One Reason Apple Might Be Hoarding $18 Billion

Today I’m watching the NCAA tournament and trying to lower the stack of unread magazines on my desk. In the March 17th issue of Fortune I came across an interesting article about Apple (AAPL) and CEO Steve Jobs. Some investors in Apple have been disappointed that the company refuses to return any of its $18 billion war chest to shareholders in the form of stock buybacks or dividend payouts. Why haven’t they, you might wonder?

Well, when asked how he plans on managing through the economic downturn, here is what Jobs told Fortune:

“We’ve had one of these before, when the dot-com bubble burst. What I told our company was that we were just going to invest our way through the downturn, that we weren’t going to lay people off, that we’d taken a tremendous amount of effort to get them into Apple in the first place – the last thing we were going to do is lay them off. And we were going to keep funding. In fact we were going to up our R&D so that we would be ahead of our competitors when the downturn was over. And that’s exactly what we did. And it worked. And that’s exactly what we’ll do this time.”

Interpretation: Don’t expect massive buybacks or dividends. Sure, it would be tough for Apple to invest the entire $18 billion even under this mindset, but after the company had cash issues back in the 1990’s when they were struggling, Jobs clearly wants to overly cushion the company for whatever the future brings. It makes sense long term, but clearly in the short term investors will be disappointed with the decision to sacrifice short term stock price gains for long term flexibility and stability.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Apple at the time of writing