There have always been doubts about Apple doing a massive, game-changing acquisition, even though rumors regularly emerge that the iPhone-maker may have interest in buying a media giant.
Last year, Apple (AAPL) reportedly considered acquiring Time Warner and possibly Netflix (NFLX). Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue once proposed a Time Warner deal to Olaf Olafsson, the media giant’s head of corporate strategy, but didn’t take it further, the Financial Times reported in May.
The rumors have since quieted down—and AT&T swooped in to buy Time Warner—but anyone who still harbors doubts should listen closely to what Apple CEO Tim Cook told analysts on Tuesday. In his own way, Cook offered at least three signals that some sort of major media acquisition could be on deck.
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First, the CEO declared that Apple plans to double the $24 billion of 2016 annual revenue in its services unit, which includes all media sales, within four years. That would require a near 20% growth rate over the next four years, absent any acquisition related growth.
Services revenue increased only 18% from a year earlier in the just completed quarter, the first of Apple’s 2017 fiscal year. And the rate has been slowing, not accelerating, over the past year. Wall Street analysts have been expected 14% average growth per year over the next few years. Hitting the higher goal would require either reversing the slow down or some sort of addition via a deal, though not necessarily a mega-merger.
And to be sure, Apple CFO Luca Maestri later was asked about the goal and cited faster-growing sales in just one portion of the business: the App Store. “We know there are parts of the world where we can do better,” he told the analysts.
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Second, Cook was asked what Apple might do if the tax rate is slashed on repatriating profits that U.S. corporations hold overseas. Apple has $232 billion, or 94% of its total cash, outside of the country.
And while at first Cook appeared to brush off the question, saying he would “wait and see” what happens with tax reform, he then offered a very direct answer. Apple is constantly considering acquisitions and there is no size acquisition that would be too big, Cook said, offering a clear signal to Wall Street that nothing should be considered off the table.
“There’s not a size that we would not do, based on just the size of it,” Cook said. “It’s more of the strategic value of it.”
Finally, as he continued his answer about acquisitions, Cook mentioned that Apple has only stuck its “toe in the water” of producing original content.
“We are obviously with our toe in the water, we’re learning a lot about the original content business, and thinking about ways that we could play in that,” Cook said. After Apple made a few deals for original content on its Apple Music service, “we’re learning from that and we’ll go from there,” he added.
That’s exactly the kind of talk CEOs offer before they jump into the deeper waters of a much bigger investment.
It’s true that a deal would be out of character. Apple has never spent more than the $3 billion it paid for headphone maker Beats in 2014. That’s pretty small potatoes compared to the much larger deals done by rivals like Microsoft’s (MSFT) $26 billion merger with LinkedIn, not to mention the $109 billion AT&T (T) is paying for Time Warner (TWX).