Investors who have been patiently putting money into the Microsoft Corp. slot machine hit the jackpot last week, with $32 billion ka-chinging back at them in the form of a dividend payout that left even the most cynical Wall Street types muttering in awe.
For every share investors own, they'll get $3, pending approval of the plan by shareholders. It's a good bet they won't say, "Nah, thanks anyway."
The company also plans to double its annual dividend to 32 cents per share and buy back as much as $30 billion of company stock over the next four years.
The historic windfall is especially big for company executives, a few of whom own millions of shares. (Founder and chairman Bill Gates holds about 1.1 billion; he said he'd give the $3.2 billion payoff to his foundation.)
Ordinary investors win, too, either through stock they hold directly or through big mutual funds that are among Microsoft's biggest shareholders.
Can investors in other cash-rich companies expect similar good fortune? Not likely, even as some on Wall Street and inside the Beltway point to Microsoft's move as vindication of the dividend tax cut first proposed by Charles Schwab, then embraced by President Bush and passed by Congress.
Microsoft is simply a company far, far apart. It is sitting on almost $60 billion in cash because it has a virtually perfect business model.
Despite lavish R&D spending to develop a piece of software, the cost to produce every subsequent copy of the Windows operating system or Office suite is pennies, for products that retail for $100 and up.
Moreover, software is not like items that you can take back if they're defective. When you buy Microsoft software (and that of most companies), you sign away all rights to hold the manufacturer liable for problems. You just have to wait for Microsoft to come up with the next corrective patch that you then must download.
Finally, the genius of Gates was to recognize that everything flows from the operating system of a personal computer. Own that, and constantly add new features to it, and you can keep a lot of other applications at bay. Own that in the information age and you own the world.
The result: a company that generates more profit in an hour -- $1.1 million -- than many companies net in a year.
Microsoft has at times gotten greedy, too, breaking the law to protect its franchise. And it now applies millions of dollars a year to compete not only via the marketplace, but through lobbying on everything from state laws on spam to international treaties on copyright protection.
But Microsoft can legally leverage its size to muscle into almost any market it desires. Even highly successful companies with large war chests can be forgiven for hanging onto their cash, just in case.