Apple on Track to Buy 50% of Itself in Three Years

A path has appeared where Apple management can realistically buy back 50% of AAPL's outstanding shares within three years. With a stable iPhone business, a growing Services business, and U.S. corporate tax reform, Apple will have close to $300B of cash available to spend on share buyback in the coming years. The numbers are daunting, and as Apple management has shown no sign of curtailing its buyback plans, it's time for Wall Street to take notice. 

Share Buyback 101

Share buyback is the opposite mechanism of an IPO or secondary offering. Instead of raising cash by selling shares, a company uses excess cash on its balance sheet to buy back its shares from investors. These shares are then retired, or removed from the market, resulting in a lower share count. By using cash to buy back stock, a company's assets and equity totals decline while debt remains the same, all else equal.  

There are a few reasons for a company to buy back its stock. 

  • Signaling effect. Management teams can use buyback to signal to Wall Street its confidence in future prospects. In addition, share buyback is often thought to be a sign that management views its stock as undervalued.  
  • Balance sheet optimization. There is such a thing as holding too much cash on the balance sheet, especially if investors are not properly valuing it. By issuing low-cost debt to buy back stock, some companies will be able to lower their overall cost of capital, which is a value creation activity. 

Buying back shares increases the ownership percentage for existing shareholders. If a management team buys back all of a company's shares except for one, that last remaining share would, in theory, own 100% of the company. Of course, in the real world, this example isn't likely as the last remaining shareholders would have little incentive to sell their shares to the company at a low price. 

A few other considerations regarding share buyback:

  • Share buyback is not created equally. Not every company should repurchase their shares. Industry dynamics and company-specific issues may make share repurchases an unwise use of excess cash for some companies. Share buyback has gotten a bad rap on Wall Street in recent years because of its widespread use, including that by companies not in a strong position to be buying back shares. This buyback misuse has overshadowed examples of buyback representing a good use of excess cash. 
  • Share buybacks don't create shareholder value. Contrary to popular belief, share buybacks don't create value for shareholders. While existing shareholders do get a greater share of the balance sheet via share buybacks, the act of using cash to buy back shares means they are getting a greater share of a smaller balance sheet. Meanwhile, share buyback does not have any direct impact on how a company performs when it comes to using its assets to generate cash flows. The one example in which buyback may produce a small amount of value for a company is when the overall cost of capital is reduced due to share repurchases. 
  • Apple is not using buyback to secretly go private. One myth that has been circulating for years is that Apple is secretly using share buyback to go private. Not only is this false, but it ignores one crucial aspect found with Apple's share buyback program. Management is not holding on to repurchased AAPL shares. Instead, the shares are retired and removed from circulation. Existing shareholders see their ownership stakes rise due to buyback.

For more information on share buyback, and in particular Apple's stock repurchase program, an Apple Stock Buyback Primer is available for Above Avalon members here.

Apple's Buyback History

Since kicking off its buyback program in 2012, Apple management has repurchased 20% of outstanding AAPL shares. As shown in Exhibit 1, after peaking in 4Q12 at 6.6 billion shares, Apple's share count has declined by 20% to 5.3 billion at the end of 1Q17.

Exhibit 1: Apple Shares Outstanding (1Q11 to 1Q17)

Apple management has been a very reliable and consistent repurchaser of its stock. This stands at contrast with the average buyback program in which management teams are more interested in the positives associated with announcing a share buyback instead of actually parting ways with cash to repurchase stock. Share buyback authorizations often remain open as companies never finish their buyback programs. Apple has been an outlier in terms of its very aggressive pace of buyback, regardless of share price. 

The Path to 50%

With 20% of shares already repurchased, here's how Apple management can repurchase an additional 30% of shares over the next three years to reach 50% of Apple outstanding shares:

1) Continue to funnel $30B to $35B of excess cash into share buyback every year. Apple is currently relying on operating cash flow (U.S.) and debt issuance to fund its share buyback. With the iPhone business displaying a new level of consistency and with a growing Services business, Apple will likely see similar levels of cash generation in the coming years. If Apple can funnel approximately $30B to $35B of cash into share buyback in FY17, FY18, and FY19, the company will be in a position to buy an additional 16% of outstanding shares by the end of 2019. As seen in Exhibit 2, simply keeping the status quo should bring shares outstanding to 4.5B shares in three years, a 32% reduction from the 2012 peak.

Exhibit 2: Apple Shares Outstanding (1Q11 to 1Q20E)

2) Bring back most of the $230B of cash held in foreign subsidiaries. Apple currently has $230B of cash held in foreign subsidiaries. If Washington passes corporate tax reform and foreign cash is taxed at a rate of 15% or lower, Apple will bring back the vast majority, if not all, of this amount to the U.S. Apple will need this cash in the U.S. if it intends to use it for share buyback. Apple has been maintaining a deferred tax liability (now at $27B) related to foreign earnings as management has been accruing U.S. taxes related to unremitted foreign earnings. This will make it possible for Apple to pay tax on most of this foreign cash without taking a significant EPS hit.  

3) Use $150B of repatriated cash to repurchase another 23% of AAPL shares. Assuming Apple pays taxes on foreign cash at some point in FY17 or FY18, Apple will have approximately $250B of cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities on its balance sheet. If Apple uses 60% of this total for share buyback, Apple will be able to buy back 23% of outstanding shares. Management could repurchase these shares quickly through a modified Dutch auction tender offer. Even after spending $150B on buyback, Apple would still have close to $100B of cash left over on the balance sheet. While the company's net cash balance would be at a multi-year low given Apple's increasing amount of long-term debt (quickly approaching $100B), the company would still be kicking off $50B of cash each year. As seen in Exhibit 3, using more than 60% of repatriated cash, in addition to keeping the status quo in terms of quarterly buyback, would bring shares outstanding to 3.3B shares in three years, a 50% reduction from the 2012 peak.

Exhibit 3: Apple Shares Outstanding (1Q11 to 1Q20E)

Risk Factors

There are four risk factors that may derail Apple's path to buying back 50% of outstanding shares. Deteriorating business fundamentals may jeopardize the amount of cash flow generation required to maintain a robust buyback program. If iPhone unit sales decline more than 10% year-over-year, this may have a negative impact on buyback. 

When it comes to corporate tax reform, if there are strings attached to the cash Apple brings back from foreign subsidiaries, this would have an adverse impact on Apple's plan to use the cash to buy back a significant portion of outstanding shares. If Washington simply lowers the tax rate on foreign cash instead of getting rid of the tax rate altogether, Apple may have more freedom as to how the cash is spent. Of course, there is no guarantee that Washington will be able to come to an agreement on corporate tax reform, although Tim Cook sounded confident in such reform occurring this year.

Apple's board would need to provide enough buyback authorization in order for management to use a significant portion of its cash to buy back shares. One likely scenario is that the board grants management larger share buyback authorization in FY17, FY18, and FY19, but it's spread out over a longer period. This would give management added flexibility when it comes to timing buyback. 

The last risk factor is a rising AAPL share price. As shares increase in price, it will become that much more expensive for Apple to buy back its shares. If shares rise 10% in 2017, it will be 10% more expensive for Apple to buy back shares in 2018. If Apple shares increase in price, the path to repurchasing 50% of shares becomes that much more narrow.  Of course, if AAPL shares fall in price, Apple will have a much easier time repurchasing 50% of outstanding shares, as buyback would require less cash. 

Calling a Bluff

Apple's iPhone and Services businesses are throwing off more cash flow than management needs to run the business and to invest for the future (M&A and R&D). This produces a very rare situation of a company generating hundreds of billions of dollars of excess cash. 

With shares trading in the vicinity of $130, Wall Street doesn't seem to believe Apple will actually spend $250B on buyback in the next three years. Wall Street thinks Apple is bluffing. Meanwhile, Apple has shown no indication that it will slow its share buyback pace and instead embrace a strategy of retaining excess cash for other purposes. This may set up a situation in which Wall Street calls out Apple on a bluff (i.e. the share price doesn't change much from current levels). In such a situation, Apple is given a clear path to buying back 50% of shares in three years.

The biggest takeaway from buying back 50% of outstanding shares is that Apple's shareholder base would essentially be cut in half. Shareholders as of year-end 2012 would see their ownership stake in Apple double in just seven years by simply holding on to their shares. This is quite rare on Wall Street. As Apple's path to buying back 50% of shares becomes more clear to Wall Street, Apple's share buyback program will gain more attention from investors. 

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