Apple Doesn’t ‘Need’ To Buy Anything

Apple Doesn’t ‘Need’ To Buy Anything

With a market cap that is, as of this writing, hovering around $US800 billion ($1 trillion) and more than $US250 billion ($338.5 billion) in cash, Apple is loaded. Not even its decidedly flat earnings report last week can change the fact that it is the most valuable publicly traded company of all time.

Image: AP

With all that cash, and with that huge market cap, plenty of investors and analysts are busy dreaming up ways for Apple to spend that money. For years, they have pontificated that if Apple wants to continue to grow, it needs to make the kind of major mergers and acquisitions that many of its contemporaries — including Google, Microsoft and Facebook — have made, and that means investing billions. Think Facebook’s $US19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, or Microsoft’s $US26 billion acquisition of LinkedIn, or even AT&T’s proposed $US80 billion purchase of Time Warner.

Every few months, as Apple’s stock price continues to rise and its cash coffers get more and more full, these calls for action crop back up. Just last week, Citigroup listed seven companies it thinks Apple should eye for takeover bids, including usual favourites like Netflix, Tesla and Disney. For good measure, Citi threw in some other new takeover targets, including Activision Blizzard, Take Two Interactive, Electronic Arts and Hulu. Forget that most of these companies don’t make a lick of sense for Apple to acquire (Activision Blizzard, EA, Take Two Interactive), and forget that many are categorically not for sale (Tesla, Netflix), investors are overly focused on Apple spending money.

Apple needs to buy ‘x’” rhetoric has reached such fervour, I actually got a pitch in my inbox about a gambling service that’s taking bets about what company is the odds-on favourite for a major acquisition by Apple. Forget that that’s not how M&A works, forget that Apple’s approach to acquisitions is very conservative compared not just to other tech companies, but any company of its size, the fact that shady betting parlours are now taking action on what major deals Apple is going to make proves that the world is insane. What makes this even funnier is that when Apple made its biggest acquisition in its 40 year history for Beats back in 2014, it was only $US3 billion; the takeover targets investors and pundits are pushing Apple to make would all be deals 10 or 20 times bigger.

Historically, Apple is known for making smaller, more strategic investments. Aside from the Beats acquisition, the company’s only big spend in recent years was a $US1 billion investment in Didi Chuxing (the Uber of China that actually forced Uber out of China), and that seemed to be as much about getting a better sense of the Chinese market and potentially making a nice profit, as anything else. The two most important investments Apple has ever made, NeXT (which brought back Steve Jobs and gave Apple the OS that would be the underpinnings for its future products, including the iPhone), and PA Semi (which allowed Apple to design its own mobile processors and chipsets), were comparatively small at under $US500 million a piece.

Apple is not a company that makes massive acquisitions, and as its financials continue to prove, it doesn’t need to be. And yet, every few months, articles abound about how Apple should spend its money, always with a focus on big splashy deals.

Over the last six months Forbes, Fortune, Seeking Alpha, Market Watch, CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg, Om Malik, Ben Thompson, Business Insider and many more fonts of brilliant insight I’m surely forgetting have all cracked their knuckles and typed earnest words about how Apple should spend its money. How on earth did Apple ever make money before there were bloggers to advise it on how to do stuff! Some stories go so far as to imply that the fact that Apple isn’t doing big acquisitions like its rivals is a sign that it’s failing to innovate. Forget about AR or self-driving cars, or the next wave of user interfaces, if you’d listen to these experts, the only path for Apple going forward is for it to spend tens of billions acquiring Netflix, Tesla or The Walt Disney company.

Take Om Malik, the journalist turned venture capitalist. For almost a year, he’s been hammering on about how Apple should buy Netflix, even though the company is very much not for sale. From August:

Apple — if it really wants to get into content and wants to make a strong statement to the Hollywood establishment that has stymied its television efforts so far — should make a big, bold bet. It should use its massive stock market capitalisation and cash hoard to buy Netflix.

Putting aside that most of Malik’s reasoning is why it would be good for Apple (he never makes an argument for why Netflix would want to sell) to make this sort of purchase, Apple would have to spend a ridiculous sum of money.

Netflix has a current market cap of nearly $US70 billion. If you assume a 20 or 30 per cent premium for a takeover target (and frankly, that could be low), Apple would probably need to spend close to $US100 billion to buy Netflix, which again, is a company that isn’t looking to sell itself.

It’s a similar story for Tesla, another frequent Apple takeover dream. Again, by all accounts, Tesla is NOT looking to sell itself. If it were, its CEO Elon Musk, who owns more than 20 per cent of the company, would undoubtedly want a ridiculous premium, which has a current market cap of $US55 billion. That hasn’t stopped people from predicting Apple will do it anyway. Back in February 2015, entrepreneur-turned-investor Jason Calacanis declared that Apple would buy Tesla for $US75 billion within 18 months. Twenty-five months later, Elon Musk laughed off the idea that Apple would buy his company.

And what would Apple even gain by owning either company? The time for Apple to buy Tesla was back in 2013, when the company was nearly bankrupt and hadn’t become the juggernaut that it is today. In fact, back in 2013, Tesla reportedly had meetings with both Apple and Google, for a reported asking price of under $US6 billion. The time to buy Tesla isn’t after you’ve tried to do your own car project (and had to scale back those efforts), it’s before. The time to buy Netflix was probably back in 2011, when the company tried to split itself in half to disastrous results (RIP, Qwikster).

And more to the point, why should Apple listen to Jason Calacanis or Om Malik, or me for that matter? Apple has done a pretty good job of building a hugely successful company by following a playbook that often runs counter to the pundits and investment banks. The last people Tim Cook needs to listen to are armchair analysts or investment banks who only wish Apple would consider using their services.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In the 10 years I’ve been covering Apple, these types of stories have persisted (Harry McCracken wrote a great history of Apple not buying things back in 2011). Five years ago, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote an article for The New York Times about companies Apple should consider buying, back when it was sitting on $US118 billion in cash. Sorkin wasn’t necessarily advocating Apple make any deals, he was just pointing out what companies would make sense in the context of 2012.

It’s actually instructive to look back at lists from years gone by to see just how stupid some of those acquisitions could have been. I mean, let’s say Apple had taken a pointer from Sorkin’s in 2012 and bought Twitter or Dave Morin’s apocalyptic failure Path — would that really have helped the company in any significant way going forward? Buying Research in Motion (the company now known as BlackBerry) could have given Apple access to some in-car tech through QNX, but why do that when you can just hire the guy who created QNX and many of his team members (which Apple did in 2016).

So no, Apple does not “need” to buy Netflix, Tesla, Disney, Pandora, Sonos, Twitter, Hulu, 21st Century Fox or anything else. It might! But not because you said so.