I’m very glad that the WSJ has published today’s debate between Farhad Manjoo and Dennis Berman on the subject of Apple. Manjoo has been writing some very insightful columns about the company, including the one yesterday which explained that Apple has many better options, when it comes to spending its cash, than taking Carl Icahn’s advice and essentially mortgaging the entire pile to conduct a stock buyback.
The Manjoo vs Berman debate displays two important phenomena surrounding nearly all public companies. Firstly, there’s the confusion between a company and a stock; and secondly, there’s the bigger problem with going public in the first place.
Upon going public, every company is doomed to be judged by its share price — and, all too often, it’s doomed for the share price to become more salient, in the public’s mind, than the company itself. Icahn, as a speculative shareholder, has only one interest in this game: he wants the share price to rise, so that he can then sell his shares at a profit. And Berman is, conceptually, on Icahn’s side. He talks about what investors want, and says that if Apple makes a lot of money, “there will be no choice but to give back significant sums to shareholders.” He also likes the idea of Apple racking up vastly more debt than it already has:
Right now, Apple has 30 cents of debt for every dollar it brings in yearly EBITDA. The median figure for the Standard & Poor’s 5000-stock index is $1.90 - or basically six times Apple’s current ratio, according to figures compiled using CapitalIQ. Were Apple to have a median amount, its current debt would move from $17 billion to $108 billion. Is that crazy? No.
In short, Apple’s business model exhibits the rarest traits seen in nature: relatively low capital demands and immense profit generation.
This would be funny, if it weren’t so depressing. Berman concedes that Apple is an extremely rare outlier in the corporate world: it makes a lot of money without having to invest a huge amount up front. Most companies which aren’t Apple, by contrast, have to borrow and invest a huge amount of money before they can start generating earnings. Berman’s bright idea, here, is that if Apple is fortunate enough not to have to go into massive debt to finance its investments, then, er, it should go into massive debt anyway, just because everybody else is doing it.
What good would that huge new debt pile actually serve? Well, it might help increase the share price — or it might not, who knows. (Icahn, for his part, is convinced that the share price will rise either way: he says in his letter to Apple that “the opportunity will not last forever”.) Obviously, it would also burden Apple with billions of dollars of fresh liabilities, in the form of new interest and principal payments. But Berman is unfazed: in his world, liabilities are assets, and assets are liabilities. Seriously: he says, on the liability front, that “the key to keeping Apple sharp will be actually to push more money than comfortable back to shareholders”. And on asset side of the balance sheet, he describes Apple’s cash hoard as “something of a liability”, on the grounds that it is “stranded and unproductive”. (Never mind that even under the Icahn plan, the cash hoard will remain untouched, and be just as stranded and unproductive in future as it is right now.)
This is the mindset of the financial engineer, and while it can make lots of money for corporate raiders, that doesn’t make it a good idea. Berman is a fan of Icahn: “the man doesn’t have stadiums named after himself for no reason,” he writes. Well, yes: the reason is that he spent lots of money to have his name put on those stadiums. He’s a wealthy individual. But Berman seems to think that anything which makes Carl Icahn rich must therefore be the right thing to do.
But here’s the thing: Tim Cook is a caretaker of a company which is designed to be around in perpetuity. Icahn, on the other hand, for all that he claims that “there is nothing short term” about his intentions, still has an exit strategy: he wants to buy low, drive the share price up through shareholder activism, and sell high. Apple should go along with Icahn’s plans only if they increase the long-term value of the company — and it’s pretty obvious that they don’t: Icahn is, at heart, advising Apple to have both large borrowings and a large cash pile at the same time. Which is bonkers.