Apple ponders cash, caves on board-vote proposal

Reuters file photo by Robert Galbraith

CUPERTINO, California — Apple Inc on Thursday adopted a measure long desired by investors and corporate governance activists, granting its shareholders a bigger say in the appointment of directors to the board of the world’s largest technology company.

Chief Executive Tim Cook also repeated that he has been “thinking very deeply” about investors’ demands that the consumer electronics company return some of its $98 billion in cash and securities to shareholders via a dividend.

Wall Street has bet on the rising likelihood that some of that enormous war-chest could be doled out this year, since Cook told investors last week that discussions around that hoard had intensified of late.

“We’ve been thinking about cash very deeply,” he said on Thursday, echoing previous comments. “Frankly speaking, it’s more than we need to run the company. I know that’s no big revelation.”

“The board and the management team are thinking about this very deeply, we are in active discussions about it, and we will do what we think is in the best interest to shareholders.”

On Thursday, Apple finally acceded to demands from U.S. pension fund Calpers and other major investors that it require unopposed directors to secure a majority-share vote before getting elected to the board.

That move came after shareholders last year, in a rare show of activism for a group often content with the iPad and iPhone maker’s sizzling growth and lofty share price, voted in favor of a similar proposal – despite Apple’s recommendation they reject it.

Its adoption predictably pleased Calpers, the largest U.S. pension fund that has long sought support for such a measure to be adopted at scores of other U.S. corporations. It lauded Apple for “giving shareholders a voice in the election process.”

At Thursday’s annual shareholders meeting in Cupertino, executives said directors who do not manage to secure a majority vote to voluntarily resign their positions.

Thursday’s meeting comes days after Apple touched a lifetime high of $526.29, cementing its ranking as the most valuable U.S. company with over $450 billion in market capitalization.

Some analysts say the stock may even scale new heights next month, when the company is expected to unveil a new version of its best-selling iPad.

From TVs to China

Apple’s yearly pow-wows with shareholders at 1 Infinite Loop are thus generally contention-free affairs, with executives mostly deflecting questions about upcoming products – whose new features are guarded fiercely.

Some shareholders nonetheless tried to find a way around executives’ wall of silence about its pipeline, including an Apple TV rumored for 2012 that could mark its entree into a television business now dominated by Samsung Electronics.

“I just bought a 55-inch LG TV for the Superbowl and I have 60 days to return it. Should I return it?” one shareholder asked as laughter erupted. Cook declined to comment.

Away from its gadgets and bottom line, Cook continues to grapple with issues such as negative publicity surrounding accusations of inhumane working conditions at the company’s manufacturing partners in China.

A handful of protesters gathered outside the meeting, holding up small placards urging Apple to make an “ethical” iPhone. On its part, the company has been trying to direct the spotlight on its efforts to urge partners to treat their employees better.

Recent moves include inviting independent scrutiny of conditions at its biggest production partner Foxconn in southern China, where a rash of worker suicides put Apple’s supply chain under a microscope.

It also unveiled the results of labor-audits at over 100 of its suppliers and allowed TV cameras onto Foxconn’s infamously closely guarded facilities.

No shareholder broached allegations of labor abuse or China on Thursday.