As the global recession and financial crisis recede in the rearview mirror, companies have been acting more proactively in using their balance sheets in ways that enhance shareholder value. But we think they can do a lot more.

As the market tumbled and liquidity dried up after 2008, companies became very conservative, hunkering down and building massive cash reserves on their balance sheets. By mid-2013, U.S. companies were sitting on cash that was equivalent to about 11 percent of their total assets (see chart below), a three-decade high and earning almost nothing. What’s more, a long decline in interest rates made borrowing much cheaper.

When corporations don’t put their healthy balance sheets to work in productive ways, shareholders get restless.

Thankfully, that trend has changed. With borrowing costs still very low and business conditions stable to improved, management teams have become more receptive to using debt to buy back shares, increase dividends and make acquisitions.

Each of these actions can boost shareholder value. Share buybacks shrink the total number of shares outstanding and give a shot in the arm to earnings per share by helping them grow more rapidly in the years ahead, all things being equal. Dividend payments provide attractive income to investors, and acquisitions — if executed thoughtfully — can create new avenues for business growth.

It is getting more difficult to find companies that appear content to ignore low interest rates and high cash balances. But we still see some companies doing exactly that, even good businesses that represent attractive investments. They can do better for their shareholders.

Take Qualcomm. The telecommunications giant is a well-run business, but management’s strategy for returning capital to shareholders has been underwhelming. The firm sits quietly in San Diego and has a net cash balance equivalent to about $18 per share, with $6 per share of that held domestically — making it more accessible. Without borrowing a cent or repatriating any offshore cash, Qualcomm could buy back 9 percent of its shares outstanding. By issuing relatively cheap debt, it could have more cash on hand and accomplish the same goal.

We believe that buying back shares would benefit both the stock price and shareholder value. The company reported $1.5 billion in share repurchases for the second quarter. But since these purchases were used to offset the exercise of company stock options, the average number of shares outstanding actually rose compared with the same quarter in 2012 and, for that matter, the first quarter of 2013.