It's always nice to have a rich uncle or at least a rich customer.
The Nikkei business daily is reporting that Foxconn has made an offer to purchase Sharp's struggling LCD business, and that the contract manufacturer is planning on turning to Apple (AAPL 0.31%) to help bankroll the deal. The only reason why Apple could likely entertain the idea is that the iPhone maker is also a prominent LCD display customer.
Sharp has been struggling for years, and it has publicly stated that it is looking at ways to restructure its LCD business. Someone needs to help put it out of its misery.
A slow and painful death
As far back as 2012, Asymco's Horace Dediu speculated that Apple may have helped bail Sharp out with a $2.3 billion investment. Apple's capital expenditures in 2012 came in $2.3 billion higher than expected, which the company said was dedicated to manufacturing equipment and infrastructure. Since Apple relies on Sharp to supply a large portion of displays, it had a vested interest in making sure that Sharp didn't go under. If that happened, creditors would likely seize the LCD assets and Apple would have to lean more heavily on its other suppliers. Even back then, Foxconn was considering various investments in Sharp.
Sharp has a rather heavy debt burden, owing about $5.9 billion to financial institutions at the end of 2014. That figure climbs even higher when you factor in other types of debt like outstanding bonds. At this point, Sharp's lenders are so invested that they don't want to see Sharp go bankrupt, either. Most analysts don't think the company will be around in five to 10 years.
In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that Foxconn was looking at potential investment opportunities at Sharp. In a statement, Foxconn told the WSJ:
Any such investment would have to be based on mutually beneficial outcomes, in particular, whether Foxconn will have the right to participate in business management to realize the shared goal of achieving sustainable business growth and returns on investment.
Taking control of the LCD business could help Foxconn on numerous levels. Consolidating both companies' display operations could yield some cost synergies, especially as Sharp and Foxconn share several major customers, including both Apple and Chinese smartphone OEM Xiaomi.
Will Apple say yes?
As luck would have it, this news comes as Apple has been increasing the efficiency of its capital expenditures lately. In April, Apple said it expected to spend $13 billion in capital expenditures in 2015. The company revised that figure down by 8%, or $1 billion, to $12 billion in July. A spokeswoman told WSJ that the change was due to increased efficiency and not related to any product pipeline changes.
At the same time, the vast majority of Apple's cash reserves are located abroad. Specifically, $181.1 billion of its total gross cash of $202.8 billion is held by foreign subsidiaries. So the company has plenty to spare within its foreign coffers if it decides to help bail Sharp out in order to secure the supply that it needs in order to prevent any disruptions in its supply chain. That could easily be worth a couple billion.