In a game of chicken with Apple, Icahn blinked

Dec 05, 2013

Adam Lashinsky joined Fortune in 2001 and is the author of the 2012 bestseller Inside Apple. He is editorial director of the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference and a co-chair of Fortune Global Forum. He also appears regularly on the Fox News Channel.

Carl Icahn, billionaire investor and chairman of Icahn Enterprises Holdings LP

FORTUNE -- All the noise over what Apple ought to do with its cash almost makes one wistful for the days when everyone obsessed only over Apple’s products.

Time coverboy Carl Icahn is on Apple’s (aapl) case to give back more of its cash to shareholders -- like himself. It’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. Apple’s hoard had grown to the nine figures with no reasonable prospects for spending that kind of money. It is a credit to whiners like Icahn that Apple already has committed to spending $100 billion on a combination of stock buybacks and dividends.

On Wednesday, Icahn told Time and his nearly 119,000 Twitter followers that he plans to make a precatory proposal that Apple increase its buyback program. (Precatory means “of, relating to, or expressing a wish or request.” In other words, it is non-binding. It’s his way of saying "pretty please.")

The catch is that Icahn acknowledged his new request is “not at the $150 billion level.” That’s a reference to his previous suggestion for the amount Apple should jump on straight away. (Read to the end and you’ll see that Icahn volunteers to not receive any of that $150 billion, presumably because he’d benefit anyway from the rise in the stock price.)

MORE: The 'missile' Carl Icahn fired at Apple was more like a love note

So what is the new level? CNBC, citing a source, says Icahn wants $50 billion now, and that he’d like it by the end of the current fiscal year, which is 10 months away. Icahn didn’t tell Time that figure, and he hasn’t yet tweeted it. We’re relying on CNBC’s source for it.

But assuming the figure is correct, Icahn has gone from $150 billion right now to $50 billion when Apple can get around to it. For the most part, the commentary has been of the variety that Icahn remains on Apple’s case, riding it hard for the cash hoarder it is. Forbes.com wrote that Icahn “wasn’t joking” about the $150 billion buyback. Except it appears he was.

For the record, Apple has authorized buybacks of $60 billion and has already made $23 billion worth. It has paid out a total of $13 billion in dividends. The company said Wednesday it plans to respond on the matter sometime early next year.

So let me get this straight: Icahn had dinner with Apple CEO Tim Cook, he’s scaling back his request for cash that should be paid to shareholders, and Apple’s stock has risen dramatically in the last six months, from around $400 to $565?

Can we now please return to grousing about important things, like when Apple’s television will arrive?

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