Apple's Cash Dilemma

With approximately $200 billion of cash on the balance sheet, Apple's financial strength has never been stronger. However, Apple has a growing dilemma on its hands concerning its cash and capital return program. Apple is unable to keep the pace of share buybacks and dividends in-line with its foreign cash generation.  As a result, excess cash that is not needed to run Apple's business continues to build on the balance sheet. While labeling a company with $200 billion of cash as having a cash dilemma seems like hyperbole, Apple's valuation metrics will likely be negatively impacted in the coming years if Apple is unable to return this excess cash to shareholders. 

Apple's Total Cash Continues to Increase

Apple currently has $194 billion of cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities. Not only is this a record in terms of cash held by a single company, but it represents approximately 10% of all cash held on corporate balance sheets. Given Apple's business model, it does not need all of this cash to run its business. With an enterprise value of $583 billion, Apple would theoretically be able to repurchase 30% of itself using the cash on its balance sheet. In reality, things are much more complicated as most of this cash is not able to be used for share buyback because it is held offshore and would be liable for additional tax if returned to the U.S.

Exhibit 1: Apple's Total Cash, Cash Equivalents and Marketable Securities  

Most of Apple's Cash is Held Offshore

Apple's foreign cash continues to comprise a growing portion of Apple's overall cash. In the eight years since the iPhone was released, Apple's foreign cash has grown to $171 billion from $7 billion and now accounts for 89% of Apple's total cash, up from 44% in 2007With approximately 70% of annual revenue coming from outside the U.S., Apple's foreign cash will continue to grow at a much faster pace than its U.S. cash. Apple has been content with keeping foreign cash offshore in order to avoid paying additional tax if it was brought back to the U.S. 

Exhibit 2: Apple's Total Cash, Cash Equivalents and Marketable Securities (Foreign vs. U.S.)

Apple has been using some of its foreign cash for organic growth initiatives, including component procurement, international retail and facility expansion, and clean energy initiatives. Even after all of these expenses, cash generation continues to exceed what management needs to run the business.  

This past quarter, Apple sold more iPhones in China than in the U.S. for the first time. Rather than this being an isolated event, China will only become a bigger piece of the iPhone sales pie given social-economic trends and an untapped market of more than 600 million phone users. The end result is Apple's foreign cash generation will continue to vastly outpace U.S. cash generation.

Apple's U.S. Cash is Being Depleted

With foreign cash being kept offshore, Apple is forced to use its U.S. cash to fund the capital return program. As a result, Apple has a more "modest" $22 billion of cash available in the U.S., which reflects the impact of more than $40 billion of debt issuance over the past three years. Without issuing debt, Apple would only be able to rely on U.S. free cash flow generation of approximately $20-$25 billion a year to fund buyback and dividends. It is important to remember that Apple needs a certain level of available cash in the U.S. to take care of routine business expenses, not to mention have cash on hand to take advantage of M&A opportunities. It is not prudent to allow this cash total to fall too low, and management has shown the willingness to slow share buybacks instead of depleting U.S. cash reserves.

Exhibit 3: Apple's Cash, Cash Equivalents and Marketable Securities (U.S.)

The Dilemma

Apple's cash dilemma is straight-forward: Apple is generating cash internationally at a much faster rate than it is able to spend on stock repurchases and cash dividends in the U.S. As China continues to make up a larger portion of Apple's product sales, boosting total free cash flow, management is facing some limits as to the amount of available funds used for stock buyback and dividends. The following exhibit shows how the amount of free cash flow (red line) is expected to outpace the amount of cash spent on buyback and dividends (blue line) in the coming years. China is increasingly causing the red line to slope upward as time goes on while the blue line is being pinned as the U.S. is becoming a smaller piece of the overall cash generation pie. In an ideal world, there would no gap between the red and blue lines as most of Apple's free cash flow would be spent on buyback and dividends. 

Exhibit 4: Apple's Cash Dilemma

Apple's Options

Management does not have many available options at its disposable for solving its cash dilemma. 

  • Lobby for U.S. Tax Law Changes/Holiday. The preferred option would be returning cash currently held offshore back to the U.S. in an environment with a lower tax rate (15% or less), or during a special tax holiday similar to 2004. Obviously, Apple would want a rate in the single-digits, but Washington politics may make any change to tax policy a long shot. If the tax rate was lowered, Apple would be able to bring back $140-$150 billion of foreign cash and then buy back up to 20% of itself in relative short-order through a public tender offer. At a forward price/earnings ratio of 12x and a free cash flow yield of 6%, Apple management likely views AAPL's current valuation as attractive for such a tender offer. 
  • Continue Issuing Debt to Fund Capital Return. Apple is currently using a combination of debt and U.S. free cash flow to fund share buyback and dividends. As Apple's foreign cash grows, Apple can continue to borrow additional debt. However, Apple's cash dilemma will not be solved as foreign cash generation will still likely outpace the rate of capital return even after considering a realistic amount of debt issuance each year. Eventually, Apple would be holding $400-$500 billion of cash, almost all of it offshore, and $150 billion of debt, all of which would have been spent on the capital return program. Apple would then need to manage its debt obligations, only straining its U.S. cash needs even more. Management may begin to cool to the idea of issuing significant amounts of debt if interest rates rise or if Apple's business slows, further making this option somewhat unsustainable in the long run. 
  • Do Nothing. Management could also slow debt issuance and simply spend less on share buyback. This option would be taken with balance sheet preservation in mind. If Apple slowed all buyback activity, both U.S. and foreign cash would increase and Apple would likely reach $400 billion of total cash in relative short-order. The risk to this option is Wall Street's reaction to Apple sitting on too much excess capital, a scenario that had begun to play out in 2011-2012, and some can argue, is still playing out today. 

How is Holding too Much Cash a Dilemma?

Apple's market valuation is obtained in the marketplace at a price where AAPL buyers and sellers are willing to trade shares to each other. If there is greater demand for shares at a certain price, the price will rise until demand and supply are in equilibrium. Investors buying Apple shares are interested in owning a piece of the company's assets used to generate cash in the future. Since a company's value is obtained by discounting future cash flows and excess cash is not involved in future cash generation, the market is forced to include the cash in its Apple valuation. The end result is there is a high likelihood of either Apple's cash being valued incorrectly, or much more likely, Apple's underlying business being valued at a discount. This is the fundamental logic behind those that have been pushing Apple to use its excess cash to buy back more stock. 

Unless foreign cash is brought back to the U.S. in order to boost the magnitude of share buyback, Apple's excess cash will continue to grow, and the valuation metric that the market is giving Apple will continue to be suppressed. This is one likely reason why Apple is trading at a 12x forward P/E multiple. Apple CFO Luca Maestri has quite the dilemma on his hands.  

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