In the weeds

Although discussions related to how Apple will “use its cash” center on acquisitions of companies, Apple’s has been busy acquiring, just not companies. It has been buying capital equipment. Capital meaning (in the original sense of the word[1]) the means of production.

Since the launch of the iPhone Apple has spent $21.1 billion on the acquisition of property, plant and equipment. The company has already stated that they will spend another $10 billion or so for the current fiscal year. This has been mostly machinery and equipment used in manufacturing.

The result in asset value is shown below:

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 5-30-6.29.53 PM

[The Net value, shown as a blue line, is after accumulated depreciation. The red line represents spending as reported on the cash flow statement.)

The change in spending year/year (fiscal) is shown in the following graph:Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 5-30-6.31.27 PM

So these are very large numbers, even compared to other capital-intensive semiconductor manufacturers:

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 5-30-6.48.22 PM

Given this enormous spending one could imagine it’s the subject of intense scrutiny. However the only question on the subject that I’ve ever seen was from Steve Milunovich of UBS to which Peter Oppenheimer, CFO offered an explanation:

Steve Milunovich – UBS
…second question would be on CapEx, you spent almost as much Intel does. I think you guys have said you’re not going to become vertically integrated per se but in a sense you are since [you buy] equipment for your partners, could you talk about the strategy here and how much of a differentiator this gives Apple in terms of your ability to ramp new products over time? And maybe a little bit more about how deep you will go in terms of semiconductor components for you, etc.?

Peter Oppenheimer – Chief Financial Officer
Sure. Steve it’s Peter. We expect to spend about $10 billion in CapEx this fiscal year that will be up little under $2 billion year-over-year. We expect to spend a little bit under $1 billion in the retail stores. And the other $9 billion is spent in a variety of areas. We are buying equipment that we will own that we will put in partners’ facilities. Our primary motivation there is for supply, but we get other benefits as well. We are also adding to our datacenter capabilities to support all the services that Tim spoke about in answering Ben’s question and in facilities and in infrastructure. So, that’s where the capital is going.

I would say that this is not a very satisfying answer, which is why I thought it merits further questioning[2].

Alas, no.

Whereas there is a constant clamoring for Apple’s to use its cash to “acquire” or “buy” something, anything, maybe people not looking hard enough. If you need the satisfaction that comes from knowing that money is being spent, a glance at the Cash Flow statement and Balance Sheet shows that Apple buys the equivalent of one Yahoo! every three years[3].

The main difference with this type of acquisition is that there is less value destruction. Using the capital to ensure access to capacity, differentiation and hence a high margin is better than writing off the goodwill after a few years.

  1. The term capitalism, in its modern sense, comes from the writings of Karl Marx
  2. I am prepared to be alone in this quest as it seems to merit no mention from others
  3. or 10 Tumblrs every year
  • Mark

    The impression I am getting is Apple is purchasing the means for production while leasing in effect the facilities and locations for production.

    If this is largely true, then Apple can secure in a competitive way features (with their attendant benefits to customers) in their products for relatively long periods of time. I guess the one hiccup is Samsung has the means to do this too.

    The risk in this strategy for Apple is the talent side of the business. The talent for production is under control of facility owner. I have heard that the demographics in China are such that young talent is becoming scarcer and scarcer.

    For me, this means that how Apple invests in the means of production would logically consider emerging talent constraints.

    • Samsung has a remarkable ability to gear-up and scale-up almost any electronics hardware manufacturing capability. They make everything from phones to refrigerators. What they don’t have is a corporate system for creating new products or reinventing old ones. They also don’t have the ability to develop an independent operating system along with its necessary IDE, developer support mechanisms, application marketplace, etc..

      In short, Apple can duplicate Samsung’s strengths better than Samsung can duplicate Apple’s. Without Android, Samsung wouldn’t be in the conversation on smartphones.

      • Micromeme

        funny this, people don’t seem to notice when they speak of samsung being vertically integrated that even in the S4 generation not all the S4’s are shipping with samsung processors, some (espcially US) are using qualcomm. And today we hear that they may be putting intel processors inside the next large android tablet. certainly highlights that it is also possible to fail at vertical integration.

      • JohnDoey

        Samsung is not one integrated company. The phone-making part buys the cheapest generic SoC’s whether they are Samsung-branded or not. That is by design. Apple is designed to be one integrated company in order to make one integrated product and Samsung is unintegrated in order to have the freedom to shave pennies off a unit cost.

      • Micromeme

        Thats true, they are buying outside and I don’t question their judgement that its the best thing for their phones. the point is that in spite of massive investment in their own fabs/design capability and the fact that their own fabs are able to make cutting edge phone chips (A6/A6x for example) still they don’t have (in their own designs) something better or as good in price/performance as the qualcomm chip. I take that as a reminder of the perils of having your own fab. At any given node/year you may have invested a lot in capacity but not be able to deliver the best price/performance at volume. ie having your own fab capacity is not a guarantee of being ahead at all times– in many ways its a guarantee that among all fab vendors, most of the time you will not be the clear leader.

      • Indeed Samsung wasn’t in the smartphone conversation before mid 2010. Their volumes went from 3 million to 70 million per quarter in three years.

    • Mieswall

      I think the focus of Apple maybe in very high-tech, costly CNC machinery, to process mainly aluminum: there is a very interesting video of Ive talking about this. They must have identified one piece aluminum fabrication as a differentiator and a competitive advantage. In fact, much less (or none) copies of iphone5 look have appeared compared to iphone4. It so much harder to build. Macs showed the way. That’s why i think that even the low cost phone coming will be of aluminum body. The power of standardization and product differentiation is much higher than eventual raw material economies. The learning process of this will allow very high yields of production. Just in time for the “expansion” phase of iphone.

      That’s why the supply shortage of ip5 was a surprisse for everybody, except the very Apple, that may have thought: if we need to reestrucutre production, better do it now, when this stock bubble needs correction. They haven’t taken higher market share simply because they don’t want it; it is not timed now with the long term strategy.

  • nuttmedia

    “Using the capital to ensure access to capacity, differentiation and hence a high margin is better than writing off the goodwill after a few years”

    Amen and hallelujah to that…

  • Be Careful.

  • def4

    I suspect further detail in this area is unlikely to be disclosed so nobody bothers to try to ask for it.

    The clamoring is just noise.
    If it makes any rivals underestimate Apple, that’s a true blessing.

    • Maybe, but we know Cook isn’t going to announce a product on stage, yet Swisher spent her time badgering him to do so.

  • aleand67

    “Capitalism” was first used by French historian Louis Blanc around 1850, though with slightly different meaning. Not that I know much about this, but I’m reading a nice little book on the history of accounting called “double entry” (author: Jane Gleeson White), and she makes I te resting connections between co dependencies between development of accounting and capitalism. Recommend it for this crowd.

  • ralphel

    Well, Horace, I hope this post ensures that no one ever again tries to make disobliging remarks about you on Twitter.

    How about an “ASYMCO – In the weeds” T-shirt? Could be very popular, with your myriad fans treating it as an “I am Spartacus” opportunity. There’s probably just enough time to place the order in time for WWDC.

    It would be great if Ms Swisher agreed to allow the use of her cheery face on such a T-shirt, but perhaps that’s too much to hope for.

    • She’s such an idiot. She’s an excellent example of the Dunning Kruger effect. She has no idea how stupid she is, and she thinks that she’s very smart.

      • Slurpy2k12

        Swisher is the absolute worst. I don’t how or why she gets the privelege of being in the presence of these titans. She has a constant frown-face, as if what she’s doing is tortuous, she only interrupts in order to ask idiotic Qs or make quips that are about HER and not the interviewee, her dry, sarcastic “humor” is mind-numbingly boring, and she acts as if she’s a teacher questioning a school-boy, with absolutely no respect or deference. Walt isn’t much better. They wasted like half the interview childishly trying to get Cook to confirm products they’re working on or to announce launch dates, and the other half vomiting all the recent superficial anti-Apple memes, pretending as if Apple is bleeding to death and Cook is to blame.



      • PatchyThePirate

        Couldn’t agree more Jessica and Slurpy. Listening to them was like nails on a chalkboard. Tim is a saint for actually sitting through that crap.

      • What do you expect from the Fox News Journal?

  • Horace, keep at it. I´m shocked that nobody else takes this seriously. Apple is spending *way* more money here than they need to support their growth. They are up to something, and they are trying to hide it.

    Are they coming up with some fancy new technology yet to be unveiled? Are they moving away from aluminum to liquidmetal/ceramic mold process? Have solved the fuel cell problem? What exactly are they spending *vast* amounts on money on without anybody taking notice?

    So just keep at it, keep bringing this up and focus on it. Hopefully someone will shed some light on what is going on.

    • >> Apple is spending *way* more money here than they need to support their growth.

      How do you figure this? It seems so opaque that it’s hard for us to know either way. Selling, each year, as many iOS devices as have ever been made in previous years, requires ramping up capital expenditures exponentially to be able to meet that demand. Even if demand has slacked off, it seems they’re not out of line ($10B vs $8B).

      In support of your theory, remember Bob Mansfield “came out of retirement” to come run a very vaguely named technology division.

      We’ve got a whole executive level, Tim Cook, direct report running around with a division nobody knows about!

      He could be doing anything, quite literally.

      And I think he is running something very significant and probably very capital intensive.

      On the other hand, it’s a bit early for Mansfield to be getting close to market.

  • David Nichols


  • Boudica

    Horace –
    Have you ever asked to interview the C-level Apple executives?

    • I think he should write to Oppenheimer and ask for Horace to be allowed on the quarterly conference calls. Horace really deserves to be able to ask questions there.

      He’s certainly earned it more than the blow dried airheads who are on the call asking their inane question only by virtue of the fact that they work for an apple-hostile “investment bank” on Wall Street.

    • No. I have inquired about the ability to ask a question during the quarterly earnings conference call but the answer I received (indirectly) is that only sell side analysts are allowed on the call. Apple Investor relations did not respond to the question directly but I found out by asking Milunovich. [By the way, the question asked by Steve Milunovich (which I refer to in the post) was possibly influenced by a conversation I had with Steve on this topic]

  • Walt French

    “I think you guys have said you’re not going to become vertically integrated per se…”

    Maybe that prefix to the question actually captures the more interesting part of the issue. It’d be good to get an Apple quote to confirm it.

    Discussions elsewhere about Cook’s comments on Glass have helped underscore the idea that Apple sells end-user products, not technology for hobbyists or technology that others can OEM into say, a Point of Sale terminal. Yes, that near-counter example was conscious: Apple apparently does zero customizing of the iPad for Square.

    If you take Oppenheimer’s statements at face value, they are essentially leasing the assembly equipment to Foxconn and/or Pegatron, exploiting their very favorable rates (strong balance sheet). This is maybe inverted versus the sort of customer financing that many companies do (Ford, GE’s Credit Corp, …) and that the ExIm Bank does for Boeing. By one measure, Ford is 38% a financial services company.

    I think manufacture/assembly is the likeliest guess for any capex, rather than semiconductor fabrication. For starters, neither TSMC nor Intel particularly need Apple’s financing. TSMC bought out its partners in its Washington State business and Intel has recently said it’s not interested in developing competition to X86. Wikipedia claims TSMC started trial production of the A6 almost two years ago but the referenced sources say, “alleged” so a large grain of salt. TSMC is also spending somewhere around $9billion on capex, so all that you have to suggest much Apple money buying fab equipment is the notion that TSMC doesn’t want to become too dependent on Apple.

    Anyway, manufacturing is MUCH closer to the customer, MUCH more Apple-specific and MUCH less purchasable on the open market if say, a nearby nuclear power plant explosion shut down a specific plant. I wouldn’t be surprised that Apple has backup plans already inked to buy chips from Intel if push came to shove.

    I’m a technology nut, and care about the technical issues of the CPUs. I’d love to know more about Apple’s plans around silicon. But from a business analysis perspective, it appears rather straightforward, no more complex than many other good estimates that you develop, and which have served you well in forecasting. In the present case, take maybe $4 billion of that capex and dedicate it to spitting out iPhone e series about twice as fast as Foxconn bangs out the 5’s, and another $3 billion for expansion of the iPad line at slightly improved productivity rates, and you ought to have a good starting point for a forecast.

    • I think Apple needs to control it’s key technologies, and to me, the CPU/SoC is increasingly key, and one of the few areas where it can differentiate itself from the phones built from commodities.

      If I were running Apple, and it were possible (not sure whether it is, they can afford it, though) I would simply buy Intel outright. Reorganize it into two divisions, the x86 division which would continue to do what it has been doing, and an ARM division. Both divisions would have access to cutting edge process technology, which means, practically, that Apple’s ARM CPUS would leapfrog the state of the art currently…. and Apple can keep all the intel ARM production for itself, not worry about them being sold to a competitor (or creating a competitor)…

      There is possibly a very compelling reason that this would be a stupid move, but I don’t see it.

      • Walt French

        I’ve written a couple of times about how Apple has *already* gotten rather complete control over its CPU technology (tl;dr: it controls the primary programming language; the compiler that translates coders’ instructions into X86, ARM or other CPU codes; extensions to the core ARM instructions; design technology to allocate resources to implementation of those instructions). It only lacks the rights to make similar, proprietary extensions to the X86 instruction set (which Intel is already moving to suit Apple’s mix of applications) and the actual foundries in which the silicon is forged into chips.

        So let me answer just about the very important notion of Apple “controlling its key technologies.”

        Dramatically superior CPU capabilities are NOT a key technology for Apple. Through software, Apple already enjoys perhaps a 30%–60% speed advantage over Android. This is a side effect of years of work to protect its independence: early on, Apple was down the priority list for compiler developers, and suffered. Since 2006, Macs have had full access to Intel’s extensive capabilities; Apple’s very likely to be one of the first to introduce machines based on Intel’s latest, “Haswell” design — maybe a hot developer’s machine, ripe for WWDC on the 10th.

        Apple needs to be sure that no other company stands on its oxygen hose the way that Adobe and Microsoft controlled key software in the 90s. But so far Samsung’s CPU operations appear to have acted reasonably and even if Microsoft or Google bought Intel, the FTC would absolutely prohibit them from cutting off Apple. And as I have noted, Apple has good alternatives from TSMC (and not-so-good others).

        Apple has minuscule risk from loss of access to silicon foundries. Cutting-edge silicon, as Intel and others can attest, is hugely expensive and needs to be amortized over many more chips than Apple can use; trying to gain an advantage in foundries would be an extremely expensive effort that would necessarily result in less follow-on investing, lowering its competitive edge at the same time that Apple’s ownership would be a shot across the bow to every other computer manufacturer, who would fund up AMD, VIA and others.

        Apple has the control it needs and should invest elsewhere.

      • Carpenter

        In mobile, SoC capabilities are the key Apple alongside the advanced native SW stack. But the need very advanced SoC design, advanced manufacturing capability in very large scale. Depending on price point, iPhoneCheap might sell 100M/y.

        If Apple invests few billions in Fabs, they get two benefits:

        1. There is advanced manufacturing capability in their disposal. Even if there are shortages, Apple only pays for the capacity as a function of time when they reserve (by buing the equipment) it.

        2. They will have very flexible trial runs available for their chip design department and I think those guys have already demonstrated that they deserve it.

        Apple is in such a strong position that for them it makes sense to invest capital in foundry, assembly and other key part supply chain. These investments won’t limit it’s ability to invest elsewhere. I’ve seen companies ramp up production for embedded devices that were expected to sell maybe ten million / year. Apple is in business where they are expecting to sell maybe 50 million / quartal. It’s a different game to do this business in this kind of scale.

      • Tatil_S

        I can only think of only two fab owning companies in the world with state of the art technology worth for Apple to co-own. If TSMC or Intel is not willing to get into a multi year exclusive relationship, Apple cannot make this investment even if it would make theoretical sense for it to do so.

        There are many other foundries, but they are generally considered second tier, as they tend to be a year or two behind. (I am not sure about Samsung, but it is obviously not a candidate for Apple’s investment anyways.) When second tiers are ready to go, the capacity is usually not at a premium. More capital may allow one of them to join the first tier, but that would be a very risky investment, as their company cultures or business models may not be able to make the switch despite the rise in financial resources.

      • JohnDoey

        Apple already controls Intel because 90% of high-end PC’s are Macs and the ASP of non-Apple Intel PC’s is less than $400. The non-Apple PC makers buy from Intel’s bargain bin and don’t get to set the agenda for next year’s high-end client PC chips. The milestones on Intel’s about-face from huge, power-hungry P4 to tiny, power-conserving Haswell are the Apple-Intel agreement, OS X moving to ARM architecture, the MacBook Air, the iPad providing the first successful ARM PC, and Apple threatening all along the way to move the Mac to ARM if Intel didn’t work on its power consumption. In many ways, today’s Intel chips have more in common with PowerPC G4 than with Intel P4.

  • Jean-Louis Gassée

    I join everyone here in congratulating Horace for yet another insightful analysis. And, sadly, I agree it reflects poorly on most the press contenting itself (pun unintended) with bleeding headlines. The last one that comes to mind is the WSJ telling its readers Apple actually makes more profit than it tells its investors. Accounting illiteracy…

    • Well, in WSJ’s defense, this is the publication that announced that Apple had been sold to Sun Microsystems in the mid 1990s, and never posted a retraction. So, I think their credibility has been gone for quite awhile.

  • Speedy Pensalez

    I know people who have worked with Apple and yes they are spending money on some fancy new technology yet to be unveiled. Also there is more than one company that they’re using on this project and none of them know about each other! I noticed this by accident. I’m not a spy, its just a weird co-incidence that I know all the parties. No I’m not going to say what it is just incase I get into trouble.

    • ….pssst
      fuel cells…. you didn´t hear it from me.

    • Speedy, I’m afraid that could describe any of the products Apple’s made in the last decade and any of them in the next. So, it’s neat that you figured it out, but you’re not telling us anything. 🙂

  • I thought your link to “writing off the goodwill” would lead to a story about Google and Motorola, but I guess that hasn’t happened yet 😉

  • The funny thing is, people complain about iPhones being “Expensive” because they have high margin. They could sell for the same prices, but cost more to make, and people wouldn’t complain (if Apple kept its capital on the sidelines.)

    I believe it was Karl Marx who used the word “capitalism” to mean “owning the means of production”, since his big thing was wanting the “workers” (because management never worked) to “own the means of production”.

    I see the original/true meaning of capitalism as “people are free to transact with each other as they wish”, or really, it’s a synonym for liberty and freedom.

    • obarthelemy

      actually, that’s “free market” not capitalism. The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

    • This is why I shy away from using the word Capitalism (or any other -ism). Capitalism as a word loses relevance when it’s no longer a foil to some other -ism.

      • raycote

        Yup – finally the old left vs right linear polemic is being forced off stage by the inherent high-flux organic-interdependencies now being forced on us at all levels by our new network-synchronizing social fabric.

        Maybe the new polemic is:

        Oh! sorry, forget it, I think I just got caught in a loop 😉

      • obarthelemy

        didn’t you forget to put “synergy” somewhere in there ?

      • raycote

        No because “synergy” is an outcome related to increased network-synchronizatiion and not the other way around.

        Secondly the abstract-noun carpet-bombing is a purposeful communications technique intended to increase the probability that at lease one of the redundant abstractions will connect with the readers perceptive.

        That technique often draws ridicule as verbal over kill because at the point where the reader connects with the nth redundancy, the one that worked for them, the whole interruptive experience suddenly flips from un-comprehended gibberish into annoying over statement.

        Thirdly the whole thing was intended as somewhat of a circular reasoning joke.

        The importance of DECENTRALIZED REDUNDANCY OF CONTROL FUNCTIONS in all sustainable complex self-organizing systems as outlined by James G Miller in his book “Living System Theory” is of course the serious point embedded in my otherwise lame attempt at a circular reasoning joke!

        In the name of communicational self-improvement I’d be interest in your improved simpler verbiage that captures all the same conceptual and comedic nuances.

        That of course may take a little more sincere effort than your previous one line snarkaleptic comment!

      • obarthelemy

        I’m just too lazy. Plus I doubt I can do better than 30Rock’s corresponding skit :-p
        I often use a “pointlessness test” in meetings: imagine the speaker saying the exact opposite of what he’s actually saying. If it makes no sense, then it’s fluff.

      • raycote

        I thought so!

      • What’s the difference between Capitalism and Socialism?

        Under Capitalism, man exploits his fellow man. Under Socialism, it’s the other way around.

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  • James King

    I’m still going with Liquidmetal on this. I think Apple has finally figured out a way to produce LM components at scale and recent patent applications support this hypothesis.

    Bottom line, there are not many technologies that would make much sense for Apple to invest at such a massive scale. Common sense says that it is fabrication technology of some type. LM fits the criteria of maximum reward relative to risk. If Apple has solved the “brittleness” issue that has prevented the use of LM at scale, Apple could easily produce enough products that would make such an investment worth it. The only other alternative is new battery technology but I would think there would be more clues if that were the case.

    The so-called “iWatch” effort would be the perfect product with which to test the ability to use LM at scale. It won’t matter if Apple’s exclusivity deal with Liquidmetal runs out if Apple has a monopoly on LM fabrication technology.

  • gprovida

    What is interesting to me in this data is the fundamental strategic shift begun about the time of the MacBook Air and iPhone (after the iPod success) to deeply embrace, engage, and partner with their growing supply chain to create a competitive advantage on arguably unprecedented production scale and speed with advanced prodection scale technologies. It would have been fascinating to have been in the room with Jobs, Cook, et al curing this daring and uncommented revolution at Apple and perhaps industry for the 21st century.

    I am unconvinced that SAMSUNG has mastered the scale and speed Apple has achieved, they have not been tested, since none of the individual models have the numbers or early production rates that Apple’s products have consistently achieved. I suspect there are skills, processes, techiques, etc., that Apple has mastered and continues to improve upon that are foundational to their success.

    Whatever next products emerge and independent of their particular success the reveal of this strategy’s effects will be fascinating. I can’t wait for the hindsight apologia that will emerge, e.g., recent housing bubble mess.

    • obarthelemy

      iP5 sold 5m in the first 2 months, GS4 10m in the first month. Samsung don’t seem to be having much of a ramping problem.

    • gprovida

      Ramp by Apple was sales at 2.5M/day although rate dropped while SAMSUNG was 10M/60days shipped 0.17M/day.

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  • Mark Howard

    Perhaps a clue to the new machinery has to do with what was going on 18 months ago. Apple was heavily criticized for workforce issues within the FoxConn factories.

    Tim Cook went to China and opened up the conditions of the factories for inspection, revealing that they weren’t quite the miserable sweatshops people imagined. It still wasn’t pretty, however. I recall the profile of the woman who manually shaved off metal burrs from thousands of iPad cases per shift.

    Where was the high tech automation? Nowhere on that assembly line. In order to achieve the millions of units required quickly, they simply had FoxConn bring in legions more factory workers en masse. There was no time to custom configure final assembly machines when using humans was cheaper and easier.

    However, if Apple expected to maintain or grow their percentage of the smartphone market as it ate the world of cellphones, perhaps they saw that even having FoxConn recruit legions more workers wouldn’t be able to scale to those volumes, especially with the attendent risks, poltical and safety-wise

    What if this new equipment is quickly customizable, flexible robotic assembly equipment? Get rid of the human factors while ramping up to millions of units with ease.

  • David

    Lots of discussion on CPUs and SOC but none on display tech? It seems many of Apple’s display partners are at risk. Perhaps Apple is investing in advanced display tech fabrication. Retina displays at large sizes isn’t going to be easy or cheap.

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