Apple: The ethics of spending $100 billion

Is it better for a corporate board to serve shareholders, or society?


What’s the best thing to do with US$100 billion dollars? Apple—the world’s richest company—gave its answer to just that question when it announced on March 19 how it will spend some of the massive cash reserve the company has accumulated.

Of course, spending the whole $100 billion was never on the agenda. For various purposes, the company needs to keep on hand a good chunk of that money. Then there’s the fact a big chunk of it is currently held by foreign subsidiaries, and bringing it back to the U.S. to spend it would require Apple to pay hefty repatriation taxes. But any way you slice it, Apple has a a lot of money to spend, and so its Board faces some choices.

In the abstract, there are lots of things one could do with that much money. Financial analysts had rightly predicted that Apple would decide to pay out a dividend (for the first time since 1995). Some were predicting bolder moves, like buying Twitter (which would use up a mere $12 billion). But what could Apple have done with that much money, aside from narrow strategic moves?

The money could have, in principle, been spent on various charitable projects. That amount of money could also do a lot toward helping developing countries combat and adapt to climate change. Or it could revolutionize the American education system. Closer to home, the company could spend a bunch on improving working conditions at its factories in China, conditions for which the company has been widely criticized. All of these, and many more, are (or rather were) among the possibilities.

But business ethics isn’t abstract; Apple’s Board faced a concrete question. And the Board has ethical and legal obligations to shareholders. Those aren’t its only obligations, but once workers are paid, warranties are honoured, expenses are covered, and relevant regulations are adhered to, the main remaining obligation is to shareholders.

Now, there’s a significant strain of thought that says a company’s managers (and its Board) are not there just to serve the interests of shareholders, but also to carry out shareholders’ obligations. So, if you believe that Apple shareholders have an obligation to fight climate change or to promote education or to improve conditions for workers, then maybe it makes sense to think that the company ought to help shareholders to act on that obligation. But keep in mind that Apple’s shareholders are a rather amorphous group. Shares in corporations change hands incredibly frequently, and the interests and obligations of shareholders vary significantly, so a Board ‘represents’ shareholders (or acts as their agent) only in a rather abstract sense.

The alternative, of course, is for Apple’s Board to give itself some leeway, forget about what shareholders’ collective obligations might be, and go back to thinking abstractly about what to do with that big pile of cash. It can simply decide whether the shareholders’ financial interests outweigh their collective obligation to do some good with that money, and simply decide which of the various worthy causes that money should go to. But of course, lots of people are rightly uncomfortable with the idea of well-heeled corporate boards arrogating to themselves that kind of power. The question for discussion, then, is this. Which is the greater evil? For corporations not to step up to the plate and contribute to social objectives, or for corporate leaders to presume to spend vast sums of money as if it were their own?

Comments are closed.