Sometimes left unsaid, in ruminations about the huge cash pile that U.S. companies are sitting on — anywhere from just under $1 trillion to just under $2 trillion, depending on the source — is that much of it is on the books of overseas subsidiaries and not likely to journey home soon. For the current biggest cash hoarder of all, Apple, 88 percent of its total $150 billion is overseas, according to BloombergView.
That’s why the richest company in the United States says it has to borrow $17 billion, in the form of a bond issue, to expand its share-buyback program by $30 billion. There would be a one-third tax bite if, instead, it repatriated some of its cash.
Not that Apple and other multinationals are to be pitied for such limited flexibility in deploying cash. In many cases, they’re putting the chains on purposefully. “By booking profits to subsidiaries registered in tax havens, multinational corporations are able to avoid an estimated $90 billion in federal income taxes each year,” wrote U.S. PIRG, a coalition of public-interest research groups, in a 2013 report. “These subsidiaries are often shell companies with few, if any employees, and which engage in little to no real business activity.”
Meanwhile, avoiding taxes may not be the only shell game that Apple, for its part, is engaging in. On Friday, along with announcing the expanded share buyback, the company surprised analysts by revealing plans for a seven-for-one stock split, to be completed June 9.
A key goal of share buybacks is to increase the value of the remaining shares outstanding. At the same time, the eye-opening stock split would put Apple’s share price at a level where many more investors may feel that they could afford to buy in. If enough do that (however mistakenly, as any dollar amount invested would give an investor the same ownership position pre- or post-split), that too stands to boost the share price.
But the value created by a share buyback tends to be a short-term advantage that often dissipates as time passes. Apple, for some reason, is keenly intent on getting a quick price boost — or defending against a possible share-price downturn.
The early-June completion of the stock split roughly coincides with Apple’s upcoming announcement of the iPhone 6, whose main differentiating element from prior models is expected to be a larger screen size, not dazzling new functionality.
Despite strong quarterly earnings reported last Wednesday, excitement over Apple product announcements clearly has quieted since the death of former CEO Steve Jobs. That may be coincidental, but a relatively bland product unveiling could send Apple’s very sensitive share price tumbling, particularly in light of the fact that the company hasn’t come out with a brand-new product in some time. To say that’s what is driving Apple’s recent moves is speculation, but there is usually a method to this giant tech company’s madness.