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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.