What has Google done in that same period? Google is, like Apple, making loads of money. From 2013 to March 2017, it generated $114 billion in operating cash flow. How much has the company distributed to shareholders? In contrast to Apple’s 72 percent payout rate, Google has only distributed 6 percent of that money to shareholders.
The paths taken by Apple and Google manifest alternative answers to one of the main questions facing capitalism today: What should public companies do with all of the money that they’re making? Even as corporations have brought in enormous profits, there has been a shortage of lucrative opportunities for investment and growth, creating surpluses of cash. This imbalance has resulted in the pileup of $2 trillion on corporate balance sheets. As companies continue to generate more profits than they need to fund their own growth, the question becomes: Who will decide what to do with all those profits—managers or investors? At Google, where the founders and executives reign supreme, insulated by their governance structure, the answer is the former. At Apple, where the investors are in charge because of the absence of one large manager-shareholder, it’s the latter. (To be clear, even though Apple’s previous efforts to stifle investors’ concerns were no longer tenable, the company can still afford to spend mightily on research and development.)
Why has each company taken the approach that it has? These two strategies reflect different reactions to an issue central to modern capitalism, the separation of ownership and control. In short, owners aren’t managers, as they once were when businesses existed on a smaller scale. And when owners have to outsource running the company to executives, this leads to what economists call “the principal-agent problem,” which refers to the issues that come up when one person, group, or company—an “agent”—can make decisions that significantly affect another—a “principal.”
Having investors dominate, as Apple does, is a good way of handling one principal-agent problem: getting managers to do right by their owners. Rather than spending money on failed products (remember Google Plus?) or managers’ pet projects, Apple has to face the disciplining force of large investors. In a way that individual shareholders would have trouble doing, larger investors can act swiftly to put a check on managers who might pursue goals that enrich themselves, such as wasteful mergers, excessive executive compensation, or lush perks. And, after all, a company’s profits theoretically belong to investors, so why shouldn’t they decide how they are put to use?
Proponents of the managerial model embodied by Google worry about a different principal-agent problem. Rather than being concerned about managers ignoring investors, they are concerned that investors won’t serve the people who would benefit from the long-term success of the company. Those professional investors are both the principals for the CEOs but also the agents of many other shareholders. The hedge funds that pressured Apple are the dreaded “short-term” investors who are interested only in quick wins and don’t serve their longer-term beneficiaries, such as pension funds, that allocate capital to them in the first place. As investors, hedge funds are impatient, and, the argument goes, ruining the economy by shortening time horizons.