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Another Year but the Same Old Story for Apple, Inc.

By Tim Brugger – Mar 4, 2014 at 11:00PM

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In what is becoming a recurring theme, iShareholders were once again underwhelmed at its annual conference.

There was a lot of posturing and calls for change, particularly in the way Apple (AAPL 1.98%) manages its massive cash hoard, leading up to the annual gathering of iFans at its shareholder meeting last year. Much of the angst was caused by one of Apple's largest shareholders, who made it clear he'd like to see more return on his investment. Another recurring them heading into the much-anticipated gathering was if Apple CEO Tim Cook would introduce a new product or at least address concerns about his, and Apple's, lack of innovation.

What's the big deal about a disgruntled shareholder calling for a policy change regarding Apple's cash pile, or investors chomping at the bit for a cutting-edge new product that would finally put their beloved iEverything maker back on top? Here's the big deal: Those concerns, and Cook's response to them, were running rampant heading into the shareholder meeting in 2013. It was just the same old story, with eerily similar verbiage, all over again.

Last year at this time, David Einhorn and his Greenlight Capital fund were calling for Cook and team to generate shareholder value by utilizing what was then $137 billion in ready cash. Einhorn, you may recall, won a court ruling heading into 2013's shareholder meeting canceling a scheduled vote against his proposed new preferred stock offering, iPrefs.

Einhorn and other Apple shareholders had reason to grumble, with its stock price down about 36% from its high the prior September, 2013's gathering came with high expectations that Cook and team would do something to give iFans reason to cheer.

Instead, when the discussion reached the much-anticipated Q&A phase, the time when a new product introduction would come -- if one were forthcoming -- Cook underwhelmed. He knew shareholders were "disappointed" with Apple's stock price, but investors should focus on the long term. And while there were no new products to hype, Apple was "working on new product categories" and giving serious consideration to the notion of returning some of its cash to shareholders.

Now, here we are in 2014, a few days removed from Apple's latest shareholder meeting. Thankfully for iFans, there were no problems with Einhorn. This time around, it was activist investor Carl Icahn getting on Cook's nerves by asking Apple to return cash to shareholders. Icahn gave up his campaign earlier than Einhorn did last year, but Apple's certainly seen this movie before. Cook did say that Apple would "consider" buying back as much as $60 billion by next year. Last year, Cook was "seriously considering" using Apple's cash to improve shareholder value. Sound familiar?

As for unveiling something new, Cook said Apple was "working on great new products," but wouldn't say what those were. Last year, Apple was, as per Cook, "working on product categories." Hmm. The nothing-new schtick followed Cook's "humorous" tease to attendees when he said he was going to "take the wraps off" new products, only to follow that up with "I'm just kidding. I gotta have some fun." Fun? Fun would be gaining back some of the 25% stock price loss since reaching $700 a share in the fall of 2012.

Final Foolish thoughts
Other than a few of the names and two or three of the specific words used, the Apple story hasn't changed since last year's meeting, nor have Cook's responses. If anything, with a nearly $159 billion cash hoard, one could argue that Apple's shareholder value concerns have grown. But the bigger problem is that the perception of Apple having lost its place as the king of innovation is now a reality. Heck, Apple can't even come up with anything new at its shareholder meetings.

Tim Brugger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple. 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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