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Icahn says 'I can't' and stops $50B fight over Apple stock buyback

Gregg Keizer | Feb. 11, 2014
Investment agitator and former corporate raider Carl Icahn today ended his fight to get Apple to boost its share buyback program by another $50 billion after an influential proxy advisory service nixed the idea.

He brought up those expected new products again today. "Furthermore, in light of Tim Cook's confirmed plan to launch new products in new categories this year (in addition to an exciting product roadmap with respect to new products in existing categories), we are extremely excited about Apple's future," said Icahn.

Since he launched his buyback scheme in August, Icahn had purchased more than $4 billion worth of Apple shares.

Apple had urged stockholders to vote against Icahn's proposal, and seems to have won the battle. Or did it?

"I think Cook has been far more willing to talk about stock price than Jobs ever was," said Gottheil of the co-founder and former CEO who died in 2011 and was notorious about resisting calls to return cash to shareholders. "I think it was a mistake, not a terrible mistake, but still a mistake," Gottheil added, referring to a slippery slope Cook has put Apple on.

Cook has been much more willing to bend to investors' demands; he instituted a dividend plan and pledged more than $100 billion to distributing cash in dividends or buying back shares.

Apple retains a huge cash horde, even with the $14 billion spent on buybacks over the last several weeks. That money was part of the $60 billion Apple had previously set aside for the purpose. At the end of the December 2013 quarter, Apple had about $159 billion in cash, securities and other marketable investments, the majority of it overseas where it will likely remain unless the U.S. Congress changes the tax code for repatriated funds.

While Cook made clear he was not opposed in principle to a large acquisition -- something Apple has historically avoided -- its war chest could come in handy, said Gottheil.

"With the piles of cash they have, they could do a very major deal and not put a dent in that pile," Gottheil said. "If they can swing the content deals necessary for a television, they would need a lot of infrastructure and network capacity."

Whatever new product categories Apple enters, Gottheil expects the company to do so this year -- whether it's a smart television, well-rumored wearable devices, or "something no one has thought of yet" -- because to go public with promises, as Cook has done, would be seen as a failure if nothing arrives.

"He's been so explicit, that it would be a real embarrassment if they didn't come up with something," Gottheil said. "I expect they'll do something in the television space, something in the wearable space, and a device with a keyboard that's not a full-fledged personal computer."

Apple's share price was up 1.8% in trading through 3 p.m. ET Monday, but remained about 4% below the pre-earnings call price on Jan. 27.

 

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