For investors who think Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) shares are too rich for its prospects, it is worth noting that Apple’s cash balance is likely to be over $250 billion when it reports earnings for the most recent quarter, a number never matched by any other company. That is $50 a share against a stock price of $144. Apple has just over 5.3 billion shares outstanding.
Some of the value of the cash is offset by debt, which was $75 billion at the end of the September quarter, but much of this is not due for years or even decades. Some of Apple’s debt does not mature until 2045. Additionally, as Apple’s cash balance grows, the value of the debt becomes a non-issue. Apple is also in the midst of returning cash to shareholders via stock buybacks and dividends. The growth in its cash hoard is likely more than enough to fund these payouts.
One aspect of the Apple cash position that encourages shareholders is that when the cash per share is deducted from the share price, Apple’s stock value is well below $100. Because of the company’s ongoing growth and the anticipated record sales of the iPhone 8, Apple bulls argue that the stock will become tremendously attractive by the end of 2017 after iPhone 8 sales have begun to actually surge. Perhaps that is why some analysts have price targets for Apple shares that are close to $200.
Apple’s board has to contend regularly with the sharp criticism that the company has no business with $250 billion in cash. Critics believe Apple will never use even a portion of the cash. There have been rumors that Apple might buy Disney for $200 billion or Netflix for $75 billion. These rumors have been shot down over and over again.
Apple’s R&D costs several billion a year. However, the company does not need cash to fund this. Normal operations and quarterly cash flow much more than offset Apple’s investments in the future.
Could Apple return much of the cash to shareholders? There is at least one precedent of a huge tech company that returned a large portion of its cash position to shareholders. In 2004, Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) sent $3 to each shareholder and cut its cash position from $50 billion to $18 billion. Microsoft’s board had been under the same kind of pressure Apple’s is currently. Investors argued Microsoft had no use for the cash except as a very low-yielding investment.
As Apple’s cash position tops $250 billion, the defense of the value of its balance sheet becomes even more difficult.