A Hidden Positive in Apple’s Cash Plan

Beyond Apple’s cash controversy, investors can ponder another strategic plus.

Feb 10, 2014 at 4:15PM

Last week, Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Tim Cook announced spending $14 billion in stock buybacks. It's been an interesting development since so many have been rallying against Apple's stockpiling of cash, particularly vocal agitator and major shareholder Carl Icahn.

Today, Icahn revealed in a letter to fellow shareholders that his concerns about the large treasure trove have been alleviated given the news. He feels even more bullish about the tech giant's long-term prognosis.

Major shareholders -- and individual investors, too -- have had differing opinions on the cash controversy. Still, there's an important takeaway that's mostly overlooked, and that has to do with shareholder treatment and corporate governance, given Apple's previous weaknesses in those areas.

Megaphone matches
Over the weekend, we learned that well-respected proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services, or ISS, advised shareholders to vote against Icahn's proposal that Apple open up its ironclad wallet. It joined in the sentiment with CalPERS, the biggest pension fund in the U.S. and an influential voice for solid corporate governance.

According to ISS, "The board's latitude should not be constricted by a shareholder resolution that would micromanage the company's capital allocation process."

A representative from CalPERS, or the California Public Employees' Retirement System, had strongly rebutted Icahn's stance in a more colorful manner:

There are owners, raiders, and traders. We're an owner and have been of Apple for a very long time. Mr. Icahn is a raider and he's an echo chamber who engages in megaphone diplomacy.

In this case, its point was basically megaphone vs. megaphone given its massive size.

Actually, this is about cash and corporate governance
The takeaway is that after a long history of not listening to shareholders and having shoddy corporate governance principles, Apple's management and board of directors may be starting to listen.

Steve Jobs' reign didn't give credence to dissenting voices of any kind. Of course Jobs had incredible vision, and it was executed beautifully to build a great company. However, the tight ship he ran did not include ceding to others' ideas. It seems the attitude infiltrated the board.

For example, Apple's board didn't alert shareholders to Steve Jobs' illness. Of course investors don't need notification every time such a key figure catches a cold, but succession planning is often a very real concern. Jobs' health and ability to lead the company was a very real concern.

Meanwhile, one well-respected Apple director's feedback -- critical as it was – wasn't appreciated.

The late Jerome York faced frustration on Apple's board given failure to disclose Jobs' serious health issue early. That's disturbing because boards of directors are supposed to criticize management when it has to do with shareholders' best interests. York was an example of a director doing exactly what directors are supposed to do.

York's frustration for being a lone voice in the wilderness wasn't limited to Apple. He had previously resigned from the board at General Motors (NYSE:GM) due to that company's tin ear when it came to his feedback. GM ended up needing a government bailout. A tone-deaf board could very well have contributed to GM's problems.

To ISS's credit, it may have disagreed with the decision but it did give credit to Apple for making a "good-faith effort" to listen more strongly to the real owners of public companies -- shareholders.

Still, I came down on the side of keeping the cash before the announcement. In addition, I strongly felt Apple was a buy at the price and that the recent quarter simply wasn't the end of the world.

I found Cook's Wall Street Journal quote telling when Cook announced the shareholder-assuaging buybacks.

He said the plan had been to:

adjust for the long-term interest of the shareholders, not for the short-term shareholder, not for the day trader. We may see a huge company tomorrow that we want to acquire or something may happen in the stock market that's unpredictable... We've looked at big companies. We have no problem spending 10 figures for the right company, for the right fit that's in the best interest of Apple in the long-term. None. Zero.

The art of listening
Long-term investors should appreciate that Apple is flush with cash. They should also be grateful that Cook hasn't thrown money around on large acquisitions that likely won't provide as much value as investors think they will. Many acquisitions simply don't.

Along those lines, Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL), another cash-rich tech giant, is far more aggressive about frenetic acquisitions. Take its $3.2 billion price tag for Nest, nearly $1 billion for Waze, and of course, $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility.

Google shareholders should be thankful that it can afford to take some massive hits on failed acquisitions. It's selling Motorola Mobility to Lenovo for $2.9 billion. Google sold off parts of Motorola Mobility and kept Motorola's patent chest, but the deal ended up costing Google dearly.

Regardless, though, Apple is strong enough and does have enough cash to make this a win-win. And, possibly most interesting and strategic of all, maybe Apple's management and board are finally open to listening.

Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

Alyce Lomax has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, General Motors, and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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