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Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) is like a Mexican pinata, stuffed full of cash. The Cupertino tech giant is just afraid to swing its own stick.
Few investors see Apple's growing cash balances as a problem. Every passing quarter finds the company with billions more in its coffers. It had $51 billion in cash, equivalents, and marketable securities at the end of fiscal 2010. That number rose to $59.7 billion three months later, and $65.8 billion six months later.
Apple isn't going to stop making money. It's selling millions more iPads, iPhones, iPods, and Macs with every passing quarter. In Ticonderoga Securities analyst Brian White's model, Apple will be sitting on $136.8 billion in greenery by the end of fiscal 2013.
No company -- and certainly not Apple -- needs that kind of cash cushion. Even saving for a rainy day of Noah's Ark proportions wouldn't require an emergency stash that big. However, Apple's mindset in 2013 isn't likely to be all that different from its thinking right now:
- No dividend.
- No massive share buybacks.
- Limited acquisitive activity.
I realize that payouts are flags of surrender in the tech world. If there's a jump-the-shark moment among tech juggernauts, it's usually when they begin cutting quarterly dividend checks. Cash-rich Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO ) didn't initiate a divide policy until three months ago, long after the last growth investor had fled the tattered networking-gear giant. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) waited until it was knee-deep in its lost decade to begin sharing its bountiful stash with investors.
If the mother of all share repurchases seems like a more plausible idea, consider that it's just $90 billion in market cap away from Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM ) -- and it's already far greater in enterprise value. Do you really think that Apple, the country's second most valuable company, wants to shrink its share count when it's a good year or two of growth away from overtaking the top dog?
Sure, shareholders would enjoy some pocket change. Of course they'd relish the accretive nature of a healthy buyback. But neither scenario is likely to happen, even if Apple is collecting a pittance in interest on its idle cash.
That leaves acquisitions as the best reason for Apple crack open its fattened piggy bank, but the clock is also running out on that front. Apple is already too big to make a material purchase that won't get intense scrutiny from antitrust regulators. Besides, who would it even buy at this point?
Apple's success has given rise to its own inescapable girth. The class of Cupertino is trapped in money -- and it can't get out.
Who do you think would Apple buy at this point? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.