficit-reduction targets by year's end. (Read More: Why 'Fiscal Cliff' May Be Bigger Threat Than You Think)
Another primarily political concern is the broader issue of taxes, in particular how investment income will be treated.
Analysts have begun chattering about special dividend releases to get ahead of possible tax increases, according to Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Annuities in Newark, N.J.
"There's an expectation that you may see some special dividends being offered because of the questions regarding taxation," Krosby said. "We should be seeing that particularly in the tech sector."
Krosby does not sense a critical level of impatience among investors — so far.
"This is a case where it's not as though investors and businesses are on a separate page. There's more of an understanding of why they're holding onto cash," she said. "There's this free-floating waiting period, an interregnum if you will, waiting for certainty. Even if it's bad news, at least it's certainty."
The current market weakness in anticipation of that clarity is a potential buying opportunity, said Thomas J. Lee, chief market strategist at JPMorgan. (Read More: Earnings Look Better So Far, but Market May Not Care)
"While investors are nervous, the rallies in credit along with strengthening in China/Europe are positive divergences supporting 'dip buying' into year-end," Lee said in a note.
"We realize investors are reluctant to buy 'bad news,' particularly in the midst of weak 3Q results," he added. "However, given the positive divergences...and the attractive relative valuation, we recommend investors remain buyers of equities on this weakness."
In particular, Lee advocates financials, builders and global cyclical sectors such as industrials, technology and materials.
The current climate, though, does not bode well for 2013 earnings if companies can't find ways to grow their top-line revenue pictures. Strategas Research Partners said S&P 500 aggregate earnings should come in at $98.25 for the full year in 2012, then dip to $95.50 in 2013 before rebounding to $105.50 in 2014.
"Sales of non-financial corporations have shifted from increasing-at-an-increasing rate to increasing-at-a-decreasing rate," said Nicholas Bohnsack, operating partner at Strategas. "Historically, this has only occurred in concert with recession or a midcycle slowdown; either way corporate fundamentals weaken."
© 2012 CNBC.com
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