Apple CFO says capital returns will rise if cash repatriation rate is lowered

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Apple would return more capital to shareholders if the tax rate on repatriating overseas cash was lowered, the iPhone maker’s finance chief said on Tuesday, who also downplayed the opportunity to create new manufacturing jobs in the US.

The position outlined by Luca Maestri, Apple’s chief financial officer, could pit Apple against the Trump administration, which hopes tax cuts will boost US jobs.

The comments came as Apple stock hit another new high, closing up 1.3 per cent at $135.02.

Asked at a Goldman Sachs investor conference in San Francisco what Apple’s top priority would be if the tax rate was lowered, Luca Maestri said it would give the world’s most valuable company “additional flexibility around our capital return activities” by allowing it to repatriate some of its $230bn in overseas funds.

Later in the interview, he suggested that it would be difficult for Apple to increase its manufacturing base in the US, which is one of President Donald Trump’s key policies. “Essentially the supply chain for the tech industry is not in the US today,” said Mr Maestri.

Apple has returned more than $200bn in dividends and share buybacks in the four-and-a-half years since it began its latest capital allocation programme, often funding the scheme through debt, since more than 90 per cent of its cash is trapped overseas.

“We will provide an update in the spring on the [capital allocation] programme,” Mr Maestri said. “If and when reform happens, it gives us more flexibility. We could do more, more quickly.”

Asked if the repatriated funds might also fund larger acquisitions, Mr Maestri said: “Our approach has not changed…We’ve always looked at any size of acquisition. The size of the cheque is not what matters for us.”

While welcoming the growing consensus around reform of tax on overseas earnings, Mr Maestri hit out at the Trump administration’s idea of a border adjustment tax – a potential change to the present arrangement, which currently allows companies to deduct the cost of imported goods from their taxes.

“It is very hard for us to imagine that a border tax would be good for the US economy,” Mr Maestri said. “It is a tax that would end up burdening the end consumer. It presupposes as an idea that the dollar would have to appreciate very significantly from where it is today, which is already too strong.” With a potentially detrimental impact to US competitiveness and jobs, he added, “it doesn’t feel like that would be a positive outcome.”

One way for Apple to avoid being hit by such a tax change would be to increase the scale of its US manufacturing.

Mr Maestri said it was “very, very difficult to speculate at this point” on the Trump administration’s policies in that area.

“One of the points that we are making in Washington is the fact that we have been a very large contributor to the US economy during the last decade,” he said, spending billions of dollars in local investment and creating some 2m jobs in app developers and US-based component suppliers. “It’s important to keep that in mind,” Mr Maestri said.

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