Cash stash sparks talk of huge acquisitions for Apple

Apple's stash of cash is growing '“ and so is the possibility that the world's most valuable company will use some of the money for a huge acquisition that will expand its empire beyond iPhones and other gadgets.

Apple is sitting on a cash pile of more than a quarter of a trillion dollars. Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The company currently holds more than $250 billion (£193bn) that it could use in a high-tech shopping spree. So far, the guessing game has primarily focused on possible targets such as Netflix and Tesla Motors.

Either deal could make sense, given Apple’s long-running interest in providing a TV service to consumers and its more recent work on self-driving cars.

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Buying Disney would bring Star Wars into the Apple stable. Picture: Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd

But in recent months the takeover talk has swirled around whether Apple might do something even more dramatic by making a bid for Walt Disney. Such a combination would create the world’s first company worth $1 trillion. Beyond that, an Apple-Disney marriage would unite some of the world’s most successful brands in technology and entertainment – a list that includes the iPhone, iPad, Mac computer, Mickey Mouse, Disneyland, ESPN, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Marvel.

“If there’s a deal out there that would strike fear in the hearts of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, this could be it,” RBC Capital Markets analyst Amit Daryanani said in a research report assessing the logic of an Apple-Disney combination.

Apple does not discuss specific companies that it might buy, but it is exploring far and wide, according to chief financial officer Luca Maestri.

Apple chief Tim Cook recently received an honorary degree from Glasgow University. Picture: John Devlin

“We are looking at every size of acquisition, so we will see how it goes going forward,” he said.

Disney has not given any inclination that it is looking for a buyer, but publicly-held companies are required to consider all takeover offers.

Buying Disney would be expensive. Daryanani estimates that Apple would have to pay $157 a share, or about $250bn. Apple is one of the few companies, if not the only one, that could pay that sum out of its pocket.

The Cupertino, California, company ended March with nearly $257bn in cash and marketable securities, according to numbers released last night with Apple’s earnings report for the January-March quarter.

Buying Disney would bring Star Wars into the Apple stable. Picture: Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd

That is up from $233bn a year ago and the figure is expected to keep growing as Apple piles up more profits from the iPhone, iPad and Mac, as well as the applications and services that feed those devices. In its latest quarter, Apple’s earnings climbed 5 per cent to $11bn while revenue also rose 5 per cent to nearly $53bn.

In recent years, Apple has used a large chunk of its cash to provide its shareholders with extra income. The company disclosed plans to raise its quarterly dividend by more than 10 per cent to 63 cents per share, marking the fifth increase in five years. Apple has also spent $151bn buying back its own stock since 2012.

Doing a mega-deal would be a major departure for Apple, whose largest acquisition to date was its $3bn purchase of Beats Electronics in 2014 that helped launch its music streaming service.

Apple chief Tim Cook recently received an honorary degree from Glasgow University. Picture: John Devlin

But Daryanani and other analysts believe Apple may need to make a pricier acquisition to lessen the company’s dependence on the iPhone at a time when smartphone sales have been slowing.

Sales of the iPhone edged up 1 per cent in Apple’s latest quarter, extending a recovery from an unprecedented downturn last year. But many investors remain concerned that Apple has become too vulnerable to the ups and downs of the smartphone market, mostly because the company has not been able to come up with another hit product since the 2011 death of its co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs.

Apple’s last big success, the iPad, came out in 2010, but sales of the tablet have been declining for more than three years. Meanwhile, the iPhone accounted for nearly two-thirds of Apple’s revenue in the past quarter.

Donald Trump’ administration may give Apple another reason to mull a major acquisition, given earlier promises to lower US taxes on overseas corporate cash brought back to the country.

Should that tax cut happen, Apple CEO Tim Cook has said the company will consider bringing back most of the more than $230bn it now keeps in foreign countries, making it easier to finance a blockbuster deal in the US.