Apple: CEO Tim Cook on New Products, M&A, and Capital Return

Stocks achieved a new all-time high on Friday, as the benchmark S&P 500 and the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) both rose 0.3%. Although it may not feel like it, that performance capped the best month for stocks since October -- the S&P 500 gained 4.3% in February. Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) held its annual meeting today and, although it lacked the drama of a showdown with activist investor Carl Icahn, CEO Tim Cook provided some insights into the company's performance – and its prospects.

It's a measure of the anticipation and expectations surrounding the "next big thing" from Apple, that CEO Tim Cook pranked investors at the company's annual meeting on that basis – which then made the headlines of many articles covering the event.

In prepared remarks before a Q&A session, Mr. Cook assured that the company is focused on growth, and that he was prepared to present some new products. That was enough to elicit gasps and cheers from the audience; but, after a pause, Cook concluded: "I'm just kidding. I gotta have some fun."

Mr. Cook did address new products later in the meeting, but he remained coy:

We are working on a lot of new products. We are working on some extensions of things you can see. We are working on some things you can't see.

The extension of things you can see could very well be in the wearables category – an iWatch that links to the iPhone, for example. Apple's rival Samsung has taken an early lead in this category, and it debuted two new smartphones at this week's Mobile World Congress.

One point on which shareholders can be fairly certain: When it comes to new product categories, Apple will be building, not buying. Cook appeared to be alluding to Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp when he said:

We are not in a race to see how many we can acquire. We are not in a race to pay the most. We are not in a race to get the headline. That doesn't mean we won't buy a huge company tomorrow afternoon. But it has to be a fit for us and help us make great products that enrich people's lives.

Apple isn't averse to dealmaking per se -- Cook noted that Apple has acquired 23 companies during the last 16 months, but they are typically small deals to add a specific technology that will be integrated in existing (or future) products. As far as bigger deals are concerned, Cook told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month:

We've looked at big companies. We don't have a predisposition not to buy big companies. The money is also not burning a hole in our pocket where we say let's make a list of 10 and pick the best one. We're not doing that. We have no problem spending ten figures for the right company that's the right and that's in the best interest of Apple in the long-term.

Take a look at Wired's list of 10 companies Apple could acquire instead of buying back all that stock, for example – personally, I didn't see any obvious candidates among them. Besides, the company has the means and the know-how to develop new products itself – Mr. Cook said spending on in-house research and development rose by a third last year. Which brings us to capital allocation.

Shareholders can earn a return from growth projects and capital return, after all. On the latter – which was Mr. Icahn's focus – Mr. Cook said he would provide an update on Apple's share buyback and dividend program "within the next 60 days," adding:

We look at it [cash redistribution policy] all the time but we update it on an annual basis so we can be thoughtful and deliberate about it. If you are only [investing] in Apple for two weeks or a month, I would encourage you not to invest in Apple because we are here for the long term.

That observation applies to new products, too, by the way. It's understandable for investors to be curious -- and even impatient -- concerning Apple's next product foray, but the company deserves the benefit of the doubt that it is equally "thoughtful and deliberate" on this front. Apple will announce a new product this year; until then, bouts of uncertainty will mainly be an opportunity to round out a position in Apple shares.

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