Apple is known for drawing attention to itself, but last week even its harshest critics must have looked at the company in a new light. As reported by the Wall Street Journal (paid subscription required to view the first URL, below), Steve Jobs announced in an email message to employees that Apple had paid off the company's remaining $300 million in long-term debt. This means Apple is now basically debt-free and has over $4.5 billion in cash and cash equivalents - things it can sell off without penalty like bonds and short-term investments. This doesn't include any stock in other companies that might still have value, too.
The next time someone tells you Apple is in danger of imminent demise because they have under $10 billion in yearly sales and three percent of the market share of all new computers sold, you might point out that $4.5 billion war chest, which compares favorably to Dell ($50 billion in yearly revenue, but $4.6 billion in cash minus long-term debt), Gateway ($3.5 billion in yearly sales, $1 billion in cash minus debt), and HP ($73 billion in sales, $7.5 billion in cash minus debt). For purposes of comparison, Microsoft has $35 billion in yearly revenue and nearly $53 billion in cash (no debt).
Because Apple has so much cash on hand and because it's regularly producing positive audited earnings (so-called GAAP, or "Generally Accepted Accounting Principles," earnings), the company isn't in imminent danger of anything. At the current rate, it will just keep amassing more and more cash.
With these types of numbers, it's possible that Apple might consider offering stock dividends, which Microsoft finally started releasing in January 2003. It would be a way to turn cash into stockholder-owned equity without necessarily hurting the business.
One final note. Apple's formal price-to-earnings ratio (P/E, or the value of its stock compared to its per-share net earnings) is nearly 60, far above the 10 to 20 range that most stock analysts believe is a sensible range based on continued reasonable growth of a mature company. However, the financial magazine Barron's recently noted that if you removed the $12 per share of cash that Apple has ($4.5 billion divided by 369.73 million outstanding shares) from the price, the remaining P/E is a more reasonable number - in the 20s.
(Although we're talking about financial performance and comparisons here, don't mistake us for stock advisers. We're not recommending Apple's stock, just providing some talking points.)