Since March of 2012, Apple has nearly tripled its capital return program. What started out as a US$45 billion effort to return value to shareholders has now skyrocketed to a $130 billion program.
In conjunction with Apple's increased capital return program, the company recently made available the above chart which maps out a timeline of its dividend payouts and stock buybacks. The chart is worth highlighting because it really illustrates the magnitude of just how much money Apple is spending.
As the chart indicates, Apple in the last two years or so has spent $46 billion on stock buybacks and $18.4 billion on dividend payouts. Over and above that, Apple in recent months has gotten even more aggressive about stock buybacks and and increasing its dividend amount.
During the most recent quarter, for example, Apple spent $18 billion on stock buybacks. To put this figure into context, Google during the same time period generated $15.4 billion in revenue. In other words, Apple spent more money on stock buybacks last quarter than Google even generated in revenue.
And yes, Apple may be issuing debt to fund the operation, but it's not as if it's doing so because it doesn't have the cash on hand. On the contrary, Apple today has $151 billion in the bank. The only hiccup is that the bulk of that cash is overseas, meaning that if Apple repatriated that amount back to the U.S, it'd be subject to a high corporate income tax rate. So from Apple's perspective, it's more economical for them to issue debt with an extremely low interest rate than it is for them to bring over their cash hoard abroad.
Also worth mentioning is that Apple is one of the largest dividend payers on the planet. Since reinstating dividends back in March of 2012, Apple has cumulatively doled out $23.44 per share to shareholders. By way of contrast, Microsoft -- which is no stranger to having huge stockpiles of cash -- has paid out $1.96 per share in dividends during the same time period.