A customer gets help from an employee while looking at an iPad mini at an Apple… (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg )
Apple Inc. will spend an unprecedented $100 billion to buy back shares and increase its dividend — a not-so-subtle attempt to appease jittery investors who have seen the company's stock plunge by nearly half in recent months.
Although the announcement was intended to send a signal of how strongly executives believe in Apple's future, it came on the heels of an earnings report that included the company's first profit drop in a decade.
The mixed messages about Apple's prospects left investors torn about how to feel about everything they learned Tuesday.
Before the earnings report, Apple's stock ended the day up $7.46, or 1.9%, at $406.13. Within the first hour after the company released its earnings and revealed the buyback plan, shares shot up 4.3%, or $17.41. Two hours later, that had dipped back to $405.30.
"The outlook doesn't look great," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "I don't think the Street is going to like that. This is what most of the consternation on Wall Street has been about."
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook acknowledged that the Cupertino, Calif., company's growth has slowed and hinted that investors and fans would have to wait until the fall for new products that might recharge Apple's growth.
"The decline in Apple's stock price over last couple quarters has been very frustrating to all of us," Cook said in a conference call with analysts. "But Apple remains very strong and we will continue to do what we do best."
Whether the buyback and dividend increase will restore faith in the company's future remains to be seen. As is typical of Apple's recent earnings reports, both fans and critics found plenty of fodder in its second-quarter earnings to bolster their case that the company is either a juggernaut or is doomed.
For instance, Apple reported its highest revenue ever for a quarter ending in March, and it slightly beat most analysts' expectations. But its profit fell from the same period last year for the first time since 2003.
The company posted a profit of $9.5 billion, or $10.09 a share, compared with $11.6 billion, or $12.30, a year earlier. Revenue rose to $43.6 billion from $39.2 billion. The consensus analyst estimate was that Apple would report earnings per share of $10.12 and revenue of $42.6 billion.
"Though we have achieved incredible scale and financial success, we acknowledge our growth rate has slowed and our margins have decreased from the exceptionally high level we experienced in 2012," Cook said.
The CEO highlighted a number of strengths for the company last quarter, including record revenue from iTunes and a big increase in sales of iPads. Executives said those two products were primarily responsible for driving increased revenue last quarter, which implied that iPhones, which saw slower growth, were not.
Apple sold 37.4 million iPhones in the quarter, compared with 35.1 million in the year-earlier quarter. IPad sales totaled 19.5 million compared with 11.8 million in the quarter last year. The company sold just under 4 million Macs, compared with 4 million in the year-earlier quarter.
Amid signs of slowing growth rates for the iPhone, Apple executives hinted about new products that are coming this fall and next year, including a mention that some products may be in new categories.
"This is the same culture and company that brought the world the iPhone and the iPad, and we have a lot more surprises in the works," Cook said. "Teams are hard at work on some amazing new hardware, software and services we can't wait to introduce this fall and throughout 2014."
But those remarks also indicated that Apple would not be making any big announcements this summer, despite rumors that the company might unveil an iPhone 5S or a new iPad of some kind. And in the absence of new products, investors may be in for a bumpy summer.
Apple also lowered its guidance for the current quarter that ends in June, as many had expected it would. Analysts' consensus was that Apple would report $39.52 billion in revenue. But in the earnings release Tuesday, the company offered a range of $33.5 billion to $35.5 billion.
In the meantime, the company may be hoping that investors will be pacified by the largest stock buyback in history, funded by Apple's massive cash hoard of about $145 billion.
Overall, Apple announced that it would return $100 billion to shareholders through 2015. Most of that will come by increasing its stock buyback program by $50 billion, to $60 billion from $10 billion.
Apple also announced a 15% increase in the company's quarterly dividend and declared a dividend of $3.05 per common share, payable May 16, to shareholders of record as of the close of business May 13.
Analyst Moorhead said the company should have done something more strategic with the $100 billion — like using it to invest in new products or to make acquisitions — and should remain focused on its core mission.
"Apple still makes great products and still has huge numbers of fans," he said. "And all this Wall Street bluster has very little to do with that."