Adrian Weckler | Independent.ie
♦ The tech world is awash with money. Last week, Salesforce.com reportedly put a ‘for sale’ sign up at an eye-watering €50bn. There are plenty of would-be suitors (among them Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and Google).
At the same time, one of 2014’s most talked about emerging social networks, Secret.com, announced it would shut down, even after raising $35m just 18 months ago. Easy come, easy go.
But nothing illustrates the vast scale of hard money now involved in technology like Apple’s current cash reserves account. Its updated figure was released during Monday’s second quarter financial results announcement.
Apple has €178bn in spare cash.
That’s not the company’s market valuation (which is almost €700bn): it is the pile of money it has lying around (and which is legally owned by Apple’s corporate structure in Cork). All those years of selling iPhones, iPads and Macs have paid off.
To put €178bn into context, it is enough to:
l reduce every Irish worker’s income tax rate to 0pc for a decade (based on last year’s €19bn income tax take here).
l buy the world’s entire gold and diamond output with enough left over to acquire the top 500 paintings ever sold.
l buy half of all of Ireland’s current housing stock: one million homes (at today’s prices).
l buy every football team in every major league in the world, with enough left to snap up Formula One and up to 50 of the top US sports franchises.
And so on.
Apple is not alone in accumulating staggering, previously unheard of sums of cash.
Microsoft’s financial results last week revealed that it now has €86bn in reserve.
Google has €60bn in its cash pile. And Cisco has €49bn.
That means that four tech companies now have €373bn between them. Only four countries in the world have cash reserves bigger than that.
Indeed, one estimate puts the world’s total money supply, including liquid investments, at around €68,000bn (or €68 trillion).
That means that four tech companies, between them, now have 0.6pc of the world’s entire money supply.
Tech bubble? What tech bubble?
There are a few reasons that these companies are accumulating so much cash. One reason is that they cannot repatriate the money to their home country (the US) without getting hit with a substantial tax bill. Another reason is that most corporate tech firms, for all of the beanbags and t-shirts, are highly conservative when it comes to finances. How often do you see Apple or Microsoft or Google make large acquisitions? Or spend much on anything at all?
Apple’s record of parsimony is extraordinary: its biggest acquisition to date is the $3bn purchase of the music company Beats.
Microsoft and Google have ventured out a little more, with Microsoft shelling out $8.5bn for Skype (in 2011) and $7.2bn for Nokia (in 2013) and Google spending $11.5bn and $3.2bn for Motorola Mobility (2011) and Nest (2013), respectively.
None of these giants have placed bets like Facebook, which has punted huge sums such as its $19bn acquisition of the messaging service WhatsApp or a $1bn acquisition of Instagram at a time before it had floated publicly itself, and when it wasn’t making much money.
Yet companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft remain incredibly profitable. Apple’s results last Monday show that it makes €1bn per week in profit. Microsoft and Google don’t have it quite so good, having to make do with profits of only €1bn per month. But this is still an exalted summit; it takes Ryanair three years to make as much as Microsoft or Google do in a single quarter.)
What’s more, most pundits still expect these companies to grow and make even more money.
So where does it end? Are we headed into an era where a handful of tech firms are hoarding a trillion euro? When will the rest of the world notice that the general money supply is being cornered?
To be fair to Apple, it knows that having so much money is probably unsustainable. Last week, it said it would shed up to $200bn buying back shares over the next two years, thereby returning a significant amount of cash to shareholders. History also shows that few companies retain such large amounts of money for long. But the next time you’re tempted to think of Google, Apple or Microsoft as being ‘non-corporate’, think again.