A risky cash strategy for Apple

Apple still falls short of its tech peers when it comes to returning money to shareholders. But is playing safe with its cash pile still the right strategy?

Apple Inc once again rewarded shareholders richly as its shares surged to new highs above $US500 on Monday. There is, though, one part of the iPhone and iPad company's business that is not exactly humming: Its management of a pile of money now probably exceeding $US100 billion.

While Main Street US investors are bombarded with offers from banks, such as Capital One Financial Corp, offering bank account yields of as much as one per cent, Apple may be settling for about that or less for its stash, which is bigger than the gross domestic product of many smaller nations.

And comparisons with fellow hoarders in the tech world, such as Microsoft Corp and Google, indicate that in this area at least, the most valuable publicly traded American company is probably underperforming.

With the mountain growing at an extraordinary rate - Apple's pile of money rose by more than $US16 billion to $US97.6 billion in the final quarter of last year, the weak returns may strengthen the arguments of investors who think it might be time Apple started returning some money to shareholders through a dividend.

Otherwise, given the phenomenal success of its iPhone in particular, Apple could at current rates of cash generation go through the $US200 billion level sometime in 2013.

Apple said in its annual results filing that its cash and investments - worth $US81.6 billion at that stage - earned just 0.77 per cent in the fiscal year ended September 24, 2011. That was a hair above the 0.75 per cent return earned the previous year and down from 1.43 per cent in fiscal 2009 and 3.44 per cent in 2008.

"Clearly it's low - absolutely and relatively," said Robert Willens, president of New York consulting firm Robert Willens LLC and a veteran accounting analyst on Wall Street.

When asked about its cash management, an Apple spokesman refers to the company's latest regulatory filing, which says its investment policy and strategy are focused on preservation of capital and supporting the liquidity requirements of the company. It also said it invests primarily in "investment grade" securities.

"They are not running themselves like a hedge fund. They are running it like a liquidity portfolio to meet their business needs," said Alex Roever, head of short-term fixed income strategy at J.P. Morgan Securities in New York.

And yet some of its peers appear to be able to eke out higher returns without seeming to take greater risks.

Microsoft, which had $US59.29 billion of cash, liquid securities and other investments at the end of 2011, and Google with $US44.63 billion in its pile, do not provide comparisons for a weighted average interest rate earned.

However, a look at their returns using a number of different measurements suggest that they are working their money harder with riskier investments than Apple and generating higher investment returns, an analysis by Reuters showed.

In 2011, for example, Google recorded a gross realised gain of $US381 million and net unrealised gain of $US469 million, for a total $US850 million, on its liquid marketable securities - which were up to $US34.6 billion by the end of the year.

Google declined to comment on its rate of return, though it reported gross unrealised gains and losses on cash equivalents were not material at the end of the past two years. Overall, though, the figures suggest returns may have been almost 2 per cent.

Meanwhile, Microsoft in its fiscal year ended June 30 recorded net unrealised gains of $US2.83 billion on its cash and other investments, which totalled $US63.64 billion at the end of that period. Most of that gain came from gains on common and preferred stock holdings.

It also recorded dividends and interest income of $US900 million. Its filings show that Microsoft, which also declined comment on its rate of return and investment policies, dabbles in the trading of oil, metal and grain futures and options.

Apple, by contrast, recorded net realised gains of just $US106 million in its year to September 24 from sales of securities, and net unrealised gains of just $US80 million - and this was from an accumulation of $US81.6 billion by that date.

If you total the 2011 quarterly interest incomes of the companies and then divide by the average size of their portfolios - albeit an imperfect comparative measurement - then you come up with similar indications of performance.

Using that very rough comparison of Apple's annual investment return with those of Microsoft and Google, Apple posted a total return of just 0.53 per cent in calendar year 2011, Microsoft earned 1.52 per cent, and Google 1.47 per cent.

Apple history key

Some investors and strategists say it would be unfair to suggest that Apple and its chief financial officer, Peter Oppenheimer have not tried hard enough to put Apple's money to work. They argue that protecting the cash is the priority and that chasing yield isn't his job.

"Their core competency is not investing cash. It's making iPhones," said Anthony Carfang, partner at consulting firm Treasury Strategies Inc. in Chicago. "I would be concerned if these guys thought they were hotshot investment managers looking to beat the market."

Apple's financial problems in the 1990s means it tends to have a more conservative philosophy towards money management than the others who since listing have never struggled for cash, analysts said. Unlike Microsoft and Google, Apple does not own any stocks as investments, for example.

But a look at the three companies disclosure of the investment categories in which they place their cash suggests that Apple now isn't being that much more conservative than Microsoft and Google - in some ways it may be taking on more risk.

For example, by the end of 2011, Apple had about 40 per cent of its hoard in corporate securities, up from 36 per cent a year earlier, while at Google it was more like 14 per cent and at Microsoft around 17 per cent.

Indeed, Apple may have suffered lower returns because it didn't have as much as the others in the US Treasury market, which had a barnstorming year in 2011. Its Treasury and agency holdings by the end of 2011, were about 36 per cent, against more than 50 per cent at Microsoft and Google.

In the past year, Apple also increased its holdings of longer-dated bonds, which would pay off if long-term interest rates fall but could sour if they rise. It reduced its stakes in safer but lower-yielding short-term bonds in favour of higher-yielding longer-dated debt, resulting in higher duration risk. It held $US67.4 billion in long-term debt at the end of December, double its level a year earlier.

There is, though, at least some hope that Apple's returns may be catching up Google.

In the quarter ended December 31, Apple reported dividends and interest income of $US137 million, a period in which Microsoft earned $US182 million. Google said it lost $US18 million from interest and other income in that period, though this included an impairment charge of $US88 million for its investment in troubled wireless company Clearwire Corp.

InvestSMART FORUM: Come and meet the team

We're loading up the van and going on tour from April to June, with events on the NSW central & north coast, the QLD mid-north coast and in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. Come and meet the team and take home simple strategies that you can use to build an investment portfolio to weather any storm. Book your spot here.

Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?

Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.

Sign up for free

Related Articles