Apple has been actively preparing to repatriate over $200 billion in overseas cash since 2016. With the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 cutting the repatriation tax rate to 15.5 percent, Apple can now bring all of its foreign profits back to the U.S. at a nearly 20 percent discount. So, how will it spend all that cash?
Since Apple will have around $250 billion more in its U.S. coffers, many people expect the company to splurge, despite its history of making small purchases. While it would be easy to write off the possibility of a single huge acquisition, based solely on Apple’s history, Tim Cook said last year that “[t]here’s not a size that we would not do, based on just the size of it. It’s more of the strategic value of it.” That comment was enough to fuel speculation about anything and everything.
A familiar story from May — Citi analysts picking Netflix and Disney as Apple’s top acquisition targets — reappeared this morning masquerading as news. Citi picked Netflix as the likeliest target for acquisition (40 percent chance) even though it only merited a 5-10 percent projected impact on Apple’s share price. Disney was second in likelihood of acquisition (25 percent), but with a bigger projected impact on Apple’s stock (15-25 percent). These estimates were notably made well before Disney’s purchase of 21st Century Fox, which would add more value.
Acquiring Netflix would make sense if you believe Apple wants to keep growing steadily in its currently enunciated direction. On the one hand, Netflix is a substantially larger company than Apple normally acquires, with a much higher valuation (roughly $86 billion) and more employees (just under 5,000) than even Beats Electronics ($3 billion, 700 employees). On the other hand, Netflix’s fortés are ones Apple can manage: video streaming and content production.
Netflix would instantly give Apple over 115 million video streaming subscribers worldwide, roughly half in the United States, as well as a large collection of original TV shows and movies — 110 new films and TV series are expected in 2018 alone. Apple’s own team has thus far greenlit five original TV shows and around a dozen movies; though the company doesn’t yet have a dedicated video streaming service or video subscribers.
Some have argued that Apple’s recent hiring of executives specifically to develop original TV shows demonstrates that it doesn’t see an overlapping Netflix acquisition in its future. But this could just be Apple putting its own people in place to oversee an acquisition that might otherwise be too large for its other managers to control. Moreover, if Apple could incentivize Netflix’s many PC, Android, Roku, Xbox, and PlayStation customers to start using Apple devices, that would be a win for both the hardware and services divisions.
Overall, Netflix seems like a logical target for Apple, though it wouldn’t be game-changing apart from improving the company’s video business.
In comparison with Netflix, an acquisition of Disney would bring Apple multiple assets with arguably unparalleled value. These include leading entertainment brands, with movies, television shows, networks, theme parks, and hotels, as well as additional merchandise and retail outlets. The companies also have some common DNA: Disney CEO Robert Iger has a seat on Apple’s board, Laurene Powell Jobs was Disney’s largest shareholder (thanks to Disney’s purchase of Steve Jobs’ company Pixar), and Disney has been an early partner on major Apple video initiatives.
But acquiring Disney would not only be much more expensive than buying Netflix, it would also be tough for Apple to manage. At today’s share prices, Apple would need to spend $262 billion to purchase Disney at a 40 percent premium over its enterprise value — two or three times the cost of Netflix. Unlike Netflix, Disney’s empire dwarfs Apple’s footprint, with around 195,000 employees to Apple’s 116,000. Importantly, almost none of these people would fit into Apple’s current hierarchy. Whereas adding Netflix to Apple would be a natural, organic expansion of an existing business, adding Disney would be a complete game-changer for both companies.
From a practical perspective, managing the combined Apple-Disney business might well extend far beyond the capabilities of Apple’s “focused” executives, who famously say 1,000 “nos” for every “yes” yet still struggle just to keep multiple Apple hardware, software, and services platforms running smoothly under the company’s “small teams” management model. But there’s no question Apple would make a bigger dent in the universe if it owned Disney’s ubiquitous empire, and that’s the type of huge goal Steve Jobs might have endorsed. Despite Laurene Jobs’ partial divestments of Disney shares, it’s fair to say that the Jobs family would be proud of the merger.
Still, Apple acquiring Disney would be both unprecedented and incredibly difficult to manage.
Some analysts supporting a purchase of Disney or Netflix believe Apple will treat its repatriated cash as a one-time windfall and use it to buy a single large company. Citi’s team also mentioned three large video game companies (Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, and Take-Two Interactive), Hulu, and Tesla as possible targets for Apple, each at 10 percent or lower likelihoods of purchase. They all seem unlikely, but for different reasons.
If it wasn’t for the unusual, long-awaited nature of the cash repatriation tax break, and Apple’s opportunity to plot one big acquisition to take advantage of it, we could easily write off the “big buy” theory altogether. Apple has historically held onto its cash, choosing comparatively small strategic acquisitions and manufacturing investments to bolster its existing businesses.
It’s fair to say Apple buys companies as much for their intellectual property as for their key employees, whom it acqui-hires when it can’t just poach them from flailing or soon-to-be-flailing partners. The company’s $3 billion purchase of Beats Electronics was an outlier and was made more for its potential to reinforce Apple’s threatened music business than to grow Apple’s presence in Beats’ well-established audio accessory markets.
With that in mind, let’s consider some of the types of acquisitions Apple might and might not make.
Component suppliers, including battery and display manufacturers: Apple has said that it ultimately wants to “own the whole widget” behind products it develops. This might lead one to conclude that it should buy makers of screens, batteries, glass (e.g. Corning), and metal used in its iPhones and iPads. However, while several opportunities have arisen, it appears Apple prefers to steer clear of such purchases. It may want to retain the flexibility to choose competing superior solutions in areas of rapid change, or it may see such acquisitions as likely to drive its costs up rather than down.
AR: Apple has identified augmented reality as one of the key technologies that will drive future industry growth, and has already been spending untold dollars on R&D in this area. It’s safe to assume Apple will continue to acquire small AR companies for both patents and key employees. I suspect Apple is as interested in the in-car uses of AR as it is in pedestrian, home, and office applications. Acquiring companies with car AR display ideas seems more likely for Apple than, say, purchasing Tesla.
Tesla: Apple famously tussled with Tesla for two years during the ramp-up to Project Titan, an aborted effort to create a self-driving Apple car. While Tesla founder Elon Musk attempted to portray Apple’s entrance into the market as a net positive for the industry, he also took to publicly ridiculing Apple, making the companies’ rivalry personal. Apple ultimately hired over 1,000 engineers to work on its vehicle, including employees from Tesla, only to effectively kill the project in August 2017. It’s unlikely that Apple would be interested in bringing Musk on board.
VR: Virtual Reality support was conspicuously absent from Apple’s Mac lineup until only recently, when the company released macOS High Sierra with support for third-party VR headsets, VR-ready external video cards, and VR authoring applications. Despite the growing popularity of VR for gaming, there’s little indication that Apple cares about it, except as an adjunct to AR. With Oculus (Facebook), PlayStation VR (Sony), and Gear VR (Samsung) all owned by other big companies, that leaves just Valve and HTC’s Vive for Apple to consider if it wants to get in at the top level (though it might face some resistance from Google).
Game companies: Apple has never fully embraced the games industry, despite the great potential of its platforms in this area. As soon as Apple opened iOS up to app developers, mobile games started making a ton of money. Yet Apple doesn’t seem to want to own game developers — instead of competing, it’s content to take 30 percent cuts of everyone’s game and IAP sales. So unless they have something major to offer another Apple initiative (such as AR), companies like Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, and Take-Two are not favored to be acquisition targets for the foreseeable future.
Hulu: Hulu also strikes me as unlikely to be snapped up. After acquiring Fox, Disney will also own 60 percent of Hulu, making an Apple acquisition considerably more challenging. Furthermore, Hulu is largely a bundle of existing network TV shows licensed to Apple (and others) for redistribution, while Netflix includes a lot of Netflix-exclusive original content, in addition to more widely available shows and movies. Apple could thus more easily build its own version of Hulu than its own version of Netflix.
Camera: Apple could have acquired or partnered with a big camera company like Nikon or Canon years ago, but instead it chose to build its own camera department, and iPhones came to dominate the industry. Many small talent and IP acquisitions made this possible, as did a partnership with Sony for phone-sized camera sensors. It’s hard to imagine Apple buying a 200,000-employee company such as Canon at this point, but another small camera company with breakthrough technology? Sure.
Social media and communications: Rumors that Apple might be interested in buying Twitter or another social media company have occasionally popped up over the years, but nothing has come of them. Snapchat, WhatsApp, Signal, and other communications apps probably all continue to look pointless to Apple as acquisition targets.
Stylus: Apple released the Pencil for iPads after many years and quite a few patents’ worth of internal development. While it’s easy to imagine a digital input company such as Wacom fitting into Apple’s stable — based on its appeal to creative professionals, its value to Apple at this point might be too limited to justify its acquisition cost. But smaller companies with specific writing, drawing, and recognition technologies might be of value to Apple.
Siri: Siri is a hot mess right now, thanks to problems with its speech recognition and the reliability of its cloud-based brain. Apple already acqui-hired (and lost) the team that created Siri, which was subsequently purchased by Samsung. The company’s Machine Learning Journal suggests that work continues on various Siri-enabling technologies, and one could guess from the many Siri job postings on Apple’s hiring website that the company still needs plenty of help here.
Commerce: There was probably a point several years ago when Apple was actively considering the purchase of Square or a smaller payment processing company — and when such a purchase could have made a big difference. With Apple Pay now in international deployment, Apple has established a pretty excellent service of its own and obviously has the consumer-facing hardware all figured out. It could acquire a company like Square, which has plenty of payment processing hardware in merchants’ hands, go bigger with a company like First Data (owner of Clover), or continue to let merchants and banks handle their own hardware.
Speaking just for myself, I’d love to see Apple make a big, earth-shattering acquisition like Disney, mostly because I think it would be exciting to see more Apple DNA in Disney products (sorry, Stormtrooper costumes and Eve from WALL-E) and because both Disney and Apple could benefit a lot from deeply integrating each others’ innovations — Apple on the customer/human side, Disney on the technology side. But even though I heard some very plausible rumblings about a Disney/Apple merger years ago, it never happened, and small purchases have obviously been much more common.
Putting aside my yearning for a delightful surprise, I expect more of the same from Apple, with the company at most acquiring a company of Netflix caliber.