The treatment for the blood disease called Polycythemia Vera (the name means “too many red cells”) goes back to the Dark Ages: Lance a vein and relieve the patient of a pint of blood. Phlebotomy treats the symptom but not the condition. There is no known cure; the blood-letting must be repeated indefinitely.
This is what comes to mind when I see how Apple intends to treat its Polycashemia Vera, its “too many greenbacks” problem. Over the next few years, Apple will bleed off $45B of excess cash through a combination of dividend payouts of $2.65/share per quarter and stock repurchase of $10B over three years. (Also, as Tim Cook has stated, the buyback is a means to “undilute” Apple employees’ stock grants. Horace Dediu has a perceptive analysis here.)
But why get rid of the excess cash? How dangerous is it? And what exactly is “excess”?
This is a matter of animated (and occasionally silly) debate.
On one side, you have die-hard company supporters who argue that there’s no such thing as too much cash, you never know what the future holds. Management should ignore the “evil Wall Street speculators” who call for dividends and stock buybacks, jeopardizing the company’s future just to line their pockets.
On the other side, shareholders (or, more accurately, the Wall Street fund managers who represent them) get nervous when a company’s cash reserves far exceed its operational needs (plus a rainy day fund). Management might develop a case of “acquisition fever,” an investment banker-borne contagion that breeds a lust to buy shiny objects for ego aggrandizement.
It’s a rational concern, and while Apple’s performance and cautious spending habits gives management a great deal of credibility, a cash reserve that’s rapidly approaching a full year of revenue (let alone operating expenses) became “really too much” and led to last week’s $45B announcement.
The $45B figure is impressive…but will it be enough to treat this chronic condition?
In Fiscal Year 2011, Apple grew its cash balance by $31B. Using very conservative growth estimates — well below the rates we’ve come to expect from Apple —we’ll assume an additional $40B for FY 2012, $50B in 2013, $60B in 2014…that’s another $150B. Even after the $45B phlebotomy, Apple’s mattress will swell by another $100B in the next three years, to a total of about $200B.
The patient will require repeated blood-lettings.
A gaggle of observers would like to remind us of their version of the Law of Large Numbers; not the statistical LLN, but the one that says, using a simple example, that while 50% growth is relatively easy for a $10M business, it’s nearly impossible at the $100B level. And, yet, this is very much what’s in store for Apple in FY 2012. With Q1 revenue of $46B already in the books we can expect the annual figure to peg at roughly $180B. (This isn’t a wild guess: AAPL pretty much sticks to the FY 20ZZ = 4 x Q1 FY 20ZZ formula.)
$180B would be an astonishing 70% increase in revenue compared to FY 2011 ($108B). Astonishing but not surprising; it simply continues a trend: 2011, the first full year of the iPad, was 66% above 2010, which was 52% above 2009. Even in the midst of the financial cataclysm, Apple’s 2009 numbers showed a 14% increase over 2008, which showed a “customary” 52% increase over 2007, the year of the Jesus Phone. FY 2007, in which the iPhone contributed a smallish $483M, generated a “mere” 28% revenue increase above 2006, the memorable year when iPod revenue surpassed Macintosh sales, $7.7B vs. $7.4B.
One conclusion sticks out: Apple has escaped the lay version of the LLN because it repeatedly breaks into new categories. The “foundation” Macintosh business couldn’t fuel such growth.
Can this last? Can Apple create (or co-opt) another $100B category, add a fourth member to its iTrio: iPod, iPhone, iPad? The rumored Apple iTV (whether it’s the black puck or a “magical” HDTV set) is offered as a candidate for another iPhone/iPad disruption. I’m skeptical. As discussed here and here, I don’t believe Apple can turn TV into another $100B iMotherlode. Unless, of course, Apple comes up with a $650 ASP (Average Selling Price) black puck that will be enticing enough to be bought in iPhone numbers and renewed as frequently. This would require content and (cable) carrier deals for which Apple’s cash might bend the wills of content and transportation providers.
Another possibility, advanced by a friend of mine, would be for Apple to disrupt the digital camera business. Not in the way the iPhone has already eaten into the “snapshot” market, but by offering a real, non-phone camera, with bigger sensors, lenses, and, as a result, bigger body. While technically far from impossible, a look at Canon’s and Nikon’s books shows this isn’t a $100B sector. Canon’s total revenue, including printers and professional non-camera optics, is $44B, with fairly thin margins (COGS in the 70% neighborhood); Nikon’s revenue is about $1B. Too small to move Apple’s needle.
So where does Apple turn for the next big iThing? Perhaps they don’t need to “turn,” at all. Recall Tim Cook’s oft-repeated party line: All our businesses have plenty of headroom.
Read the transcripts of past conference calls (here, here and here, courtesy of Seeking Alpha) or assay Cook’s recent appearance at a Goldman Sachs conference. The mantra is clear: We have a small market share in the huge smartphone segment; iPad sales are growing even faster than the iPhone’s; Mac revenue is growing at a healthy 25% pace in the (still) huge traditional PC market.
Up to the advent of what I can’t help call the Apple Anomaly, we had two bins for companies.
Bin One held stable companies, businesses with modest, predictable growth rates. As they didn’t require huge amounts of money to feed the engine, much of their cash flow was returned to shareholders as dividends. And, when they needed cash for inventories or plants, they could borrow it, issue bonds providing ‘‘guaranteed’’ income (I simplify).
Bin One stocks are boringly/pleasantly predictable.
Bin Two companies are ‘‘hot’’, fast-growing high-tech businesses. They require lots of cash, most often harvested on the stock market. Cash-flow and future requirements are such they rarely issue a dividend.
Bin Two stocks are pleasantly/dangerously hot.
Apple straddles both bins: it generates obscene amounts of cash and it still grows much faster than the rest of the high-tech world.
Summarizing Tim Cook’s position: Yes, we’ll pay dividends and buy shares back. And No: We have no intention of becoming a stodgy Bin One company.
Apple’s CEO implicitly assumes the people he leads will continue to come up with winners in each category, an assumption respectively disputed and wholeheartedly endorsed by the usual suspects. So far, doomsayers haven’t had a great run. But just you wait, they say: In The Long Run Apple Will Fail. They will be right, of course, but when?
In the meantime, the company is still left with a $100B cash “problem.”
This must be by design: Apple’s Board could dial cash down to, say, a healthy $40B. Why not do so?
One possible explanation is that Apple is playing a game of “projection,” they’re creating the perception that they can buy or do anything they want: Wage a price war against Samsung, corner the supply of critical components and force competitors to pay more, create a second source for key modules, buy major distribution channels.
The problem with such speculations is that Apple is already doing some of the above. For example, keeping the intuitively more expensive (display, battery, LTE module) new iPad at the same price points as the iPad 2 continues the price war Apple started with the original iPad’s surprising $499 pricetag.
Also, Apple has already disclosed that it has committed some of its cash as forward payments to suppliers. And strategically creating or even buying a semi-conductor plant to cut Samsung off won’t cost tens of billions. For reference, the latest Intel fabs cost in the neighborhood of $5B each. In any event, one can’t see Apple’s culture adapting to the esoteric semi-conductor manufacturing sector.
This leaves distribution. Could the company acquire, say, Best Buy or an international equivalent? These companies are (relatively) inexpensive: Best Buy’s market cap is less than $10B —for a reason: lousy margins that, in theory, Apple could prop up. But, in reality, hese are complicated businesses and would be a nightmare to restructure: Imagine getting rid of all the brands, pruning and retraining staff. Highly implausible.
We know Apple’s business model: Make and sell high-margin hardware, rinse and repeat every year, everything else is in service to the elegant hardware experience of the Dear Customer. If we stick to our search for places to invest $100B, we’re left with a big question mark.
The only scenario left for the big number is a hedge against political risk in China or against an economic Nuclear Winter. Apple would use its cash reserve to pull through and reemerge even stronger than its competitors.