IRS data suggests that, globally, U.S. nonfinancial companies hold at least three times more cash and other liquid assets than the Federal Reserve reports, idle money that could be creating jobs, funding dividends or even paying a stiff federal penalty tax for hoarding corporate cash.

The Fed’s latest Flow of Funds report showed that U.S. nonfinancial companies held $1.7 trillion in liquid assets at the end of March. But newly released IRS figures show that in 2009 these companies held $4.8 trillion in liquid assets, which equals $5.1 trillion in today’s dollars, triple the Fed figure.

Why the huge gap?

The Fed gets its data from the IRS, but only measures the flow of funds in the domestic economy. The IRS reports the worldwide holdings of U.S. companies, which I think is the more revealing measure.

From the companies’ point of view, it makes perfect sense these days to hoard cash.

First, Congress lets overseas profits accumulate untaxed, so long as offshore subsidiaries own the cash. Second, companies have a hard time putting cash to work because fewer jobs and lower wages mean less demand for products and services. Third, a thick pile of cash gives risk-averse CEOs a nice cushion if the economy worsens.