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R&D Big Spenders in 2017
Monday, March 12, 2018

Now that a large majority of S&P 500 firms have filed their 2017 annual reports, Calcbench will occasionally look at some specific line item to see how Corporate America is spending its money.

First up: research and development costs.

Among the 446 companies that have submitted their 2017 reports already, that group spent a collective $228.2 billion on R&D last year — up 5.2 percent from the $216.9 billion that the S&P 500 spent in 2016. That $228.2 billion is 2.26 percent of total revenue for 2017, which was $10.12 trillion.

But watch out! The 2.26 percent is deceptive, because not all S&P 500 companies report R&D costs. Only 172 firms in our sample have reported R&D, and they collectively had only $3.63 trillion in revenue.

When you calculate the $228.2 billion over that smaller group, the portion of revenue devoted to R&D spending among those S&P 500 companies that report any R&D at all jumps to 6.3 percent. That’s the highest percentage we’ve seen in five years. Yay science! (See Fig. 1, below.)

So who are the biggest spenders?

First we ranked companies by total dollars spent on R&D. Don’t die of shock here, but Google topped the list (as it did in 2016, too). Four of the top 10 were tech firms, and five were pharmaceutical firms. Only Ford snuck into the list from an old school manufacturing sector, so we look forward to a flying car or something in 2019. (See Fig. 2, below.)

Next we ranked companies by percentage of revenue spent on R&D. Seven of the top 10 were pharmaceutical firms of some kind, and that’s no surprise either; many pharma and life science firms spend every penny they can find on R&D for years, until that one blockbuster drug gets approved and they start making real profits. (See Fig. 3, below.)

We should add the caveat that several large filers in the S&P 500 have yet to file their 2017 reports. Most notable is Walmart, whose revenue and R&D numbers could alter the averages for the whole group a bit, although not to a material degree.

Calcbench subscribers, meanwhile, can take this information and use it to ask better questions about the companies you follow. For example, you could calculate the average R&D spending for specific companies you follow and then quickly see what their peers spend for R&D. Then you’re well positioned to lob a few tough questions, if necessary, on that next earnings call.


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