11 things Apple could do with its $159B cash fortune

Some companies have more money than sense. But Apple has both. What could the firm buy with its $159 billion cash pile? And what makes more sense?
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: Flickr; CNET/CBS Interactive

Apple has topped a list of companies and countries as the largest holder of cash reserves, with just shy of $159 billion.

According to a report by Moody's Investors Services, U.S. companies have reserved a combined total of $1.64 trillion in cash by the end of 2013. That's about 10 percent of the U.S. national debt (more on that later). Just a decade ago, Apple had just over $5 billion in the bank. 

But the Cupertino, Calif.-based technology giant also has a problem. More than half of its annual profits are attributable to the iPhone. If the iPhone stinks and sinks, Apple will have to reinvest in other technologies, services, products, or acquisitions in order to stay ahead of the game.

What could Apple do with $159 billion in cash — if it wanted to?

1. Buy back even more shares

Apple spent more than $10 billion more than any other U.S. company in 2012 on share buyback schemes. With that, the company was able to remove 5 percent of total outstanding shares and bring them back in house. Even with that share buyback program, its cash increased by $14.1 billion — or almost 10 percent.

2. Give every American a check for $442

CORRECTED: With a population of 313.9 million as of 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the World Bank, Apple could give every American — old and young — a check for $506. And seeing as Apple's $159 billion doesn't divide exactly to the dollar, the company would still have $166  million to play with at the end of it.

3. Build a car (or just buy Tesla for $25 billion)

According to The New York Times' Nick Bilton on Twitter, Apple's marketing chief Phil Schiller said there were internal discussions about building a camera, or even a car. The research and development efforts aside, it could funnel billions of its own resources into car development. From wages to administrative costs, legal costs and dealer profits, it would cost a huge amount — and likely a company secret.

Or, if it wanted to just acquire a company, it could snap up Tesla for its current market cap price (as of the time of writing), which is hovering just above the $26 billion mark.

4. Buy Twitter, Dropbox, and Fitbit — and still have plenty left over

Twitter is currently, by market cap, worth about $24.7 billion, which might have been wise to snap up sooner to avoid shuttering its failed Ping social network. While Dropbox hasn't hit the stock market yet, it's estimated to be worth about $10 billion. As for Fitbit, the wearable tech titan is still drumming up funding and is estimated to be worth about $300 million, and could give the company a big leg-up in the wearables and watch market.  

And even with those acquisitions, that's just 22 percent of its overall cash pile. It could spend even more on acquisitions, or invest more in the companies it buys to integrate them further into its own products.

5. Give every Apple shareholder a one-time dividend

If Apple were to give a one-time dividend to its shareholders, they would receive around $178 in cash per share. There are currently just over 892 million shares in Apple. 

Back in 2002, Microsoft was sitting on about $36 billion in cash. Investors and company chairman Bill Gates disagreed on what to do with it. Gates wanted Microsoft to have enough cash on hand to operate for at least a year without generating a cent. But shareholders demanded a dividend.

6. Invest in buying every U.S. school and college student 

Apple has enough cash to buy every U.S. high school and college kid a top of the range iPad, more than a dozen times over. There are about 82.3 million high school and college students as of a five-year estimate ending 2012 from the American Community Survey. If Apple dished out a top-of-the-range iPad Air (128GB, Wi-Fi) to every student, that would still chip away about $65.7 billion. So, Apple could give them two and still have about $18 billion left for a rainy day.

7. Make Hungary a good offer

Hungary has a gross domestic product (GDP) of about $125.5 billion, according to a 2012 census by the World Bank. It also has about $46 billion in cash in its reserve. Bang the two together and you make up $171.5 billion, which is just outside Apple's reach. But it's not to say that it couldn't drum up a bit more in cash, or make a good offer as it stands.

8. End world hunger?

According to Goldman Sachs, it would cost about $175 billion, representing just over Apple's cash pile, and about 0.7 percent of the income of the richest countries in the world. The U.S. by comparison spends about $680 billion each year on its military program alone. Apple could make a huge dent in this area, but it really requires government efforts and international treaties.

9. Forget the iPhone cellular carriers. Own one

The iPhone represents about half of Apple's business. Rumors began to spin a few years ago when the long-awaited device came out that the company could also run the networks behind the device. It's still possible, but it's unlikely. Bypassing the telecom companies could result in a huge long-term payoff for the investment.

T-Mobile, which says it has the fastest mobile Internet service to date, is worth about $24.7 billion, about 15 percent of its cash pile — while Sprint is worth a bit more at about $34.8 billion, or 22 percent of its cash. Even after buying the two cellular giants, Apple would still have just shy of $100 billion left.

10. Plug 0.7 percent of the U.S.' federal debt

As of the fourth-quarter of 2013, the U.S. federal debt was $17.35 trillion. If Apple pumped every cent of its cash into the U.S. Treasury, it would have almost no effect, plugging just 0.91 percent of the debt.

The effect would be additionally minimal, seeing as the debt increases by about $46,100 per second, meaning the U.S. would make up that cash injection in just 39 days.

11. Do nothing — which is the most likely option

Again, we should point out that over half of Apple's profits are attributable to just one device: the iPhone. Apple saw its stock tank by 8 percent in after-hours trading after it missed analyst expectations on iPhone sales at its first-quarter earnings in January. If the next, or following iPhone turns out to be a dud, the company could be in trouble.

And, Apple chief executive Tim Cook said before, on acquisitions, he was “not going to go out and buy something for the purposes of just being big."

The likelihood is that Apple will continue to drum up cash from its high-margin devices, and dish it back to investors and shareholders over time. It's dull, but that's big business for you.

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