Really? Do you think Steve Jobs actually needs to hoard $42 billion in cash reserves on the company’s balance sheet, when they are already adding to the gargantuan mountain of money at a $12 billion clip per year. Let’s not forget, this gaudy amount of money is being added after all operating expenses and capital expenditures have been paid for.
Perhaps Steve is just a little worried about the economy, and wants a little extra loose change around for a rainy day? I’d buy that argument, but Mr. Jobs and the rest of the executives just witnessed the worst financial crisis in a generation, and the company still managed to generate about $9 billion in free cash flow in both fiscal 2008 and 2009.
If Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was not creating cash flow like those cascading chocolate fountains I see at weddings, then perhaps a cash safety blanket is needed for acquisitions? Here’s what Steve had to say about Apple’s cash levels in February:
“We know if we need to acquire something – a piece of the puzzle to make something big and bold – we can write a check for it and not borrow a lot of money and put our whole company at risk…The cash in the bank gives us tremendous security and flexibility.”
Let’s explore that idea a little further. First of all, what type of experience does Apple have in doing large acquisitions? Not a lot, and just to humor myself I ran a screen on a universe of more than 10,000 stocks and I came up with 111 companies with a value (market capitalization) greater than $40 billion. Unless Apple plans on buying companies like Coca Cola (NYSE:KO), Chevron Corp. (NYSE:CVX), Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), or United Parcel Service (NYSE:UPS), I think Apple can part ways with some of their billions. Certainly, there are a handful of theoretical targets in the areas of technology and content, but for certain, (a) any large deal would face intense regulatory scrutiny, and (b) if truly there were grand synergies from doing a massive deal, then most definitely they would be able to issue stock (if Jobs hates debt) to help fund the deal. It is pure nonsense and laughable to believe any “big and bold” acquisition would put the company “at risk.” The only thing at risk for doing a large deal would be Apple’s stock price.
The truth of the matter is returning cash to shareholders would be a fantastic self-disciplining tool, like putting mayonnaise on a brownie to prevent excess calorie consumption. Steve should give current or former CEOs of AOL, Time Warner, Mercedes Benz, Chrysler, Sprint, and Nextel a call to see how those large deals worked out for them. Apple could use an acquisition security blanket, but they do not need a circus tent of cash.
Times of Change
Although times have changed, some executives have not. Many tech companies, including Apple, have nostalgic memories of the go-go tech bubble days of the 1990s when growth at any price was the main mantra and no attention was paid to prudent capital allocation. With a stagnant stock market over the last twelve years, and interest rates sitting sluggishly at record lows (effectively 0% on the Federal Funds rate), investors are demanding prudent decision-making when it comes to capital allocation. Mr. Jobs, it is time to expand your narrow views and show the stewardship of sensibly managing the cash of your loyal investors.
Believe it or not, there are still a few of us actual “investors” that still exist. I’m talking about investors who do not just speculatively rent a stock for a day, week, or month, but rather those who invest for the long-term because they believe in the vision and execution capabilities of management and believe the company’s capital will be invested in their best interest.
I do not mean to single Mr. Jobs out, because he is not the only gluttonous, cash-hog offender among CEOs. In many respects, Apple has the good fortune of becoming a cash-hoarding poster child. The company does indeed deserve credit for becoming a $225 billion technology-consumer-media-retail juggernaut that has spread its tentacles brilliantly across numerous massive markets, whether its PCs, cell phones, music, television, movies, games, advertising etc.…you get the picture. But just because you are an exceptionally gifted visionary doesn’t give you the right to destroy value of hopelessly idle cash, which is begging for a better home than a 0.25% T-Bill.
Solutions – Taming the Cash Hog:
1) Divvy Up Dividends: With $42 billion in cash on the balance sheet and additional annual free cash generation on pace for $12 billion per year, there is no reason Steve Jobs and the board couldn’t declare a dividend that would yield 3% today. If that feels like too much, then how about shave off a pittance of $5 billion or so to pay out a sustainable dividend, which would yield a market-matching 2% dividend yield to investors. This scenario would accommodate Apple with at least a few decades of a cash cushion to cover ALL the company’s operating expenses and capital expenditures. This meagerly, ultra-conservative dividend policy can actually persist (or grow) longer than expected, if Apple can sustainably grow profits – a good possibility.
2) Share Buyback: This solution is much less desirable from my perspective compared to the dividend route, since many of the large share repurchasers tend to also issue lots of new shares to employees and executives, thereby neutering the benefits of the share repurchases.
3) Bank of Apple – (B of A): Why doesn’t Jobs just create a new entity, plop $40 billion of cash from Apple Inc. into the venture, and then open it up as Bank of Apple. At least that way, as an investor in the bank, I could make more profitable lending spreads at B of A relative to the 0.25% yield earned on the mega-billions deteriorating on Apple’s corporate balance sheet.
The downside of instituting these cash reducing solutions:
- The company doesn’t have as much cash as it would like to do large stupid acquisitions.
- The company loses a bunch of day-traders and short-term stock renters that don’t even know what a dividend is.
The upside to efficiently allocating capital through a 2% dividend is Steve (and the other investors) will receive a nice fat quarterly check. In the case of Jobs, he’ll collect a handsome $27 million or so to his measly $1 annual salary. In the process, the company will also gain long term shareholders that buy into the strategic vision of the company.
Stubbornness has served Steve Jobs tremendously well in his career, and clearly a successful billionaire like Steve Jobs does not need to listen to my advice. However, I am hopeful that Mr. Jobs will see the hazards of choking on a rapidly growing $42 billion cash hoard and discover the benefits of slimming down a gluttonous cash hog.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (NYSE:SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in KO, CVX, PFE, UPS, AOL, Time Warner, Mercedes Benz, Chrysler, Sprint, Nextel, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.