By John Boudreau San Jose Mercury News
SAN FRANCISCO — Apple CEO Tim Cook on Tuesday dismissed complaints from activist shareholder David Einhorn that the company has a “Depression-era” attitude about hoarding cash, called his lawsuit challenging a proxy that would limit the ability to create a special class of stock “a silly sideshow” and said his engineers have not lost their innovative edge.
Speaking at a Goldman Sachs technology conference, Cook reiterated Apple’s stand that it is seriously looking at whether to return more cash to shareholders as its cash stockpile grew to $137 billion as of the end of the December quarter, roughly two-thirds of which is held overseas.
“Apple doesn’t have a Depression-era mentality,” he said. “Apple makes bold and ambitious bets on products, and we are conservative financially.”
Cook called the lawsuit filed by Einhorn’s hedge fund, Greenlight Capital, a “misunderstanding” and said if Apple were ever to issue preferred stock — which Einhorn is calling for — the company would first seek shareholder approval. Last year, the Cupertino, Calif., company announced its first quarterly dividend since 1995 — $2.65 a share beginning in August — as shareholders called on Apple to reward investors with a slice of its cash.
Greenlight Capital’s suit seeks to halt a company-sponsored proxy proposal that would eliminate “blank check” preferred stock; the proposal is scheduled to be voted on during Apple’s annual shareholder meeting on Feb. 27.
“Now, we do have some cash,” Cook said, “but it’s a privilege to be in this position. Last quarter, cash flow from operations for Apple was over $23 billion. It’s an incredible privilege for us to be in this position that we can seriously consider returning additional cash to shareholders.”
The company spent $10 billion on capital expenditures last year and will likely do the same this year, Cook said. Apple will not buy large companies simply to increase revenue, he added.
Apple’s stock price has plunged some 35 percent in recent months, which some critics attribute to increasing competition from competitors such as Samsung and Google in the smartphone and tablet markets.
Cook noted that the current smartphone market of 700 million units sold every year globally, which Apple kick-started with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, is expected to double to an annual market of 1.4 billion in four years.
“I see a market that is incredible to be in — maybe the best market of all times,” he said. “Apple has enormous momentum.”
Speaking with Goldman Sachs’ chief Apple analyst, Bill Shope, Cook would not address rumors that the company plans to roll out a low-end iPhone. Instead, he pointed to the company’s iPod line of music players. The first one sold for $399. Now the company offers a range of iPods, with a low-end device starting at $49.
“Instead of saying, ‘How can we cheapen this iPod to get it lower?’ we say, ‘How can we do a great product and do it at a price to sell it at $49?’ ” he said.
Cook also said the consumer tablet market, which Apple also created, is in its infancy. He said the company sold 23 million iPads last quarter even as it had a tough time meeting the demand for its new iPad mini. During the same period, Cook said, Hewlett-Packard sold 15 million PCs.
“I think the tablet market will be huge,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity for Apple.”
In a note to investors, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster said, “We have greater confidence that there will be a slight increase to the dividend when Apple reports the March quarter.”
He also said Cook’s talk reaffirmed his belief Apple will launch a cheaper iPhone in the fall.