Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s main lever for getting the U.S. economy back on track is simple: keep interest rates at near zero until the end of 2014. While that may or may not be having the desired result of stoking growth, it sure is making it hard for anyone to earn interest on cash holdings.
And that’s apparently becoming a problem for the notoriously cash-rich Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), which is now sitting on (and not really earning anything on) $98 billion in cash. As profits keep piling up, so does the cash balance. But the measly returns on that asset are nowhere near Apple standards.
So at the Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) Technology and Internet Conference this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed the cash situation. He said that the company spends “money like it’s our last penny” and will continue to be “deliberate” about how it allocates its funds. Yet he acknowledged that active discussions — on the board level, no less — are currently underway about what to do with the cash hoard.
What might this entail? First of all, it seems reasonable to pay some type of dividend, even though that’s something Apple has been cold to in past. A dividend-paying company is often seen as “mature,” a perception that gives most Silicon Valley outfits the hives.
However, other cash-rich tech giants pay dividends, such as IBM (NYSE:IBM), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and even Intel (NASDAQ:INTC). These dividends are a nice bonus for loyal shareholders. So why should Apple shareholders be denied? It certainly wouldn’t be a waste of money.
Another effective way to return capital to shareholders would be periodic stock buybacks as well. While not necessarily effective as a stock-price booster, that’s always the aim of buybacks. Anything that adds more juice to Apple shares would be warmly greeted.
Perhaps the best use of Apple’s cash would be to get much more aggressive with acquisitions. After all, if Cook & Co. wants to keep up the sizzling growth, Apple will need to enter new markets. And a quick way to do this is to engage in dealmaking. Tech companies like Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) have shown that this strategy can have a nice payoff.
Then what to buy? I think a good prospect is Salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM). Founded in the late 1990s, the company has become the dominant player in the cloud market. This technology essentially involves using Internet-based technologies for business applications. It tends to help companies that use cloud computing to lower costs and improve productivity.
Already Apple has shown lots of traction with its iCloud offering, reaching over 100 million users since launching in October. But this is so far mostly for consumer applications, such as music.
But with Salesforce.com, Apple can leverage its massive iPad installed base, which is at about 55 million. The device has quickly become a must-have product in the corporate world. Thus, Apple could tap a huge new revenue source by getting subscription income from corporate customers for applications like customer resource management (CRM), enterprise resource planning and so on. Apple might also be able to nab a piece of Microsoft’s lucrative Office franchise.
The cloud opportunity is enormous. According to a forecast from Forrester, the market is expected to go from $40.7 billion in 2011 to a whopping $241 billion by 2020. This is the kind of opportunity that should get the attention of a company like Apple, which has not only the cash for such dealmaking but the know-how to make it work.
Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPO Playbook, a site dedicated to the hottest news and rumors about initial public offerings. He also is the author of “All About Short Selling” and “All About Commodities.” Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the aforementioned securities.