One idea Samsung could safely copy from Apple

October 28, 2013

By Una Galani

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Here’s one idea that Samsung could safely copy from Apple. As a proportion of its $221 billion market capitalization, the South Korean giant’s near $40 billion cash pile is almost as big as that of its U.S. arch rival. With reserves accumulating fast, it can afford to mimic Apple by giving more to investors.

If Samsung were an American company, it might attract the attention of the likes of Carl Icahn. The activist investor is pushing Apple to return more of its $130 billion cash hoard – equivalent to 27 percent of its market capitalization – even after the iPhone maker earlier this year grudgingly agreed to double the amount it distributes to shareholders.

Samsung’s net cash at the end of the third quarter was equivalent to around 17 percent of its current market value – and growing. The semiconductor-to-smartphone maker will generate $24 billion of free cash flow this year, estimates brokerage Bernstein. At that rate, and assuming the conservative company doesn’t develop an appetite for mega acquisitions, it will have $100 billion of net cash on its books in just over two years.

Samsung likes to keep cash reserves so that it can continue to invest even if the economy slows. Competing in semiconductors and display panels is expensive: in July, the company said its capital expenditure bill in the current financial year would be 24 trillion won ($22.6 billion).

But even by its own historical standards Samsung is being stingy with cash. In 2007, it paid out 40 percent of its net income in dividends and share buybacks. Last year, the proportion was just 5 percent.

Returning more cash to investors would boost Samsung’s shares, which are currently trading on 7 times forecast current year earnings, compared to around 13 times for peers. If the company paid out 30 percent of its earnings through a combination of share buybacks and dividends, its shares would leap as much as 50 percent, according to a survey of 63 investors by Bernstein.

Samsung has done well to catch up with Apple in the global smartphone market. A rare analyst day scheduled for November 6, only the second in the company’s history, offers Samsung a chance to also mimic its rival’s financial innovations.


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