In his third “The Critical Path” podcast, Horace Dediu explained how Apple’s cash can be viewed as a strategic option, an opinion that resonated also with other analysts . Cash is one of the most flexible resources as it can convert quickly into other resources such as brands, companies, technologies, people and even processes. More cash means more strategic flexibility. The large cash reserve Apple has accumulated provides high flexibility for future investments. These characteristics of cash already imply an intrinsic option value. But how big is this value?
Calculating Option Value
To help us determine, I will apply the Black-Scholes model. The model has two key characteristics that are applicable to valuing the option character of Apple’s cash. First, the simple form of the calculation excludes dividends and, as far as we have seen, there is no new information available that would suggest that Apple will pay dividends in the near term. Second, it implies that the option can be exercised at any given time until the end of the option exercise period – just like any buying or investment decision made by consumers. Lastly, we will assume that Apple’s cash (including short-term and long-term cash as well as financial investments) is instantly available. Although large amounts are held by foreign subsidiaries or are invested in maturities longer than one year, we can overcome these practical issues by borrowing against it. As we are interested in the value of the whole pile, we use the latest reported figure of $81.6 billion as the strike price (or exercise price).
What other inputs do we need to determine the option value of Apple’s cash ?
- Volatility: A measure that determines financial risk of a certain asset. Apple’s share has shown a volatility of 26,1% over the last year.
- The risk free rate determined by the 10 year US governmental bond interest rate: 1,96%.
- A timeframe in which the option can be exercised. Let’s assume a 10 year timeframe in line with the risk-free rate and an imaginable horizon for mere mortals.
- The value of the underlying (or what Apple is investing in):
The return of the investment exercised with the cash at hand should yield a higher Return on Capital Employed (RoCE) than previously achieved to increase shareholder value. On the other hand, such a high cash pile also provides the flexibility to invest into lower return ventures. Such an investment would be taken if a certain technology or trend has been missed by management or becomes suddenly more important in the priorities of the company. In defensive moves or moat creating ventures, the expected return would be significantly lower or can even be negative. For the last twelve months, Apple has returned 106% in terms of operating income over its capital employed . I use the return to value the underlying. For example, investing $81.6 billion in assets that yield 106% return equals a underlying value of $168 billion.
The chart below shows the option value of the cash as a percentage of enterprise value of Apple (at the time of writing $310 billion) based on the range of the expected return on capital employed. Or in other words, how much of Apple’s current value is explained by the option value in holding such a large cash reserve.
Therefore, with the assumptions above and a RoCE from -10% to 110%, between 8% and 35% of Apple’s current valuation is explained by the option value of cash. We can see that even with large variations of the key input variables, Apple’s enterprise value is partly explained by the option value of cash which, in turn, is attributable to the sheer amount of cash at hand.
If we look at the option value explaining 25% of Apple’s enterprise value then 75% or $232 billion is the “Residual Enterprise Value” (REV) representing the value of Apple’s cash flow generating operations. That puts Apple’s valuation at 6.9x REV/EBIT 2011 or 6.5x REV/EBITDA 2011 — fairly low relative to recent performance. EBITDA and EBIT have been growing at a rate of 70% for the last two years and at a rate of 84% over the last year alone.
- It’s good to be king (http://5by5.tv/criticalpath/3) , Apple: Behold The ‘iEndowment,’ Says Wedgewood (http://blogs.barrons.com/techtraderdaily/2011/09/20/apple-behold-the-iendowment-says-wedgewood/)
- For more information regarding option pricing see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Option_(finance)
- Operating income of the last twelve month of 33.8 USD billion divided by capital employed of 31.8 USD billion defined as total assets minus cash (or sum of all asset excluding cash)