The Corner

Blogging About Business versus Doing Business

Both Matt Yglesias and Karl Smith have blog pieces that claim businesspeople are doing pretty dumb things. The claims are in some ways mirror images. Yglesias claims that Barnes & Noble is foolishly spending money developing and selling Nook, when instead it should just return the cash to shareholders. Smith is claiming (as far as I can tell) that Apple investors haven’t figured out that Apple can’t really return much of its immense pile of cash to shareholders, because this money is required to run the business.

Yglesias says that it is an obviously bad use of shareholder funds for Barnes & Noble to invest in Nook, because their expertise is in running brick-and-mortar stores. But by this kind if logic, why would movie company Disney invest shareholder funds opening theme parks, why would brick-and-mortar retailers Walmart, Target, and Macy’s invest shareholder funds developing web businesses, and why would computer company Apple invest shareholder funds developing phones?

Core competencies and intangible assets are notoriously tricky to define and quantify for a real company, but for Barnes & Noble they almost certainly include the power of their brand name as a place to look for book-related merchandise, their expertise in developing and managing relationships with publishers, and their existing back catalog of titles. I don’t know enough about the specific situation to know whether Barnes & Noble should have developed and sold an e-reader, but based on what is in the piece, Yglesias doesn’t either.

Karl Smith is a very smart guy, but keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper on his criticism of Apple’s shareholders as foolish, in direct contradiction to the fact that Apple shareholders seem to have done very, very well for some time. 

Smith argued in an earlier post that because Apple has not paid real cash dividends to shareholders, that it is more valuable to put money in a trash can and burn it than to invest it in Apple shares. I did a long post pointing why I don’t think this is true. Smith has subsequently done several posts on this same topic, amplifying and clarifying his point. 

His most recent post on this subject develops an analogy between the workforce of a tech company and the particles in a sub-critical fission reactor. This is meant to be literally (as far as I can tell) a sketch of a mathematical model for why Apple requires a huge amount of cash on hand to retain its employees. At best, it is pure speculation. And based on any practical experience in a tech company, it’s also extremely implausible that Apple would start to shed important engineers, or be at a disadvantage in recruiting, if it had built up, say, $40 billion on the balance sheet instead of $80 billion.

Smith is arguing that Apple shareholders are suckers who depend on greater fools coming along, because there are hidden requirements for cash in the business that mean the true free cash flow available for distribution to shareholders is less than it seems to investors based on accounting statements. This is not a crazy idea (though his argument that the specific hidden requirement is that this amount cash is needed to retain employees does strike me as very implausible). It is also not a new question to ask, and in my experience is one that is debated by professional equity investors in relation to many stocks, ranging from technology companies to convenience-store chains. 

I have no idea whether Apple stock should be a buy, sell, or hold, but if Smith is right that the current shareholder base of Apple massively misunderstands the true capital requirements of the business, then he has a huge moneymaking opportunity. If he really believes in his investment thesis, he should borrow a lot of money and short Apple’s stock.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.


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