Apple’s Cash Hoard Exceeds GDP of 128 Countries

Apple has more than US$76.2 billion in cash as of the June quarter, and The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that this was more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of 128 countries, according to data from the World Bank that we verified. We thought that was a fun factoid, if rather a pointless comparison, and decided to put some graphs together to see what that data might look like.

We have to start this analysis out, however, with some caveats. The first is that Apple’s cash holdings as of June 2011 are being compared to the GDPs of countries for 2009, which is hardly an apples to apples comparison (pun intended). It takes a lot of time for the bean counters at the World Bank to compile all this data, making it impossible to compare anything close to real-time data.

Also, as noted above, it’s sort of a silly comparison. GDP doesn’t equate to corporate cash on hand in any way whatsoever. A company’s annual revenues are a better comparison to a country’s GDP, though “better” is still a relative choice of words (for the record, Apple’s revenues for the last four quarters of $100.32 billion would rank it #135 in the 2009 data, though Apple’s 2009 revenues were much lower).

For instance, some of these countries have fewer citizens than Apple has employees, and the number of such countries rises many fold if you count all the employees in Apple’s supply, logistics, and manufacturing chains that allow the company to make all that money to begin with.

There are a myriad of other reasons making the comparison stupid, at its worst, and inappropriate at best, but it is fun, and many may even find it sobering.

So, let’s look at a bar graph showing the GDP (for 2009) of the 128 countries that rank at the bottom of the World Bank’s data, with Apple inserted as the 129th “country.”

Unfortunately, a par graph with a 129 bars is a tad unwieldy, you’ll want to click the image for a larger version that includes the enormous legend. Also, Apple’s line is the tallest pale green line on the far right.

GDP of 128 Countries, with Apple's Cash Hoard

Chart by The Mac Observer, data from the World Bank
(Click the image for a larger version that includes the legend)

Next, let’s take a look at the sobering side of the data. The pie chart below represents the GDP of the bottom 50 countries and Apple’s cash hoard. For those who want to discuss whether or not wealth accumulates into the hands of a few, this is pie chart is an example of just that.

GDP of Bottom 50 Countries + Apple's Cash Hoard

Chart by The Mac Observer, data from the World Bank
(Click the image for a larger version that includes the legend)

Another data point to consider is that Apple’s profits of $7.31 billion from just the June quarter of 2011 would rank it at #60 in the 2009 data, while its profits from the last four quarters would rank at #90. In fact, Apple’s cash hoard is larger than the GDP of the bottom 45 countries COMBINED.

In other words, Apple has a lot of money, which was the point of The Journal’s piece. The company has already been under intense pressure from some quarters to give some of that money back to shareholders. Apple’s long-standing position has been that having so much money lying around allows the company enormous flexibility and power.

As Apple CEO Steve Jobs put it, “We strongly believe that one or more very strategic opportunities may come along that we can take that we’re in a unique position to take advantage of because of our strong cash position.”

As an example of this, it’s long been understood that Apple is able to secure great component pricing and lock up supply of critical components by being able to make long-term deals and/or pay up front, both of which are made possible by all this cash. Those deals have resulted in Apple achieving gross margins unseen in any other computer hardware company, and they have proven a powerful weapon in making iPad the price leader in the burgeoning tablet market.

But how much money is required to achieve and maintain this power and flexibility? Some might (and some likely will) argue that $50 billion offers the same effective advantages that $76 billion offers.

This is especially true considering the fact that Apple has heretofore never made a major acquisition of a large company. Apple prefers buying smaller companies that it can then integrate into its unique corporate culture, rather than buying large companies that stand a significant chance of disrupting that culture.

What can Apple do with $76 billion, or a $100 billion, which it will hit in the next three quarters, that it can’t do with $50 billion? As Apple’s cash continues to grow, more institutional investors are going to be asking questions like that.

So far in 2011, Apple hasn’t announced any corporate acquisitions, but it did participate in a multibillion dollar purchase of a major block of patents auctioned off by Nortel. The total purchase price was $4.5 billion, but Apple’s share of that was less than $2 billion, and the company could have kicked in that much from just the June quarter’s profits and still had more than $5 billion left over, and that’s without touching its cash holdings.

If a company is surrounded by ants, how big a stick does one need to knock ‘em around?