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Apple's cash plan takes heat off Cook, buys him time

On Tuesday, Apple said it would return $100 billion to shareholders by the end of 2015, in part by raising its dividend 15 percent and in part by increasing its share buyback programme six-fold to $60 billion.

business Updated: Apr 24, 2013 17:04 IST
Apple,iPad mini,Kindle

Tim Cook wants investors to "think different" about Apple: less as a hyper-growth startup-like company and more as a mature but robust technology corporation with the world's most lucrative dividend.

If Wall Street follows Apple's famous advertising slogan of old, it may relieve some of the pressure on Apple's chief executive, quiet investors' grumbling about its recent share price slide, and buy the company time to do what it says it does best: come up with and market new products.

On Tuesday, Apple said it would return $100 billion to shareholders by the end of 2015, in part by raising its dividend 15 percent and in part by increasing its share buyback programme six-fold to $60 billion.

To some extent, the expanded capital return program helped mask its first quarterly profit decline in a decade, though analysts say the more important issue now is what Apple has in store on the gadget front.

Cook is trying to reset heightened expectations around a company once universally feted for its ability to captivate both consumers and Wall Street. In the years following the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010, the company established a pattern of consistently blowing past even the most bullish Wall Street earnings expectations, much to everyone's delight.

Tourists walk past an Apple store on the busy Wangfujing shopping street in Beijing. AFP

But on Tuesday, Cook made the rare admission to analysts on a conference call that Apple's growth has slowed and margins have decreased.

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Apple is a mature company that's now trying to get everyone to see it as one, analysts say.

"They are modulating into a state where the highs are not as high and lows are not so low," Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said.

Apple shares moved 5 percent higher Tuesday on the back of the capital program, though the gains evaporated later.

Any gains would have come as little consolation to investors who have watched Apple shed more than $280 billion in market value in the last few months as investors adjusted to a new, slower-growth reality.

Roger Kay, president of researcher and consultant Endpoint Technologies Associates said the expanded share repurchase and dividend scheme would keep investors satisfied for a while.

A worker climbs outside an Apple store in Hong Kong. Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

In the longer term, Apple needs another blockbuster gadget to accelerate its momentum -- and win investors back for the longer term. Cook tried on Tuesday to drum up enthusiasm around the product pipeline by teasing that "some really great stuff" -- potentially in new product categories -- was coming in the fall and in 2014.

"They need something that breaks into new verticals, whether it's TV or something that's wearable, that opens up a new revenue stream," Epps said.

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Resetting the scale

That remains among the most pertinent concerns for Apple-watchers. Since Cook took over in 2011 from late co-founder Steve Jobs, some investors have questioned whether Apple can continue to up-end technology markets with new revolutionary products that appeal to consumers in the absence of the tech icon.

Cook has in the past year presided over three straight quarters of missed revenue expectations before the January-to-March period. The key product introduced during his tenure is the smaller iPad mini, a response to tablets such as Inc's Kindle that were making inroads on its home turf.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an event to announce new products in San Jose, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The public takes as a given that a new iPhone and new iPads will come this year, along with refreshed Mac computers and iPod music players. But the speculation is that Apple is also working on a watch, a television and a radio service, among other products in the pipeline.

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Cook would not provide any more details on new products, no surprise given the company's penchant for secrecy.

Some investors remain confident the Apple magic remains.

"The bar has been reset in terms of expectations and guidance. They have done the right thing by issuing debt and doing a large buyback," said Jason Jones, who runs tech hedge fund firm HighStep Capital and confessed to being an Apple bull.

"The company will go through this quiet period for product release and then, starting in the summer and for the remainder of the year, product announcements will pick up and likely the stock will react favourably to that."

Staff at an Apple store hold a meeting before they open their doors on the day the iPhone 5 went on sale to the public, in central Sydney. Credit: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

While Apple is still growing -- no small achievement for a company with sales well over $100 billion -- its pace of growth has slowed as high-end smartphone adoption approaches saturation and rivals flood the market with cheaper devices, which are popular in high-growth developing countries like China and India.

Cook on Tuesday acknowledged that Samsung, which has smartphones in all price categories, is its top competitor. Apple also said it does sacrifice margin in the short-term, as it did with the iPad mini, if executives believe a product has long-term potential.

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"Apple is in the transition phase from growth to a value company," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Asset Management. "Growth companies tend to put every penny back in, but that is not the case with Apple here."

Two models display the Apple iPhone 5 during the product's release at a store in Taipei. Photo: AFP / Mandy Cheng

First Published: Apr 24, 2013 10:49 IST