As most who follow Apple know by now, management has decided to return approximately $45 billion of cash to shareholders over three years. Of course, given Apple's recent historical free cash flow generating performance, this is not a very big sacrifice assuming Apple can continue its meteoric growth (which we actually doubt).
Observations and opinions of interest:
- Cook et. al. have made it abundantly clear that they plan to run Apple differently than that of Steve Jobs Company. This can be gleaned from Jobs insisting that Apple accumulate cash for a rainy investment fund as a growth company. This would have actually have been my preference as a shareholder, assuming I believe management had both the clarity and the vision to foresee new revenue streams as well as the managerial execution to see said revenue streams through. Under Steve Jobs' reign, Apple excelled in such. Under Cook's helm, I fear less so. Contrary to popular opinion, I don't necessarily believe that this is due to Jobs being materially superior to Cook in execution and/or vision, but due to the fact that Apple's primary revenue driving product lines are maturing and competition has increased immensely (read as Google, Samsung, HTC, etc.) in the very short period since Steve Jobs incapacitation.
- Apple's management as openly and obviously declared their days as a "high growth" company are most likely numbered. This is evident because Apple has made the managerial decision that best interest of the shareholders would be better served in returning a substantial portion of its cash horde than attempting to invest it directly in ongoing (or new) operations or M&A. In other words, they believe that investors could make more or better use of the money than Apple management can. This is typical behavior for maturing companies, those that are leaving the high growth stage and entering the mature corporate phase. What is not so typical is to have a company that has been growing at the rate of Apple make such a decision, unless of course I was correct in my assumption that Apple's growth will see material growth headwinds in the near to medium term. If that is truly the case, then Apple's management is doing (by far) the best thing as per the interests of the shareholders.
- If one has to return cash to shareholders, then the actual and explicit "return" of cash is the way to do it, ex. pay a dividend. Share buybacks, although hugley popular amongst the Fortune 500 crowd, is an ineffecient and in my opinion unproven method increasing shareholder value over the long term.