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Is Apple Inc (AAPL)’s Cash Hurting Shareholders?

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Last quarter, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)‘s cash holdings topped $137 billionActivists argue that the company’s hoarding policy reduces investor returns and management should pay out excess reserves. But does a big cash balance really hurt shareholders?

Cash earns a low rate of return

True, most of Apple’s reserves are invested in assets yielding less than 1%. according to Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s most recent earnings report, its cash is invested in mostly Treasury bills, certificates of deposit, and commercial paper.

Is Apple Inc (AAPL)'s Cash Hurting Shareholders?

But investors must remember that these assets are risk free. If Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) were to pay out its cash, investors could earn higher returns but only with higher risk.

Apple Inc. (AAPL)Some shareholders may argue that they could find higher risk adjusted returns elsewhere if the cash was paid out. Perhaps, but historically it’s been hard to find a better investment than Apple. A shareholder can simply borrow 30% of the stock price on margin to neutralize the effect of the cash balance if they desire. This has been a more profitable strategy than trying to find alternative investments.

So in terms of risk adjusted returns, Apple’s cash balance is neither good nor bad but neutral.

Photo credit: Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)

The market is discounting Apple’s cash

Another problem is that the market may be discounting the cash sitting on Apple’s balance sheet beyond the obvious tax implications.

One reason why the market might do this is if Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) is earning a return on its cash below the risk-free rate. But this doesn’t appear likely as most of Apple’s reserves are invested in exchange traded securities.

Another reason to discount Apple’s cash is fear it will by squandered on overpriced takeovers. Indeed, there’re are some justification for this. Hewlett-Packard Company (NYSE:HPQ), just one of too many sad examples, destroyed billions of dollars in shareholder wealth on acquisitions when they were sitting on excess cash. Shareholders would’ve been better served if management had opted for dividends.

Pundits have no shortage of acquisition ideas for Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) either. For example, Jim Cramer recently recommended the company buy Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) which he believes is attractive for three reasons: 1) Netflix would only cost between $15-$20 billion to acquire, a fraction of Apple’s annual free cash flow 2) Netflix would serve as a valuable distribution platform for Apple’s rumored iTV and 3) Netflix has a partnership deal with Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB). An acquisition would fill a hole in Apple’s social business.

But Apple isn’t likely to go down this route. The company’s acquisition strategy has been to buy small firms with great talent and valuable intellectual properties. Nothing like the flashy, bold targets Wall Street commentators like to plug. So I doubt the market is discounting Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s cash for this reason either.

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