It's been a roll call of the richest companies in America lately. The publicly traded entities with cash-flush balance sheets are cutting loose some of their greenbacks, declaring one-time distributions that will be payable this month.
And why not? The tax rate on qualified dividends that currently maxes out at 15% is set to nearly triple for some high earners. If a company has ever wanted to return money to its stakeholders, this may be the last month in a long time when it makes sense.
Not every company that can dig deep into its pockets is doing so, though. The country's most valuable and richest company has been somehow absent from the list of companies making these special declarations. What's Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) waiting for?
First Bank of Apple
The Cupertino titan is good for the money. It closed out its latest quarter with more than $121 billion in cash and marketable securities on its balance sheet. That's nearly $128 a share in cash. Now, the lion's share of that money is docked overseas. Until repatriation rules ease -- and that's not likely to happen, given the government's hunger for revenue -- that's where the funds will stay.
Meanwhile, Apple's stash keeps growing. Even after finally coming around and initiating a quarterly dividend policy earlier this year, Apple is collecting more money than it needs. A year ago it had just $81.6 billion on its balance sheet in cash and marketable securities. The company generated more than $50 billion in operating cash flow over the past year, and it's going to crank out even more this new fiscal year.
The only two reasons for Apple's stinginess would be if it's gearing up for a major acquisition or if it's saving for a rainy day.
Well, let's bury any potential buyout chatter. Apple doesn't make needle-moving acquisitions. There have been nibbles here and there, but we've never seen the company attempt the big-ticket purchases that other tech titans have pulled off.
Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) paid 10 figures for Skype, aQuantive, and Yammer. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) shelled out more than a billion for Motorola Mobility, YouTube, and DoubleClick. In comparison, Apple has yet to make a deal bigger than its $402 million purchase of NeXT -- and that was 15 years ago.
That isn't to suggest that Apple should go on a shopping spree. I'm merely suggesting that Apple doesn't need to have so much money in its vault.
Tim Cook's big umbrella
What about that rainy day? If Apple was a cyclical company, holding on to its gobs of cash would be understandable.
Ford (NYSE: F ) , for example, has a net cash position of $9.9 billion, but no one there is clamoring for a fat check. Investors have seen the exhilarating highs and crushing lows of the auto industry, and they're aware of the albatross of underfunded pension liabilities. Ford is a solid investment, but it will never be a consistent grower. Did you know analysts see Ford posting slightly lower sales and earnings this year?
There's no such dark cloud looming over Apple. Sure, Wall Street sees Apple's revenue growth slowing to 24% this new fiscal year and 15% the following year. But so what? The same can be said for Microsoft and Google.
No, Apple doesn't lack risks and challenges. Android can continue to gain global market share in tablets and smartphones, potentially at Apple's expense. Or a new mobile computing platform may emerge where Apple's iOS isn't a major player.
But again, so what? That's business. Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS ) doesn't have a problem returning $2.2 billion to its investors later this month in the form of a one-time distribution of $2.75 a share. Casinos have their ups and downs, and this operator's dependence on the gambling market in Macau introduces geopolitical risks.
The beat of its own drummer
Of course, Apple has defied conventional wisdom in the past -- and won. Most tech companies wouldn't dream of letting their stocks approach the triple digits without declaring a stock split. But Apple's not doing it.
Most large caps wouldn't dream of holding out on paying a dividend, but Apple became the country's most valuable company two years ago with a yield of nil. It wasn't until earlier this year that Cook moved to appease income investors in a way that Steve Jobs never did.
However, the clock is ticking on this particular event. Apple may very well declare a stock split next year, but it would be cruel to decide to return money to its stakeholders through a special distribution after this month's kinder tax rates are toast.
What are you waiting for, Apple? The countdown is on.
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