Apple: ‘hey Siri, can you raise the dividend?’

In the US tech sell off, Apple was regarded as the safest pair of hands. It has more than 2bn active devices and nearly 1bn people paying for services. Unlike many of its peers it pays dividends as well as buying back shares. A drop in revenue and net income in the last quarter does not negate these points in its favour.

Revenue weakness comes as little surprise. Chipmaker Qualcomm just reported a disappointing quarter, blaming deteriorating demand for handsets.

In fact, the 4.5 per cent dip in Apple’s products revenue may not reflect the drop in sales by unit. Research from CIRP estimates the popularity of expensive new models means the average-selling price across iPhones (still responsible for more than half of Apple revenues) is closing in on $1,000, up from less than $850 two years ago.

In the absence of strong hardware growth, services become more important. This part of the business, which includes financial services and streaming, makes up more than a fifth of group revenues. It is noticeable that Apple remains quiet about artificial intelligence, despite releasing smart assistant Siri back in 2011. Every other large tech company put high spend on AI at the forefront of results. Apple simply said it would continue to weave it into products.

Nor is it likely to announce significant acquisitions anytime soon. The focus is on returning cash to shareholders. With almost $57bn of net cash, it is a long way off its plan to reach a neutral position. The board has authorised spending up to $90bn on buybacks in the next 12 months — matching last year despite lower revenues.

Why not lift dividends further? Increases over the years have been noticeably small. The latest raises the quarterly dividend 4 per cent to $0.24 per share. This is the smallest increase on record. Tech companies are notoriously dividend-shy, preferring the flexibility of buybacks. But in the last six months Apple paid out about 14 per cent of earnings as dividends. It could afford to pay a bit more.

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