Column: Apple's new pitch to investors

(Felix Salmon is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own. )

A visitor talks with a staff member at an Apple store in Beijing April 2, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Felix Salmon

Today’s earnings report marks the point at which Apple is officially no longer a high-growth tech stock, valued on its monster potential. Instead, it has become a cash cow, valued on its ability to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into its shareholders’ pockets.

That’s the main lesson from the big news of the day, which is that Apple is going to return $100 billion to its shareholders by the end of 2015. By comparison, Apple closed Tuesday with a market capitalization of $380 billion. And its $145 billion cash pile isn’t going to get any smaller: the newly-announced program merely brings its dividend and share-repurchase expenditures up to roughly the level of its current free cash flow. Apple will still have more than enough money to invest as much money as it likes in anything it likes, even its new headquarters.

Apple says that its new capital-return scheme “translates to an average rate of $30 billion per year from the time of the first dividend payment in August 2012 through December 2015″; it’s pretty hard to imagine that number falling thereafter. If you assume fungibility of dividends and share repurchases, then you can express that number as an effective dividend yield: a $30 billion dividend, divided by a $400 billion market cap, works out to a yield of a whopping 7.5%. No wonder the stock market is welcoming the news.

In order to be able to continue to return $30 billion per year to shareholders in perpetuity, Apple is going to have to become a more conservative and predictable organization than it has been until now. Which brings me to the chart that Jay Yarow published yesterday:

As Yarow says, this chart shows the effects of Apple’s stated intention to be more realistic about its earnings guidance. And today’s earnings continued the pattern: EPS beat guidance by 7%, while revenues beat by 4%. Those numbers are decidedly modest compared to the kind of beats we saw in 2010-11.

But at the same time, we’re also seeing the law of large numbers in this data. Let me present Yarow’s revenue data in a slightly different way, adding in today’s latest datapoint:

It’s pretty clear that the massive beats, here, took place at times of massive growth: all corporate numbers are hard to predict, even internally, when they’re growing at 73% a year, like Apple’s revenues did in 2011. This quarter’s revenues are still substantially higher than the same quarter’s last year: they’re up 11%. But earnings per share are actually down by 18% from the same quarter last year, and when you’re a manufacturer making $10 billion a quarter on revenues of more than $40 billion, and when you’re as ruthlessly efficient as Apple is, you’re not likely to have a lot of big surprises any more.

Apple is trading at an astonishingly low valuation, with a p/e ratio in single digits, because it has now become that animal investors like least: a slow-growing tech stock. Either one is fine on its own, and both slow-growing stocks and fast-growing tech stocks can support much higher multiples than Apple is seeing right now. But conservative investors, who like slow-growing stocks with high dividends, are constitutionally uncomfortable with the volatility inherent in the tech world. And technology investors, who are happy taking that kind of risk, want to see substantial growth. Apple, notwithstanding the fact that it’s one of the most valuable companies in the world, is falling through the capital-markets cracks.

All of which perhaps explains the other part of today’s announcement: that Apple is going to start leveraging itself, and taking on debt. Apple’s debt will provide a safe low-yielding investment for conservative investors; and while it will increase the earnings volatility seen by shareholders, the fact is that Apple clearly hasn’t seen any valuation benefit from seeing its earnings volatility come down, so it might as well artificially bring it back up again. If its current capital structure is attractive to no one, maybe its new capital structure will have something for everyone.