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Everyone knows that Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) is sitting on an obscene pile of cash. The world's largest business by market value (in neck-to-neck competition with oil giant Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM ) ) is also one of the richest, presiding over some $76 billion in cash and investments and making $10.3 billion more in the last quarter alone.
There's also no shortage on pundits telling Apple what to do with all that cash, ranging from dividends and buybacks to large acquisitions. But Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty goes one step further than simple suggestions and says that Apple now is "more likely than ever" to put those greenbacks to work.
According to Huberty's projections, Apple would wield a $136 billion bank account by the end of 2012 unless newly anointed CEO Tim Cook does something with it. Apple lacks a track record of absorbing large acquisitions. Therefore, direct buybacks and dividends look more likely to help investors out in the long run.
So Huberty suggests starting a low-key 2.4% dividend yield, which would amount to about $8.4 billion a year at today's share prices. That would still leave plenty of cash flows available for buyouts, buybacks, or saving for a biblical flood of a rainy day.
She also notes that Apple willingly pays some taxes on foreign earnings, in stark contrast to fellow cash-rich tech giant Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO ) and many others. That removes or at least reduces one large obstacle to investor-friendly payouts.
I totally understand that Apple wants to keep some dry powder on hand just in case a large challenge or some enormous challenge turns up. But there are limits to reasonable caution -- $136 billion would be almost enough to buy Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL ) outright before incorporating any kind of buyout premium.
A 2.4% yield might not sound like much, and it's slightly less than the least-generous payouts on our Income Investor scorecard: Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) offers a 2.6% yield while McCormick (NYSE: MKC ) just squeaks by Huberty's suggested Apple dividend with a 2.5% yield. These modest payouts have helped both stocks outperform the DJIA (INDEX: ^DJI) by very comfortable margins over the past 10 years.
Would it be too much to ask Apple to do its shareholders the same market-crushing favor? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.