Is Apple Shortchanging its Investors?

David Einhorn has plenty of clout on Wall Street. When he speaks, investors listen. That’s what correctly predicting the demise of Lehman Brothers will get you.

I witnessed Einhorn’s market influence first hand at the Value Investing Congress in New York in October 2011. That was the day the respected hedge funder explained in a 110-slide presentation why he was short-selling Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR). Within hours the stock fell 15%, and has essentially never recovered.

GMCR is far from Einhorn’s only “victim.” Herbalife (HYSE: HLF) shares fell 20% in 24 hours after he questioned the nutrition company’s sales practices. Chipotle (NYSE: CMG) got “Einhorned” at this past year’s Value Investing Congress, plummeting 22% over the ensuing three weeks after Einhorn announced he would be short-selling shares of the burrito chain. (It has since more than recovered.)

That’s the kind of power Einhorn wields. It’s why he’s earned a reputation as the Grim Reaper of Wall Street.

Now the Grim Reaper is taking aim at a much bigger target: Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL).

Einhorn has filed a lawsuit against Apple for refusing to return more of its giant cash stockpile to its shareholders. The lawsuit comes in response to Apple’s recent proposal to prevent the issuance of preferred stock to its shareholders. Greenlight Capital, the $8 billion hedge fund Einhorn manages, owns approximately 1.5 million Apple shares.

Einhorn even held a press conference last week urging other Apple shareholders to vote against Apple’s proposal at the company’s annual meeting tomorrow. He demanded that Apple unlock some of its $137 billion cash hoard through what he called “iPrefs” – a class of dividend-bearing preferred stock that would be free to shareholders.

Who knows where Einhorn’s assertions will lead. If anyone has the muscle to shame Apple into changing its mind, it’s Einhorn.

Even if CEO Tim Cook decides to ignore Einhorn’s proposal, the hedge funder has already accomplished one thing that could stick with investors: He’s exposed the world’s most profitable company as being something we’ve never thought of Apple before … cheap.

The “cheap” claim isn’t exactly off-base. Just do the math:

  • Apple’s $137 billion cash stockpile is greater than the market cap of all but 17 companies on the S&P 500.
  • Of the next 15 largest public companies, only three of them offer a lower dividend yield than Apple’s 2.3% yield.
  • Apple didn’t even offer a dividend until last August.

For its part, Apple plans to return $45 billion of its cash stockpile to shareholders over the next three years. Cook also indicated that the company is carefully studying Einhorn’s proposal.

The company might want to consider expediting both processes. Lack of generosity to its shareholders is nothing new with Apple, but it didn’t matter before because the returns were so mind-blowing. When a stock advances 700% in three-and-a-half years, who cares whether it offers a dividend or preferred shares?

Only now that the shares have come crashing back to Earth is Apple getting flak for being cheap. That’s the kind of scrutiny a 36% decline in five months gets you.

With shares stuck in the $450 area for the better part of a month, Apple could actually use a preferred stock or dividend increase to restore investor interest.

As the lukewarm response to the recent iPhone 5 and iPad Mini launches revealed, investors no longer automatically swoon every time Apple introduces something new. The products have gotten a bit stale, and extra competition from companies such as Samsung and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has caused Apple to lose a bit of its edge.

As Einhorn suggested, issuing preferred stock with a quarterly dividend of 50 cents could really reinvigorate demand for Apple shares.

Really, Apple is hurting only itself by holding onto its cash hoard. Unlocking some of that money – in the form of preferred stock or otherwise – could be the key to getting the company out of its five-month rut.

At the very least, it would help shake the growing sentiment that the richest company in the world doesn’t like to share with others.

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