Posts tagged ‘share buyback’

Fink & Capitalism: Need 4 Kitchens in Your House?

Kitchens

Do you need four kitchens in your house? Apparently financial industry titan Larry Fink does. If Mr. Fink were a designer for millionaire homeowners, he would advise them to use their millions to build more kitchens in their house (reinvest) rather than distribute those monies to family members (dividends) or use that money to pay back an equity loan from mom and dad for the down payment (share buybacks). Essentially that is exactly what is happening in the stock market. Companies that are generating record profits and margins (millionaires) are increasingly choosing to pay out larger percentages of profits to stockholders (family members) in the form of rising dividends and share buybacks. Contrary to Mr. Fink’s belief, corporate America is actually doing plenty with room additions, landscaping, and roof replacements – I will describe more later.

As a consequence of corporate America’s increasingly shareholder friendly practices of returning cash, Fink believes this trend will stifle innovation and long-term growth in American companies. Here’s a snapshot of the supposed dividend/buyback problem Mr. Fink describes:

Source: Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

Fink Mails Letter from Soapbox

For those of you who do not know who Larry Fink is, he is the successful Chairman and CEO of BlackRock Inc. (BLK), an investment manager which oversees about $4.65 trillion in investment assets. Mr. Fink ignited this recent financial controversy when he jumped on his soapbox by mailing letters to 500 CEOs lecturing them on the importance of long-term investing. What is Mr. Fink’s beef? Fink’s issues revolve around his belief that CEOs and corporations are too short-term oriented.

In his letter, Mr. Fink had this to say:

“This pressure [to meet short-term financial goals] originates from a number of sources—the proliferation of activist shareholders seeking immediate returns, the ever-increasing velocity of capital, a media landscape defined by the 24/7 news cycle and a shrinking attention span, and public policy that fails to encourage truly long-term investment.”

 

He goes on to bolster his argument with the following:

“More and more corporate leaders have responded with actions that can deliver immediate returns to shareholders, such as buybacks or dividend increases, while underinvesting in innovation, skilled workforces or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth.”

 

What Mr. Fink does not say in his letter is that large, multinational S&P 500 corporations driving this six-year bull run are sitting on a record hoard of cash, exceeding $1.4 trillion (see chart below). In this light, it should come as no surprise that CEOs are forking over more cash to investors in the forms of dividends and share repurchases.

Cash S&P500

What’s more, despite Fink’s assertion that share buybacks and dividends are killing innovation, he also fails to mention in his letter that 2014 capital expenditures of $730 billion are also at a record level. That’s right, CAPEX has not been cut to the bone as he implies, but rather risen to all-time highs.

It’s true that generationally low (and declining) interest rates have accelerated the pace of dividends/repurchases, however dividend payout ratios (the percentage of profits distributed to shareholders) of about 32% remain firmly below the long-term payout ratio of approximately 54% (see chart below) – see also Dividend Floodgates Widen. I find it difficult to fault many companies doing something with the gargantuan piles of inflation-losing cash anchoring their balance sheets. Don’t cash-rich companies have a fiduciary duty to borrow reasonable amounts of near-0% debt today (see Bunny Rabbit Market) in exchange for share buybacks currently providing returns of about 5.5% (inverse of 18x P/E ratio) and likely yielding 7%+ returns five years from now?

Source: Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

The “Short-Term” Poster Child – Apple

There is no arguing that excessive debt eventually can catch up to a company. Our multi-year expanding economy is eventually due for another recession in the coming years, and there will be hell to pay for irresponsible, overleveraged companies. With that said, let’s take a look at the poster child of “short-termism” according to Mr. Fink …Apple Inc. (AAPL).

Of the roughly $500 billion in buybacks spent by S&P 500 companies in 2014, Apple accounted for approximately $45 billion of that figure. On top of that, CEO Tim Cook and his board generously decided to return another $11 billion to shareholders in the form of dividends. Has this “short-term” return of capital stifled innovation from the company that has launched iPhone version 6, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple Pay, and is investing into exciting areas like Apple Television, Apple Car, and who knows what else?

To put these Apple numbers into perspective, consider that last year Apple spent over $6 billion on research and development (R&D); $10 billion on capital expenditures; and hired over 12,000 new full-time employees. This doesn’t exactly sound like the death of innovation to me. Even after doling out roughly -$28 billion in expenditures and -$56 billion in dividends/share repurchases, Apple was amazingly able to keep their net cash position flat at an eye-popping +$141 billion!

Mr. Fink abhors “activist shareholders seeking immediate returns” but rather than deriding them perhaps he should send the greedy, capitalist Carl Icahn a personal thank you letter. Since Icahn’s vocal plea for a large Apple share buyback, the shares have skyrocketed about +85%, catapulting BlackRock’s ownership value in Apple to over $19 billion.

With respect to these increasing outlays, Mr. Fink also notes:

“Returning excessive amounts of capital to investors—who will enjoy comparatively meager benefits from it in this environment—sends a discouraging message.”

 

This would be true if investors took the dividends and stuffed them under their mattress, but an important message Mr. Fink neglects to address as it relates to dividends and share buybacks is demographics. There are 76 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 – 1964 and a Boomer is turning age 65 every 8 seconds. With many bonds trading at near 0% yields (even negative yields) it is no wonder many income starving retirees are demanding many of these cash-rich corporations to share more of the growing spoils via rising dividends.

Capitalism Works

After looking at a few centuries of our country’s history, one of the main lessons we can learn is that capitalism works – especially over the long-run. With about 200 countries across the globe, there is a reason the U.S. is #1…we’re good at capitalism. As our economy has matured over the decades, it is true our priorities and challenges have changed. It is also true that other countries may be narrowing the gap with the U.S., due to certain advantages (e.g., demographics, lower entitlements, easier regulations, etc), but the U.S. will continue to evolve.

In many respects, capitalism is very much like Darwinism – corporations either adapt with the competition…or they die. I repeatedly hear from pessimists that the U.S. is in a secular state of decline, but if that’s the case, how come the U.S. continues to dominate and innovate in major industries like biotechnology, mobile technology, networking, internet, aviation, energy, media, and transportation? Quite simply, we are the best and most experienced practitioners of capitalism.

Certainly, capitalism will continue to cultivate cyclical periods of excess investment/leverage and insufficient regulation. But guess what? Investors, including the public, eventually lose their shirts and behaviors/regulations adjust. At least for a little while, until the next period of excess takes hold. If Apple, and other balance sheet healthy companies allocate capital irresponsibly, capital will flow towards more aggressive and innovative companies. BlackBerry Limited (BBRY) knows a little bit about the consequences of cutthroat competition and suboptimal capital allocation.

While I emphatically share Mr. Fink’s focus on long-term investing values (including his self-serving tax reform ideas), I vigorously disagree with his attacks on shareholder friendly actions and his characterization of rising dividends/buybacks as short-term in nature. In fact, increasing dividends and share buybacks can very much coexist as a long-term investment and capital allocation strategy.

The question of proper capital allocation should have more to do with the age of a company. It only makes sense that younger companies on average should reinvest more of their profits into growth and innovation. On the other hand, more mature S&P 500-like companies will be in a better position to distribute higher percentages of profits to shareholders – especially as cash levels continue to rise to record levels and leverage remains in check.

BlackRock’s Larry Fink may continue to urge CEOs to reinvest their growing cash hoards into superfluous corporate kitchens, but Sidoxia and other prudent capitalist investors will continue to exhort CEOs to opportunistically take advantage of near-free borrowing rates and responsibly share the accretive gains with shareholders. That’s a message Mr. Fink should include in a letter to CEOs – he can use BlackRock’s lofty, above-average dividend to cover the cost of postage.

Investment Questions Border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) including AAPL and iShares ETFs, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in BLK, BBRY or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

April 18, 2015 at 1:58 pm Leave a comment

The Bunny Rabbit Market

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (April 1, 2015). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

With spring now upon us, we can see the impact the Easter Bunny has had on financial markets…a lot of bouncing around. More specifically, stocks spent about 50% of the first quarter in negative territory, and 50% in positive territory. With interest rates gyrating around the 2% level for the benchmark 10-Year Treasury Note for most of 2015, the picture looked much the same. When all was said and done, after the first three months of the year, stocks as measured by the S&P 500 finished +0.4% and bonds closed up a similarly modest amount of +1.2%, as measured by the Total Bond Market ETF (BND).

Why all the volatility? The reasons are numerous, but guesswork of when the Federal Reserve will reverse course on its monetary policy and begin raising interest rates has been (and remains) a dark cloud over investment strategies for many short-term traders and speculators. In order to provide some historical perspective, the last time the Federal Reserve increased interest rates (Federal Funds rate) was almost nine years ago in June 2006. It’s important to remember, as this bull market enters its 7th consecutive year of its advance, there has been no shortage of useless, negative news headlines to keep investors guessing (see also a Series of Unfortunate Events). Over this period, ranging concerns have covered everything from “Flash Crashes” to “Arab Springs,” and “Ukraine” to “Ebola”.

Last month, the headline pessimism persisted. In the Middle East we witnessed a contentious re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Saudi Arabia led airstrikes against Iranian-backed, Shi’ite Muslim rebels (Houthis) in Yemen; controversial Iranian nuclear deal talks; and President Barack Obama directed airstrikes against ISIS fighters in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, while he simultaneously announced the slowing pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile in the global financial markets, investors and corporations continue to assess capital allocation decisions in light of generationally low interest rates, and a U.S. dollar that has appreciated in value by approximately +25% over the last year. In this low global growth and ultra-low interest rate environment (-0.12% on long-term Swiss bonds and 1.93% for U.S. bonds), what are corporations choosing to do with their trillions of dollars in cash? A picture is worth a thousand words, and in the case of companies in the S&P 500 club, share buybacks and dividends have been worth more than $900,000,000,000.00 over the last 12 months (see chart below).

Source: Financial Times

Case in point, Apple Inc (AAPL) has been the poster child for how companies are opportunistically boosting stock prices and profitability metrics (EPS – Earnings Per Share) by borrowing cheaply and returning cash to shareholders via stock buybacks and dividend payments. More specifically, even though Apple has been flooded with cash (about $178 billion currently in the bank), Apple decided to accept $1.35 billion in additional money from bond investors by issuing bonds in Switzerland. The cost to Apple was almost free – the majority of the money will be paid back at a mere rate of 0.28% until November 2024. What is Apple doing with all this extra cash? You guessed it…buying back $45 billion in stock and paying $11 billion in dividends, annually. No wonder the stock has sprung +62% over the last year. Apple may be a unique company, but corporate America is following their shareholder friendly buyback/dividend practices as evidenced by the chart below. By the way, don’t be surprised to hear about an increased dividend and share buyback plan from Apple this month.

Source: Investors Business Daily

Despite all the turmoil and negative headlines last month, the technology-heavy NASDAQ Composite index managed to temporarily cross the psychologically, all-important 5,000 threshold for the first time since the infamous tech-bubble burst in the year 2000, more than 15 years ago. The Dow Jones Industrial also cracked a numerically round threshold (18,000) last month, before settling down at 17,779 at month’s end.

While the S&P 500 and NASDAQ indexes have posted their impressive 9th consecutive quarter of gains, I don’t place a lot of faith in dubious, calendar-driven historical trends. With that said, as I eat jelly beans and hunt for Easter eggs this weekend, I will take some solace in knowing April has historically been the most positive month of the year as it relates to direction of stock prices (see chart below). Over the last 20 years, stocks have almost averaged a gain of +3% over this 30-day period. Perhaps investors are just in a better mood after paying their taxes?

Source: Bespoke

Even though April has historically been an outperforming month, banker and economist Robert Rubin stated it best, “Nothing is certain – except uncertainty.” We’ve had a bouncing “Bunny Market” so far in 2015, and chances are this pattern will persist. Rather than fret whether the Fed will raise interest rates 0.25% or agonize over a potential Greek exit (“Grexit”) from the EU, you would be better served by constructing an investment and savings plan to meet your long-term financial goals. That’s an eggstra-special idea that even the Easter Bunny would want to place in the basket.

Investment Questions Border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) including BND and AAPL (stock), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

April 3, 2015 at 2:27 pm Leave a comment

NVEC: A Cash Plump Activist Target…For Icahn?

Cash-Icahn

Some might call Carl Icahn a greedy capitalist, but at the core, the 78 year old activist has built his billions in fortunes by unlocking shareholder value in undervalued companies. His targets have come in many shapes and sizes, but one type of target is cash bloated companies without defined capital allocation strategies. A recent high profile example of a cash ballooned target of Icahn was none other than the $591+ billion behemoth Apple Inc. (AAPL).  

His initial tweet on August 13, 2013 announced his “large position” in the “extremely undervalued shares” of Apple ($67 split adjusted). We have been long-term shareholders of Apple ourselves and actually beat Carl to the punch three years earlier when the shares were trading at $35 – see Jobs: The Gluttonous Cash Hog. Icahn doesn’t just nonchalantly make outrageous claims…he puts his money where his mouth is. After Icahn’s initial proclamation, he went onto build a substantial $3.6 billion Apple position by January 2014.

Icahn Tweet

Icahn initially demanded Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to execute a $150 billion share repurchase program before downgrading his proposal to a $50 billion buyback. After receiving continued resistance, Icahn eventually relented in February 2014. But Icahn’s blood, sweat, and tears did not go to waste. His total return in Apple from his initial announcement approximates +50%, in less than one year. And although Icahn wanted more action taken by the company’s management team, Apple has repurchased about $50 billion in stock and paid out $14 billion in dividends to investors over the last five quarters. Despite the significant amount of capital returned to shareholders over the last year, Apple still holds a gargantuan net cash position of $133.5 billion, up approximately $3 billion from the 2013 fiscal third quarter.

Icahn’s Next Cash Plump Target?

Mr. Icahn is continually on the prowl for new targets, and if he played in the small cap stock arena, NVE Corp. (NVEC) certainly holds the characteristics of a cash bloated company without a defined capital allocation strategy. Although I rarely write about my hedge fund stock holdings, followers of my Investing Caffeine blog may recognize the name NVE Corp. More specifically, in 2010 I picked NVEC as my top stock pick of the year (see NVEC: Profiting from Electronic Eyes, Nerves & Brains). The good news is that NVEC outperformed the market by approximately +25% that year (+36% vs 11% for the S&P 500). Over the ensuing years, the performance has been more modest – the +42% return from early 2010 has underperformed the overall stock market.

Rather than rehash my whole prior investment thesis, I would point you to the original article for a summary of NVE’s fundamentals. Suffice it to say, however, that NVE’s prospects are just as positive (if not more so) today as they were five years ago.

Here are some NVE data points that Mr. Icahn may find interesting:

  • 60% operating margins (achieved by < 1% of all non-financial companies FINVIZ)
  • 0% debt
  • 15% EPS growth over the last seven years ($1.00 to $2.29)
  • Cutting edge, patent protected, market leading spintronic technology
  • +7% Free Cash Flow yield ($13m FCF / $194 adjusted market value) $294m market cap minus $100m cash.
  • $100 million in cash on the balance sheet, equal to 34% of the company’s market value ($294m). For comparison purposes to NVE, Apple’s $133 billion in cash currently equates to about 23% of its market cap.

Miserly Management

As I noted in my previous NVE article, my beef with the management team has not been their execution. Despite volatile product sales in recent years, it’s difficult to argue with NVE CEO Dan Baker’s steering of outstanding bottom-line success while at the helm. Over Baker’s tenure, NVE has spearheaded meteoric earnings growth from EPS of $.05 in 2009 to $2.29 in fiscal 2013. Nevertheless, management not only has a fiduciary duty to prudently manage the company’s operations, but it also has a duty to prudently manage the company’s capital allocation strategy, and that is where NVE is falling short. By holding $100 million in cash, NVE is being recklessly conservative.

Is there a reason management is being so stingy with their cash hoard? Even with cash tripling over the last five years ($32m to $100m) and operating margins surpassing an incomprehensibly high threshold (60%), NVE still has managed to open their wallets to pursue these costly actions:

  • Double Capacity: NVE doubled their manufacturing capacity in fiscal 2013 with minimal investment ($2.8 million);
  • Defend Patents: NVE fought and settled an expensive patent dispute against Motorola spinoff (Everspin) as it related to the company’s promising MRAM technology;
  • R&D Expansion: The company shored up its research and development efforts, as evidenced by the +39% increase in fiscal 2014 R&D expenditures, to $3.6 million. 

The massive surge in cash after these significant expenditures highlights the indefensible logic behind holding such a large cash mound. How can we put NVE’s pile of cash into perspective? Well for starters, $100 million is enough cash to pay for 110 years of CAPEX (capital expenditures), if you simply took the company’s five year spending average. Currently, the company is adding to the money mountain at a clip of $13,000,000 annually, so the amount of cash will only become more ridiculous over time, if the management team continues to sit on their hands.

To their credit, NVE dipped half of a pinky toe in the capital allocation pool in 2009 with a share repurchase program announcement. Since the share repurchase was approved, the cash on the balance sheet has more than tripled from the then $32 million level. To make matters worse, the authorization was for a meaningless amount of $2.5 million. Over a five year period since the initial announcement, the company has bought an irrelevant 0.5% of shares outstanding (or a mere 25,393 shares).

A Prudent Proposal

The math does not require a Ph.D. in rocket science. With interest rates near a generational low, management is destroying value as inflation eats away at the growing $100 million cash hoard. I believe any CFO, including NVE’s Curt Reynders, can be convinced that earning +7% on NVE shares (or +15% if earnings compound at historical rates for the next five years) is better than earning +2% in the bank. Or in other words, buying back stock by NVE would be massively accretive to EPS growth. Conceptually, if NVE used all $100 million of its cash to buy back stock at current prices, NVE’s current EPS of $2.59 would skyrocket to $3.63 (+40%). 

A more reasonable proposal would be for NVE management to buy back 10% of NVE’s stock and simultaneously implement a 2% dividend. At current prices, these actions would still leave a healthy balance of about $75 million in cash on the balance sheet by the end of the fiscal year, which would arguably still leave cash at levels larger than necessary. 

Despite the capital allocation miscues, NVE has incredibly bright prospects ahead, and the recently reported quarterly results showing +37% revenue growth and +57% EPS growth is proof positive. As a fellow long-term shareholder, I share management’s vision of a bright future, in which NVE continues to proliferate its unique and patented spintronic technology. With market leadership in nanotechnology sensors, couplers, and MRAM memory, NVE is uniquely positioned to take advantage of game changing growth in markets such as nanotechnology biosensors, electric drive vehicles (EDVs), consumer electronic compassing, and next generation MRAM technology. If NVE can continue to efficiently execute its business plan and couple this with a consistent capital allocation discipline, there’s no reason NVE shares can’t reach $100 per share over the next three to five years.

While NVE continues to execute on their growth vision, they can do themselves and their shareholders a huge favor by implementing a shareholder enhancing capital return plan. Carl Icahn is all smiles now after his successful investments in Apple and Herbalife (HLF), but impatient investors and other like-minded activists may be lurking and frowning, if NVE continues to irresponsibly ignore its swelling $100 million cash hoard.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in Apple Inc. (AAPL), NVE Corp. (NVEC), and certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in TWTR, MOT, Everspin, HLF, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

July 27, 2014 at 6:23 pm Leave a comment

Stock Market at Record Highs…April Fool’s?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary April 1, 2013 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

April Fool’s Day has been around for centuries and has provided an opportunity for foolish pranks to be played on the masses around the world. Evidence of the global practice can be found from the bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland filmed by the BBC in 1957. The video footage (click here) was so convincing, viewers called and asked how they could grow their own spaghetti.

A cruel prank has also been played on investing skeptics as they have watched the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrials indexes catapult to new record highs over the last five quarters (up +25% & +19%, respectively). How can the stock market be setting new records when we have recently experienced a fiscal cliff, sequestration, a deepening European recession, slowing corporate profit growth, anemic GDP (Gross Domestic Product) expansion (0.4% last quarter), and a $13 billion Cyprus bailout?

The short answer is the economy continues to improve at a steady pace; stock prices are attractive; and gloomy headlines sell more advertisements in newspapers, magazines and on television. Is this wealth explosion a practical joke, or how can we help better explain this surprising phenomenon?

1) Record Corporate Profits

Source: Scott Grannis

Source: Scott Grannis

Corporate profits are at record levels. After the worst financial crisis in a generation, companies have become mean and lean. They are hiring cautiously to maintain healthy profit margins, but also investing into productivity-improving technology and equipment.

2) Record Dividends and Share Buybacks Galore

Source: WSJ

Source: WSJ

Annual dividend payments have reached a record level of more than $300 billion for S&P 500 companies, and there are no signs of this trend slowing down. This is occurring just as interest rates on bonds have been continuing to decline. Tack on a few hundred billion dollars in share buybacks to boost stock prices, and you get a recipe investors are enjoying.

3) Housing on the Comeback Trail

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

Housing accounts for a significant portion of our economy. After several years of depression-like activity, this sector is on the comeback trail. In fact, the S&P/Case-Shiller index, that measures home prices in 20 major metropolitan cities, rose by +8.1% in the most recent reported figure. This increase was the largest gain in six-and-a-half years. This is important because the improvement in housing filters through to other major sectors of the economy, such as retail (e.g., furniture), banking (e.g., mortgages), and government (e.g., property taxes).

4) Consumer Spending Can’t be Killed

Source: Scott Grannis

Source: Scott Grannis

Like a cockroach, the consumer is tough to exterminate. Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70% of the economy’s goods and services, and as you can see from the chart above, people are still shopping – despite domestic and international challenges.

The net result of all these trends is that the economic picture continues to improve and consumers and investors alike are beginning to feel better about themselves. And how could they not? As evidenced by the chart below, household net worth has reached a record level of about $66 trillion dollars, thanks to rallies in the stock market and home process, combined with a renewed conviction of keeping debt in check.

Source: Scott Grannis

Source: Scott Grannis

Cyprus Side Notes

April 2013 Cyprus

Over the last month, an avalanche of headlines, relating to the dire financial condition of Cyprus and Cypriot banks, has cascaded across the major media outlets. In analyzing the situation, there were two major questions I wanted answered:

Question #1: What is going on in Cyprus?

As it relates to this tiny island, approximately the size of Puerto Rico (east of Greece and south of Turkey), the first thing I learned is that the Cyprus situation is another example of a country’s financial sector gone wild. By some estimates the size of Cypriot bank deposits were more than 4x’s the size of its GDP. A key driving force behind the oversized banking industry is Russian depositors, who make up about 1/3 of overall Cypriot banking deposits. Cyprus acted as a sort of Cayman Islands in the Mediterranean for these wealthy Russians, who moved billions of dollars to the island after the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s. The main attraction for the Russians were the lax banking laws and generous tax advantages.

In order to clean up this financial mess, the so-called adults or Troika, made up of the European Central Bank (ECB), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and European Commission (EU legislative body), approved a $13 billion bailout for Cyprus on the condition they restructured their main banks (Laiki Bank to be merged into Bank of Cyprus). The end result is that Cyprus (like Greece) chose to take the harsh medicine and stay in the eurozone by combining/closing banks and instituting significant losses on those depositors with more than $130,000 in their accounts (with some depositors expected to lose -60% of their money).

Question #2: Should I care?

The short answer is “No”. With a population of about 850,000 people, Cyprus is home to about the same number of folks who live in Birmingham, Alabama. Moreover, the size of Cyprus’ economy is barely 0.2% of euro-land GDP. Many pessimistic bears acknowledge the infinitesimal size of the Cypriot economy, but position the country as the domino about to topple the rest of Europe, including the much more important countries of Spain and Italy. The fact that private depositors are feeling a larger brunt of the pain rather than public taxpayers is actually a healthy long-term trend that will force more responsible behavior by other European financial institutions outside Cyprus.

In the face of the noisy Cyprus sideshow and endless economic/political worries, our corporate profit machine continues to churn out escalating profits,
as our stock markets set new record highs and our economy gains momentum. Today may be April Fool’s Day, but don’t become bamboozled by silly diversions, this stock market is no joke.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

April 1, 2013 at 9:50 am Leave a comment

Jobs: The Gluttonous Cash Hog

Really? Do you think Steve Jobs actually needs to hoard $42 billion in cash reserves on the company’s balance sheet, when they are already adding to the gargantuan mountain of money at a $12 billion clip per year. Let’s not forget, this gaudy amount of money is being added after all operating expenses and capital expenditures have been paid for.

Perhaps Steve is just a little worried about the economy, and wants a little extra loose change around for a rainy day? I’d buy that argument, but Mr. Jobs and the rest of the executives just witnessed the worst financial crisis in a generation, and the company still managed to generate about $9 billion in free cash flow in both fiscal 2008 and 2009.

If Apple was not creating cash flow like those cascading chocolate fountains I see at wedding receptions, then perhaps a cash safety blanket is needed for acquisitions? Here’s what Steve had to say about Apple’s cash levels in February:

Steve Jobs (Source: Photobucket)

“We know if we need to acquire something – a piece of the puzzle to make something big and bold – we can write a check for it and not borrow a lot of money and put our whole company at risk…The cash in the bank gives us tremendous security and flexibility.”

 

Let’s explore that idea a little further. First of all, what type of experience does Apple have in doing large acquisitions? Not a lot, and just to humor myself I ran a screen on a universe of more than 10,000 stocks and I came up with 111 companies with a value (market capitalization) greater than $40 billion. Unless Apple plans on buying companies like Coca Cola (KO), Chevron Corp. (CVX), Pfizer (PFE), or United Parcel Service (UPS), I think Apple can part ways with some of their billions. Certainly, there are a handful of theoretical targets in the areas of technology and content, but for certain, (a) any large deal would face intense regulatory scrutiny, and (b) if truly there were grand synergies from doing a massive deal, then most definitely they would be able to issue stock (if Jobs hates debt) to help fund the deal. It is pure nonsense and laughable to believe any “big and bold” acquisition would put the company “at risk.” The only thing at risk for doing a large deal would be Apple’s stock price.

The truth of the matter is returning cash to shareholders would be a fantastic self-disciplining tool, like putting mayonnaise on a brownie to prevent excess calorie consumption. Steve should give current or former CEOs of AOL, Time Warner, Mercedes Benz, Chrysler, Sprint, and Nextel a call to see how those large deals worked out for them. Apple could use an acquisition security blanket, but they do not need a circus tent of cash.

Times of Change

Although times have changed, some executives have not. Many tech companies, including Apple, have nostalgic memories of the go-go tech bubble days of the 1990s when growth at any price was the main mantra and no attention was paid to prudent capital allocation. With a stagnant stock market over the last twelve years, and interest rates sitting sluggishly at record lows (effectively 0% on the Federal Funds rate), investors are demanding prudent decision-making when it comes to capital allocation. Mr. Jobs, it is time to expand your narrow views and show the stewardship of sensibly managing the cash of your loyal investors.

Believe it or not, there are still a few of us actual “investors” that still exist. I’m talking about investors who do not just speculatively rent a stock for a day, week, or month, but rather those who invest for the long-term because they believe in the vision and execution capabilities of management and believe the company’s capital will be invested in their best interest.

I do not mean to single Mr. Jobs out, because he is not the only gluttonous, cash-hog offender among CEOs. In many respects, Apple has the good fortune of becoming a cash-hoarding poster child. The company does indeed deserve credit for becoming a $225 billion technology-consumer-media-retail juggernaut that has spread its tentacles brilliantly across numerous massive markets, whether its PCs, cell phones, music, television, movies, games, advertising etc.…you get the picture. But just because you are an exceptionally gifted visionary doesn’t give you the right to destroy value of hopelessly idle cash, which is begging for a better home than a 0.25% T-Bill.

Solutions – Taming the Cash Hog:

1)      Divvy Up Dividends: With $42 billion in cash on the balance sheet and additional annual free cash generation on pace for $12 billion per year, there is no reason Steve Jobs and the board couldn’t declare a dividend  that would yield 3% today. If that feels like too much, then how about shave off a pittance of $5 billion or so to pay out a sustainable dividend, which would yield a market-matching 2% dividend yield to investors. This scenario would accommodate Apple with at least a few decades of a cash cushion to cover ALL the company’s operating expenses and capital expenditures. This meagerly, ultra-conservative dividend policy can actually persist (or grow) longer than expected, if Apple can sustainably grow profits – a good possibility.

2)      Share Buyback: This solution is much less desirable from my perspective compared to the dividend route, since many of the large share repurchasers tend to also issue lots of new shares to employees and executives, thereby neutering the benefits of the share repurchases.

3)      Bank of Apple – (B of A): Why doesn’t Jobs just create a new entity, plop $40 billion of cash from Apple Inc. into the venture, and then open it up as Bank of Apple. At least that way, as an investor in the bank, I could make more profitable lending spreads at B of A relative to the 0.25% yield earned on the mega-billions deteriorating on Apple’s corporate balance sheet.

The downside of instituting these cash reducing solutions:

  • The company doesn’t have as much cash as it would like to do large stupid acquisitions.
  • The company loses a bunch of day-traders and short-term stock renters that don’t even know what a dividend is.

The upside to efficiently allocating capital through a 2% dividend is Steve (and the other investors) will receive a nice fat quarterly check. In the case of Jobs, he’ll collect a handsome $27 million or so to his measly $1 annual salary. In the process, the company will also gain long term shareholders that buy into the strategic vision of the company.

Stubbornness has served Steve Jobs tremendously well in his career, and a successful CEO like Steve Jobs is not required to listen to my advice. However, I am hopeful that Mr. Jobs will see the hazards of choking on a rapidly growing $42 billion cash hoard and discover the benefits of slimming down a gluttonous cash hog.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in KO, CVX, PFE, UPS, AOL, Time Warner, Mercedes Benz, Chrysler, Sprint, Nextel, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

July 7, 2010 at 10:07 pm 3 comments


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