With a thirty-year bond yield, Apple enters corporate adulthood

Take off the pullover and put on a suit and tie – you aren't a tech stock anymore.

Last week saw Apple turning a final corner in its long development as a company. It is no longer just a tech stock – it's now a boring old blue-chip.

During its quarterly earning earnings call, the company increased its dividend by 15 per cent (it will now pay $3.05 a share every quarter), boosted the size of its share buyback plan sixfold, to $60bn, and, most interestingly, announced a bond issue to pay for it all. The company now intends to return $100bn in total to its shareholders by the end of 2015.

Today, Apple filed its draft prospectus for the bond issue with the SEC, confirming the durations it will be borrowing for and the banks in charge. Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank will be jointly overseeing the issue, which is of sets of two floating rate notes, due in three and five years, and four fixed-rate notes, in durations of up to thirty years. That's barely shorter than the entire lifespan of the company to date, making the investment a real punt in the dark for anyone buying into it.

We don't yet know how much of each duration Apple is planning to borrow, nor – crucially – the rates they are offering. But the plan looks likely to have very little to do with the typical reasons for corporate borrowing: Apple still has an enormous pile of cash, which means that investment isn't the name of the game.

Instead, the company appears to be using its extraordinary creditworthiness – as well as the ultra-low bond yields which are a sign of our times – to overcome an issue it has with that cash pile: most of it is kept overseas.

The US only charges tax on cash which has been "repatriated", so while Apple leaves money from overseas operations overseas, it doesn't have to pay any tax on it. It's waiting – as it has been for years, now – for a "repatriation holiday", when it hopes a future government will temporarily lift that tax to encourage the companies to bring cash home. Until then, if it needs money domestically, borrowing is as good as any other method. And if its rates are low enough, it might even make a bit of money on the deal.

But with dividends, bond yields, and share buybacks, Apple has entered a new – and dull – stage in its corporate progression. These aren't the actions of a high-growth tech stock; they're those of a company bedding in for the long-haul. Apple expects to be here in thirty years, and still be largely the same when it is, and its asking investors to bank on that. Fun for them, but the white-knuckle days are over for us.

Apple CEO Tim Cook at a presentation for the company. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt