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Apple (AAPL): Dividend or Buyback?

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Earlier this week Moody’s projected Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’scash pile could top $170 billion by the end of this year. Predictably, this reignited calls for that cash to be paid back to shareholders in the form of a dividend or share buyback.

Apple Inc. (AAPL)

What’s the best way to return investors’ capital? Here’re five factors to consider.

Flexibility

Dividends are sticky.

Once a company issues a dividend, management becomes reluctant to change their policy. This is fine for utility or pipeline companies as these industries are stable. But stickiness is a problem in fast-moving sectors like technology. A dividend creates a fixed obligation that could hurt Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) during the next industry shift.

Maybe Android will takeover the smartphone space.

Could Apple discover a productive use for its cash?

Perhaps Research In Motion Ltd (NASDAQ:BBRY) will make a comeback.

It’s difficult to tell what the technology landscape will look like five years from now. By choosing a buyback program, management retains flexibility if they need to conserve cash. Cutting the dividend is a more difficult proposition.

Advantage: Buyback

Convention

What are other companies doing?

Traditionally high-tech firms avoided returning capital to shareholders because it signaled the company had run out of innovative ideas. But with cash balances growing faster than it can be redeployed, that perception is changing. Across the industry, technology executives are opting for both buybacks and dividends.

QUALCOMM, Inc.  (NASDAQ:QCOM) is making an effort to return $13 billion in cash that is piling up on its balance sheet. Earlier this month the company announced it will hike its dividend 40% and initiate a $5 billion share buyback program. This will increase the yield on the stock from 1.55% to 2.17%.

Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT)
is sitting on $68 billion and generating $31.6 billion in operating cash flow annually. With a shortage of productive projects, the company have chosen to pay shareholders both $6.4 billion in dividends and $3.1 billion in share buybacks over the past year.

Advantage: Draw

Taxes

Dividends are heavily taxed.

On Jan. 1, Congress raised the dividend tax rate to 20% on households earning more than $400,000 or $450,000 for married couples. By comparison, capital gains are only taxed at 15%.

Investors can also choose to delay their tax liability with a buyback as long as they hold their shares. But investors are forced to pay taxes immediately with a dividend.

Advantage: Buyback

Valuation

Is the stock cheap?

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