Apple, Business, Companies

What Should Apple Do With Its Billions?

Apple is a mean money-making machine. The company ended March quarter with nearly $66 billion in cash, a whopping $6.1 billion increase over the quarter-ago period.

Apple’s cash pile has ballooned more than ten times in size between the fourth quarter of 2005 and the latest quarter. Not bad for a computer maker that was on the verge of bankruptcy just fifteen years ago.

In the 1996-1997 timeframe Apple was bleeding cash on all fronts, posting quarterly losses that had surpassed $700 million.

Today, Apple’s cash pile is worth more than the combined market capitalization of Nokia, Research In Motion and Motorola Mobility. That’s more money than half of Google’s enterprise value, mind you.

It’s enough green to keep Apple going with no revenue until the middle of 2018, explains Asymco’s Horace Dediu. He noticed the company’s funds are "big enough to place Apple’s CFO office in the top 100 largest fund managers in the world and larger than any hedge fund manager".

Apple’s cash hoard is a strategic asset often used to effectively blocks out competitors by securing long-term component deals. For example, Apple has pledged to spend $11 billion in purchase commitments, per latest 10-Q filing. Of course, they don’t just deposit $65.8 billion in hundred dollar bills in a vault. Matter of fact, just a portion of it is on Apple’s bank account while the significant chunk is invested into short-term and long-term liquid assets. What are those, you ask…

Think money market funds, US Treasury securities, non-US government securities, certificates of deposit and time deposits, commercial papers, corporate securities and municipal securities. I know, it sounds like a mind job. The one question that has been on everyone’s mind is what is Apple going to do with all those billions. They don’t pay cash dividend and its executives said numerous times that the funds will be for bold, strategic moves. We take it that doesn’t mean building dozens of retail stores in China or manufacturing many more computers, phones and tablets.

So, what should Apple do with its billions? The romantic types think Apple needs to backpedal and build own factories to manufacture gadgets in the United States. These are the people who’d love nothing more than see the "Designed by Apple in California. Made in the USA" label on Apple products. I hate to burst their bubble, but that’s just wishful thinking. Asian labor is insanely cheap and their numerous manufacturing facilities are well-oiled and efficient to the perfection.

Some folks say buy Sony. Others think Apple should snap up a social player like Facebook or Twitter. Watchers think Electronic Arts, Netflix or whatever. While these high-profile acquisitions are always a possibility, Apple is not known for big mergers. Frankly, I don’t think any of the aforementioned acquisitions would work out at the end given Apple’s pretty unique corporate culture and DNA. Instead, I see Apple spending billions to bolster their cloud computing capabilities. The cloud already plays a big part in everyday computing and its importance will only grow over time.

The company has only dipped its toes into cloud computing while rivals like Google and Microsoft are way ahead. In order to make up for the lost ground, Apple is going to spend big money on world-class datacenters that will power their own cloud services, including maps, search, video, mail, chat, social and more. This is already happening as Apple is about to complete its $1 billion datacenter in North Carolina, shown in the below clip.

Of course, your guess is as good as mine and I’d be interested to hear your take on this. What would you do if Steve Jobs gave you the keys to Apple’s $66 billion war chest? Tell us in comments.

By the way, I’ve conveniently pulled the 1997 MacWorld Boston video from the Internet archives, embedded below. It shows Steve Jobs announcing a deal with Bill gates where Microsoft invested $150 million in stock of almost bankrupt Apple which they could not sell for three years. Even though the crowd clearly wasn’t too happy about such a draconian decision, it was a brilliant business play that restored investor confidence and showed the world that Apple was a company worth fighting for.