It's been a volatile quarter for the stock market during the last three months, and for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) stock specifically. Shares traded above $130 during July, near $100 in August (the lowest levels for Apple stock since 2014), and are trading around $113 at the time of this writing. With shares pulling back as much as they did during the quarter, and given Apple's tendency to be opportunistic with its share repurchases, could Apple have repurchased more shares than usual during the quarter?
Apple's aggressive repurchase program
As Apple's annualized free cash flow continues to grow, the company has been ramping up its capital-return program since it was initiated in 2012. Consider this timeline for the program:
- March 2012: Apple initiates capital-return program, authorizing $45 billion for repurchases over three years.
- April 2013: Apple more than doubles the program, raising it to $100 billion, of which $60 billion is to be used for share repurchases.
- April 2014: The authorized total amount of the capital-return program is raised to $130 billion, and $90 billion is to be used for share repurchases.
- April 2015: Apple boosts its capital-return program to $200 billion, and extends the program's end out to the end of March 2017. The amount of the program specifically authorized for share repurchases increased from $90 billion to $140 billion.
Meanwhile, the company is averaging about $10 billion in share repurchases a quarter. Clearly, share repurchases are important to the tech company.
Apple CEO Tim Cook explained the board's positive sentiment toward repurchases in the press release for its most-recent update to its capital-return program: "We believe Apple has a bright future ahead, and the unprecedented size of our capital-return program reflects that strong confidence."
So, how many shares could Apple have repurchased this quarter?
Given Apple stock's pullback during August to around $100, chances are the company was rather aggressive in its repurchases. Even more, just as Apple stock was selling off, Apple CEO Tim Cook seemed as bullish as ever about the company's prospects.
As worries about Apple's health in China amid a devalued yen dragged the stock lower, Cook went out of his way to share a mid-quarter update with CNBC on Apple's performance in the country, expressing optimism regarding the company's current performance and future potential in the important market. With Cook remaining bullish on China during this market turmoil, Apple may have viewed the sell-off as irrational, and subsequently loaded up on more shares than usual.
Apple entered the quarter with $22 billion in domestic cash, locked and loaded with buying power to repurchase a higher-than-usual number of shares. During previous pullbacks, Apple has repurchased as much as $18 billion worth or shares. Could Apple have set a new record on share repurchases this quarter, spending as much as $20 billion?
Expecting that Apple set a new record in share repurchase spending during the quarter is somewhat hopeful -- and not necessarily the most-likely scenario. At the same time, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if Apple spent $20 billion in share repurchases during the quarter, because Apple's trailing-12-month free cash flow is, after all, at record highs.
The fact that it's even possible for Apple to spend this much in a single quarter helps add perspective to the significance of its ability to repurchase shares. Spending $20 billion would be enough to repurchase as many as 182 million shares -- assuming an average price per share of $110 -- or about 3.2% of Apple's total shares outstanding, in a single quarter.
We won't know exactly how many shares Apple repurchased during its fiscal fourth quarter until it announces its financial results in October. But it's likely to be one huge chunk of shares.