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A fantastic use for Apple’s cash

Tim Cook thinks he knows how to put $59.7 billion to good use

One of the things that's keeping Apple's (aapl) market cap from overtaking Exxon Mobil's (xom) -- besides Steve Jobs' health problems and the world's unquenchable thirst for petroleum products -- is the fear that the company will do something stupid with the nearly $60 billion in cash and marketable securities that seems to be burning a hole in Wall Street's pocket.

The Street has made it abundantly clear what it thinks Apple should do with that cash: Declare a dividend or launch a stock repurchase program or both -- anything to drive up the value of institutional investors' Apple holdings.

What the analysts who work for those institutions fear is that the company will go on a buying spree and start gobbling up the wrong kind of company -- like Facebook, Adobe (adbe), Yahoo (yhoo), Disney (dis) or Sony (sne). Those are some of the acquisition candidates that were floated in the business press last October after Jobs was asked why Apple didn't pay dividends. He answered, perhaps unadvisedly, that the company wanted to keep its "powder dry" for those "one or more very strategic opportunities [that] may come along."

Of course, buying Disney or Sony is not what Jobs meant at all. Apple is not Time Warner (twx); it doesn't go around buying AOLs (aol). But COO Tim Cook may have had that spectacular miscommunication in mind last week when he spoke to analysts about what Apple actually does with its cash.

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One thing he talked about was the $3.9 billion dollars worth of agreements Apple signed over the summer and fall with three unnamed companies in its supply chain. The money came in the form of prepayments and capital expenditures for process equipment and tooling -- for building factories, in other words -- for components he declined to specify but which most observers suspect are touchscreens like those used in the iPad.

The deal, he said, is similar to the one Apple cut five years ago:

"As you probably remember," he began, "we signed a deal with several flash [memory chip] suppliers back at the end of 2005 that totaled over $1 billion because we anticipated that flash would become increasingly important across our entire product line and increasingly important to the industry. And so we wanted to secure supply for the company.

"We think that that was an absolutely fantastic use of Apple's cash."

We're inclined to agree.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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