With Apple's (AAPL) recent announcement of its plan to start paying dividends to shareholders, the company's shares, unsurprisingly, rose sharply, finally breaking the $600 barrier that had become quite its nemesis in the previous week. It takes good news like that to break such thresholds and this news was welcomed as better than just good. It was viewed as sensational.
A $2.65 quarterly dividend offers even more reason for investors to flock to the stock. Taking some risk off the table, which automatically arises when shares nearly double in nine months, the move also illustrates just how much of a stockpile of cash the company currently has the luxury to tap into. The worry now, however, is that the company will invoke too much effort in pleasing shareholders.
In defense of Apple, the company is stuck in a very difficult position. Yes, even companies with nearly $600 billion in market cap and a business model that is practically so perfect it can quite run its own itself, can be faced with difficult decisions. It could use the bulk of the $97.6 billion to create a multitude of new gadgets and technologies and risk one or two possibly failing, or it could evenly distribute the money between innovation and shareholders. In this case, management chose the latter. However, pleasing both investors with free money and customers with quality products is difficult, especially for technology companies.
For some companies, such as Walmart (WMT), paying shareholders a dividend is not a difficult decision. After all, with a Walmart location seemingly in every city, the room for expansion is mediocre at best. Once past the basic necessities such as store upkeep, the remaining cash will inevitably sit there awaiting the appropriate destination. The dividend also takes some pressure off the board with regards to satisfying not only customers, but shareholders who are sure to demand something from a company and its stock which has failed to gain anything this century.
However, Apple's landscape is a far cry from that of Walmart. Its position cannot and can never be that of mere satisfaction. Unless, of course, it wishes to take the route of other competitors who have taken a similar route only to fail miserably.
After doubling its dividend payout in 2004 and once again in 2005, Intel (INTC) went from one of the biggest names on the Nasdaq to a company whose growth and share price have become less than appealing. Since 2004, share prices have fallen 20%, while earnings growth has slowed to a crawl. Expected to post earnings growth of only 2% in 2012, the company's history illustrates just how dangerous the mindset of investors that need to be appeased can be.
Intel isn't the only company that has taken on the aforementioned strategy and failed. Microsoft (MSFT) has suffered a similar chart pattern and earnings are expected to show 0% growth this year.
If Apple can somehow find a way with this dividend to create the perfect template with regards to both shareholder and customer satisfaction, the move will be one of mastery and foresight. Until then, though, it may be appropriate to take the wait-and-see approach on shares. After all, dividend payouts only do so much when share performance and growth leave so much to be desired.