Apple’s Deep Pockets: What $159 Billion Could Do

Nick Bilton

Big technology companies have a problem anyone would love to have: They are sitting on vast amounts of cash.

According to a report by Moody's Investors Service, American companies outside the financial industry were sitting on a combined $1.64 trillion of cash by the end of 2013. And tech giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft had the most.

Apple topped the list, with nearly $159 billion. A decade ago, before the iPhone came along, the company was holding about $5.5 billion.

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Laid out in dollar bills, Apple's current stockpile would cover around 630 square miles. Apple seems happy to let its trove sit untouched, though the company hasn't said why.

Apple employees walk towards the Apple Headquarters in Cupertino, California.
Kimihiro Hoshino | AFP | Getty Images

John Maynard Keynes, the economist, argued that companies tend to hoard cash for three reasons: to perform day-to-day transactions, to protect themselves in the event business slows, and to prepare to make investments should opportunity arise.

Apple certainly isn't using its cash for acquisitions. Compared to its competitors, the company spends very little money buying technologies new or old.

Google has spent billions on video sites, robots, driverless-car technology and artificial intelligence software. Amazon has bought robot makers, e-commerce services and hardware start-ups. And Facebook has spent more than $20 billion in just the last two months on a messaging platform and virtual reality technology.

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Yet Apple has barely broken the skin over the last decade, buying AuthenTec, a fingerprint sensor company; Siri, the voice service; and Topsy, a data analytics company.

Apple has never even made a single acquisition over a billion dollars. Where are the robots, the driverless cars, the virtual reality goggles?

In an interview in February with The Wall Street Journal, Timothy D. Cook, Apple's chief executive, said the company had looked at big companies but had no urge to buy for the sake of buying.

"The money is also not burning a hole in our pocket where we say let's make a list of 10 and pick the best one," Mr. Cook said. He said Apple was "not going to go out and buy something for the purposes of just being big."

But the money is burning a hole in the pockets of investors who want Apple to use some of its cash to pay dividends, buy back stock or both. Carl Icahn, the vocal billionaire investor, is leading the charge.

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Rick Lane, an analyst with Moody's who wrote the report on the company's cash holdings, said Apple could be holding onto some of its cash for a rainy day. Apple once fell on "very difficult times," he said, "and had to rely on, in part, the kindness of others."

"Without having to rely on the capital markets, which can be mercurial, it's a kind of self-insurance to have that cash on hand for the times when things go bump in the night," he said.

So what could Apple buy with its miles of cash?

Compared to Google, Apple seems to be focused on the here and now rather than the far-off future. (Google is building autonomous robots and cars.)

Apple could leapfrog its competitors and go all in, picking up Mars. (Yes, the planet.) NASA scientists recently said a human mission to Mars with the goal of building a colony would cost about $160 billion. NASA even floated the idea that big corporations could sponsor the trip.

Apple's 'holy war' with Google
Apple's 'holy war' with Google

If going from iPads to interplanetary missions seems like a stretch, maybe Apple could explore transportation on earth.

Last year Philip W. Schiller, Apple's senior vice president for worldwide marketing, said that before the company built the iPhone, executives had discussed building a car.

Rather than start from scratch, Apple could take less than 20 percent of its cash and pick up Tesla for around $30 billion. Paint the cars white, slap on an Apple logo, dot an "i" before crossing the "t" — and you've got an entirely new product category: iTesla.

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Of course, Apple would immediately want to jump into the driverless car market— since that's clearly the future of the industry — so the company could buy a few artificial intelligence labs and pick up whichever robotics companies Google hasn't already.

Or Apple could stick with communications. There are very few companies Apple relies on more than the telecommunications giants. While Apple designs and builds its iPhones and iPads on its own, the company still needs Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile to connect those gadgets to music, video and the Internet.

Why not just bypass the telecom companies? T-Mobile, which boasts the fastest Internet service on the planet, is currently worth about $26 billion, about 16 percent of Apple's cash. Sprint is a little more expensive, with a market value of $37 billion. But Apple could pick up both and still have more than $90 billion left.

Microsoft can probably feel Apple's pain. In 2002, Microsoft was rich, sitting on $36 billion. While Bill Gates always believed that Microsoft should have enough cash on hand to operate for a year without making a penny, investors disagreed, calling for a dividend.

Microsoft tried to hold out, saying it wouldn't bow to investors' demands. Under pressure, the company finally relented, and it issued its first dividend.

We all know what happened to Microsoft in the decade that followed.

By Nick Bilton of The New York Times. Follow him on Twitter @nickbilton