Apple's (AAPL - Get Report) mountain of cash and marketable securities reached $268.9 billion at the end of the company's fourth fiscal quarter, with $252.3 billion of the tech giant's wealth stashed outside the United States.
Just hours before Apple provided an update on its cash stockpile and fiscal fourth quarter earnings on Thursday, the House presented a tax proposal that would cut the tax rate on overseas cash from 35% to 12%. Investors who have been waiting for the Trump tax cuts are likely skeptical of a tax holiday that will provide a windfall for Apple and its investors.
"They will probably engage in a combination of things -- not only debt repayment but shareholder returns as well as M&A," Moody's Investors Service analyst Stephen Sohn said, regardless of whether Republicans succeed in making it cheaper for companies to tap offshore cash.
Apple executives emphasized their commitment to the company's $300 billion capital return plan, of which it has paid out $234 billion in buybacks and dividends, during Thursday's call.
As Apple's overseas cash balance and its payments to shareholders have mounted, so has its debt. Rather than take a 35% tax hit to repatriate cash from overseas, Apple and other Silicon Valley powerhouses have sold debt at low- to mid-single digit interest to fund dividends, buybacks and other domestic needs.
The debt has built up quickly. While Apple reported zero long-term debt in fiscal year 2012, the company had about $100 billion in long-term debt on its books at the end of its fourth quarter. While Apple could pay down debt with repatriated cash, Sohn noted that Apple would rush to pay down its obligations. "It doesn't make economic sense to tender or exchange or repay the debt early in many cases," Sohn said.
Whether there is a tax holiday or not, Apple will sprinkle acquisitions in with its dividend payments and buybacks.
"They've done a lot of artificial intelligence deals. They've done some machine learning and different types of analytics," said Scott Denne of 451 Research regarding Apple's purchases. "That's the sort of thing I'd look for them to continue to do."
Apple bought Lattice Data Inc., a data analytics company backed by Alphabet's (GOOGL - Get Report) Google Ventures and others, for a reported $200 million in May. Other purchases include French artificial intelligence photo analysis outfit Regaind SAS in September and German eye-tracking technology developer SensoMotoric Instruments GmbH in June.
"Unlike a lot of tech companies that go out and look for big acquisitions that have synergies with their current business, Apple doesn't really do that," Denne added. "They tend to buy technologies that forward their underlying product roadmap."
Topsy Labs Inc. is an example. Apple bought the company, which developed the top search engine for rummaging through tweets on Twitter's (TWTR - Get Report) social network, for more than $200 million in 2013. Within a couple of years, Apple shut down Topsy's Twitter search but kept the search technology for its own products. "What they wanted was the underlying search technology to help them develop better search capabilities on the phone itself and potentially on the broader network," Denne said.
The pace of deal has picked up under Tim Cook. "Since Tim Cook has been CEO they tend to do about 10 or so deals a year," Denne said. "Under Steve Jobs it was more like four or five."
Picking Apple's targets is complicated, he suggested, because it so frequently targets startups that have not raised a lot of cash or established a major presence. The $3 billion purchase of the Beats headphone and music streaming outfit in 2014 is an exception.
"They buy the technology, they fold it in and they basically make it their own," Denne said.
With Apple's bulging cash balance, Cook has plenty of capacity for tuck-ins or larger deals whether Washington enacts big tax cuts or not.
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