Apple wants to pay dividends to investors

March 19, 2012

Apple, the world’s most valuable company, said it will reward shareholders with a dividend and a share-repurchase program totaling $45 billion over three years, in a departure from the philosophy of its late co-founder Steve Jobs.

Apple last paid a dividend in 1995, when the company was still on shaky ground. After Jobs took over in 1997, he preferred to use the company’s cash pile for research, or as a buffer during bad times.

But now, after building a $98 billion cash hoard, the company has come under pressure to return some of that money to investors.

The Cupertino, Calif., company is expected to quickly replenish its war chest. Each quarter its sales have defied the loftiest of expectations. This weekend alone, Apple said it sold a record 3 million iPads.

Monday, Apple’s stock closed above $600 for the first time, a jump of about 2.65 percent, to settle at $601.10 in regular trading. The stock is up 46 percent for the year.

Apple is already one of the most widely held stocks in the United States and is a favorite in mutual funds used for 401(k) accounts and other investing. For the past year, Apple and Exxon Mobil have seesawed between first and second place on the list of the world’s most valuable companies, as measured by market capitalization.

Today it’s hardly a contest. Exxon Mobil is worth $410 billion. Apple’s market value has reached $560 billion.

Apple will initiate its quarterly dividend of $2.65 per share sometime during the fiscal quarter beginning July 1. The plan must be approved by the company’s board of directors.

Apple’s board also authorized a $10 billion share-repurchase program, in which the company will buy shares back from investors, beginning Sept. 30. Apple said the repurchase program will be conducted over three years.

Apple’s plans for its cash hoard have been closely watched. Until now, the Silicon Valley giant has frugally used its cash to improve its manufacturing and supply chain operations and other business functions that have resulted in its highly profitable sales of its computers and gadgets.

But investors had been pleading for the company to share its wealth among them. Based on the announcement made by Apple early Monday, chief executive Tim Cook appears to be listening.

“Even with these investments, we can maintain a war chest for strategic opportunities and have plenty of cash to run our business,” Cook said in a statement.

During a conference call with analysts, Cook promised: “Innovation is the most important objective at Apple. These decisions will not close any doors for us.”

Analysts have been speculating for years that Apple might use its cash to purchase a major rival or forge a partnership. But the company made no mention of such plans on Monday. There may also be some concern about how another company could fit into Apple’s strong and distinct corporate culture.

Apple also noted that much of its cash is kept overseas, and that it would have to pay a hefty tax if it repatriated that money. Officials said funds for the dividend and share repurchase program will come from domestic cash reserves.

Analysts say the challenges facing Apple include whether it can continue driving consumer demand for its new products. The company is widely expected to release a television-like product, an ambition that so far has eluded it and rivals such as Google and Netflix.

Cook said the company will continue to invest in research and development, new retail store openings, acquisitions and building out the company’s supply chain.

“We are extremely confident in our future and see tremendous opportunities ahead,” said Peter Oppenheimer, Apple’s chief financial officer.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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