Apple's Unused Cash Pile

It may seem a tribute to the late Steve Jobs that he left it with a pile of cash US$97 billion high. But all the good that Apple devices have done could be offset by that pile of unused money. A cash horde that big is of no use to Apple itself – it is far too large to be invested sensibly in related products or services or to create new devices. Meanwhile it is doing huge damage to the global economy, the US one in particular but China’s too.

Take a look at where much of that S$97 billion should have gone instead of being held by the misers of Cupertino, Cal. as though they personally owned it all.

There are three principal claimants on at least half of this money but who are unlikely ever to see it in their bank accounts. In no particular order they are:

The US government. By making use of all the sophisticated offshore corporate devices common to multinational corporations Apple minimized its tax payable in the US despite the fact its profits mostly derive from the inventiveness and marketing skills of US citizens living and working in the US. The company in essence owes its existence and success to the environment in which it was nurtured, an environment owing much to the broader US society of which it is part.

But these arrogant folks at Apple clearly care not a jot about a society in need of tax revenue to support education, infrastructure and the health system, all state-supplied benefits of which the late Jobs made copious use. As a non-American observer, this sense of entitlement to use every available device to minimize tax payable to the US government is indicative of the narcissism of so much of contemporary US capitalism.

The shareholders. The Cupertino crowd may like to justify their tax avoidance as being in the interests of their shareholders, most of whom are assumed to be US citizens. But why then does the company not distribute those profits for which it has no obvious use to the people to whom they belong – the shareholders? A few billion dollars in dividends would do wonders for many an individual and pension fund trying desperately to keep incomes rising even half as fast as inflation and when bond yields have to be kept artificially low to enable a cash-short government to borrow cheaply. Tax on dividend income would also help government finances.

The workers in China. Again the Apple arrogance is at work claiming that somehow it has scant responsibility for the wages that Foxconn, the Taiwanese firm which is its principle contractor in China, pays its thousands of workers assembling Apple products. One might have thought that given its huge profit margins Apple would have wanted to take a lead by not trying to strike as hard a bargain with Foxconn and hence with it Chinese workers, who appear to be suffering from appalling working conditions, mandatory overtime and often-dangerous environment.

After all, Apple's success is due almost entirely to the quality and reputation of its products, not to undercutting rivals on price. But no, the Chinese workers like the Apple shareholders and the US government must be squeezed to enable Apple to build a boastful cash pile which earns almost nothing. As a result of efforts to hold down wages, China’s consumption is not growing as fast as it should, which adds to trade frictions between the US and China.

There is a broader global macro-economic damage that is also being done by Apple. The company is not alone in this. Many other big corporations in the US, in Europe and in Japan have been making good profits but hoarding cash. Profits as a percentage of turnover of non-financial firms in the US are far above the long-term average. But instead of paying higher wages, higher dividends, more taxes or increasing their investment they are sitting on cash. Corporations are enjoying surpluses while governments and households pile up debt. This is unhealthy for all concerned. The likes of Apple should share much of the blame for imbalances in western economies, whatever their contribution to innovation and the export of US expertise.