Why Apple will pay a dividend

February 6, 2012: 3:10 PM ET

CEO Tim Cook has signalled a willingness to break with the past. Paying out some of its massive cash hoard could be his next big move.

FORTUNE -- The liquid securities alone on Apple's balance sheet, roughly $98 billion, would make it the 43rd most valuable company in the world. Apple's cash would rank it just behind McDonalds, an astounding and bizarre statement in the annals of modern cash management. No company in its right mind would keep $100 billion lying around. But then, as I've been arguing frequently of late, Apple is no normal company. It does just about everything differently, including how it socks away its money.

Apple's (AAPL) aversion to paying its cash, at least, may finally be coming to an end. A slim report issued last week by the wealth management group at UBS (UBS) contains a snippet that would be utterly unremarkable at any other company but is newsworthy for Apple. "We ... understand that management has been soliciting the opinions of large shareholders on the subject [of paying a dividend]," wrote UBS's Bob Faulkner. He went on to speculate that Apple would declare a dividend at its Feb. 23 annual meeting in Cupertino, Calif. 

What's startling about this tidbit from Faulkner, who declined to comment further, is the notion of Apple soliciting anyone's opinion on anything, let alone the opinion of its investors. Apple has treated investors with about the same level of disdain it reserves for the press over the years. It is stingy with its time with shareholders and relatively uninterested, at least historically, with what investors think Apple should do with their money. In a way, it's a comically pure and admirable perspective. Apple thinks it knows better than someone on Wall Street how to spend Apple's money. And despite the howling from investors that Apple should give back some cash, it's hard to suggest Apple has been a poor steward of investor wealth.

And yet, what's becoming increasingly clear is that Apple has a success problem on its hands: It has run out of ways to responsibly spend its profits. It has never done what any other big company would view as a major acquisition. Silicon Valley investment bankers desperately would like to see Apple acquire Twitter, for example. But this would be so contrary to the Apple acquisition mindset that it's hard to imagine. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook has taken the last half a year to begin to signal a willingness to reverse course on the dividend policy. Steve Jobs was famously paranoid about cash, having survived the experience of Apple nearly running out of money in 1997, when he returned to the company. Cook knows that insolvency isn't possible. So now Apple faces the same conundrum as Microsoft (MSFT) has faced, even as Apple continues to experience torrid growth. (Microsoft has dividended billions of dollars to shareholders in recent years.) Shortly after becoming CEO Cook said he wasn't "religious" about cash management. More recently he said Apple's management was "actively discussing" what to do about the cash. 

Apple is famous for telling others what it will do. For once, it appears to be listening to what others want. Expect a dividend announcement sooner rather than later.

For more on Apple's secret systems, tactics and leadership strategies, read Inside Apple, available here.

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About This Author
Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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