The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.
Issuing preferred shares that pay a big dividend may not be the best use of Apple's more than $137 billion of cash and liquid investments. But hedge fund manager and Apple shareholder David Einhorn, who is pushing the maker of iEverything to reward investors with a new class of high-yielding stock, has a point.
Apple should be doing something more productive with its more than $137 billion in cash.
Did I mention that Apple (AAPL) has more than $137 billion in cash?
Speaking at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company's iMountain of cash. Responding directly to one of Einhorn's most pointed jabs, Cook said that Apple does not have a "Depression-era mentality."
Cook noted how much the company was spending on capital expenditures, research and development and acquisitions.
That may be true. And Apple, to its credit, is also paying a dividend that yields a healthy 2.2%. Still, the company's cash position has continued to grow even after it started paying the dividend last year. Apple remains an extremely frugal company.
And it's not alone. Several leaders in the tech and pharmaceutical industries are hoarding cash.
Microsoft (MSFT) has more than $68 billion. Google (GOOG) has $48 billion. In fact, tech titans Apple, Microsoft, Google, Cisco (CSCO), Oracle (ORCL), Intel (INTC) and Big Pharma giants Pfizer (PFE), Merck (MRK), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Amgen (AMGN) collectively have more than $435 billion in cash on their balance sheets.
I realize that a big chunk of this cash is being held overseas for tax purposes. And sure, it's smart for Corporate America to be saving for that proverbial rainy day. But they seem to be hunkering down for a biblical flood. Do any of these companies need that much cash? It reminds me of Holly Hunter in "Raising Arizona" -- They got more than they can handle!
Interest rates are likely to remain low around the world for awhile thanks to the Great Global Easing coordinated by most of the major central banks. So cash that's just sitting in the bank, invested in Treasuries or parked abroad is doing bupkus for shareholders. Expect more investors to pull an Einhorn and express their frustration with companies that are just buried in a cash-alanche.
"Apple can't justify holding that much cash," said Jeffrey Sica, president and chief investment officer of SICA Wealth Management in Morristown, N.J. Sica, who owns Apple, said if the company does not have firm plans to spend more on acquisitions and R&D, then it should boost its dividend further.
Sica said the same is true for the other companies with tens of billions of dollars in cash. He worries that these firms are sending a message that they have nothing better to use their cash for ... or worse, that they are too worried about the health of the global economy and consumer demand to start investing more of it.
"It's hard to find companies that aren't stockpiling cash. And to sit on that much cash reveals that companies feel uncertain about their future," Sica said. "It's more about defense than innovation. If you are not going to use it, give it back to shareholders."
So why have companies amassed this much cash in the first place?
Murillo Campello, a professor of finance at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, said that many big companies are still in financial crisis mode. He thinks that top executives can't help but remember the dark days of 2008 and 2009 -- and they want to be prepared in case the markets implode again.
But Campello also thinks that it's premature to suggest that firms with a lot of cash don't have plans to use it more productively. He said that more acquisitions are likely from larger companies. And when firms use cash to scoop up smaller rivals, that's typically better for the acquirer's shareholders than when a company has to issue more stock to pay for a merger.
Still, there are only so many merger opportunities out there. Apple could theoretically buy Nokia (NOK) and BlackBerry (BBRY) with its cash and still have well over $100 billion left. Microsoft could buy Facebook (FB) -- although it wouldn't be able to afford much of a premium.
Of course, none of those fanciful deals are ever going to happen. But you get my point. No company needs this much cash just for acquisitions.
Until recently, companies have gotten a free pass for stockpiling cash. But Apple's big stock plunge over the past few months might be a sign that investors are no longer willing to accept the miserly ways of Corporate America. If shares of Google, Cisco and others with large stacks of cash start to drop as investors clamor for bigger dividends, stock buybacks or more acquisitions, then these companies may have no choice but to finally admit the obvious.
"You can't argue that companies are increasing cash levels just as a precautionary measure anymore. Companies just don't know what to do with the cash," Campello said.
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