Apple is in the news for borrowing $12 billion this week, even though it has $151 billion of cash on its balance sheet. The financial legerdemain will keep the technology giant’s tax bill down. It also is suitable for a company whose business model has long looked more like a magic act than a traditional corporate drama.
Of course, Apple has, or had, one of the necessary attributes of any successful enterprise: a strong competitive advantage. The California company’s edge comes from a synergistic mix of design expertise, marketing genius and supply chain mastery.
There is also a bit of technological expertise, but that’s where the magic starts. Apple is a tech star which skimps on the industry’s lifeblood, research and development. The 2.7 percent of revenue dedicated to R&D in the first half of the company’s current fiscal year is puny compared to phone rival Samsung Electronics’ 6 percent-plus and double-digit percentages at Google and Microsoft.
Apple’s trick is to rely on the research of others. Suppliers are crucial to its success. Also, as University of Sussex academic Mariana Mazzucato points out, it efficiently exploits the U.S. government’s valuable work. All tech companies both supply and buy, but Apple somehow manages to transmogrify relatively modest research contributions into relatively large sales and earnings.
Moreover, Chief Executive Tim Cook skips a large portion of the other hard stuff generally associated with industrial companies. Apple doesn’t bother with much manufacturing. It has around 40,000 employees compared with more than a million in its supply chain. It outsources inventory to suppliers too: Apple has only about three days’ worth on its own balance sheet.