Einhorn has a point: what the hell is Apple doing sitting on that money?

Apple hoards cash, apparently, "like a person who has gone through a trauma".

Apple has had to fend off an attack from one of its share holders who is demanding it fork out more of its $137bn cash pile to investors.

David Einhorn has sued iPhone maker Apple accusing the most valuable company in the world of having a “depression era” mentality.

But for a company with a reputation like Apple, which no amount of third world worker scandals seems able to damage, this should be seen as nothing more than an advertisement, splashing the fact that Apple is sitting on more ready cash than a fair amount of small countries on to headlines around the world.

The billionaire activist, who heads up hedge fund Greenlight Capital, told US TV news channel CNBC that Apple hoards cash like a person who has gone through a trauma, referring to Apples near bankruptcy in the early ‘90s before Steve Jobs turned the firms fortunes around with the introduction of the iPod.

Apple shares have tumbled 35 per cent from their peak in September 2012 as its growth has slowed, despite the successful, if not phenomenal, launch of the iPad mini and iPhone 5.

Einhorn’s opinion may be justified; Apple is planning to eliminate its “preferred” stock, which pays out a fixed dividend over time, at its shareholder meeting later this month. These shares are better than ordinary shares when it comes to paying out a company's assets.

Einhorn, it should be noted, has a history of corporate meddling. In May 2011, Einhorn called for Steve Ballmer, (who is still) CEO of Microsoft, to step down after Microsoft was passed by both IBM and Apple in market value.

While Einhorn may not be the most trustworthy of activists, his point may well stand: What the hell is Apple doing with all that money? 

Apple has never explained its reasons for holding onto the cash other than to say its preserving its options but it certainly isn’t using it to develop new products. Apple's tally for research and development in 2012 was 2 per cent of its annual spend, dwarfed by its tech rivals. IBM’s for example is 6 per cent.

While Einhorn’s motives for demanding Apple make use of their cash maybe entirely about increasing his own fortune, Apple is in danger of stagnation if it doesn’t use its vast hoard wisely. 

Maybe the reason it has yet to spend its money is that, without the guiding light of Jobs at the helm, it doesn’t know what to spend it on.

Photograph: Getty Images

Billy Bambrough writes for Retail Banker International at VRL financial news.
 

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.