Apple’s business is roaring, and investors are about to find out how much of that cash is coming their way

After posting record sales and profits in its latest fiscal year, Apple Inc. is expected to show how much of its financial success will get delivered back to shareholders this year.

Apple
AAPL,
1.80%

is expected to increase its dividend and authorize further stock buybacks when it announces fiscal second-quarter earnings Wednesday, part of the company’s continued focus on returning money to shareholders as it aims to reduce its sizable cash pile. The company typically makes updates to its capital-return program alongside its March-quarter report, and the coming announcement could be a driver of Apple’s post-earnings stock momentum.

“We think Apple’s capital return update could be the most incremental consideration coming out of Apple’s upcoming F2Q21 results,” Wells Fargo analyst Aaron Rakers wrote.

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Though Apple shares have nearly doubled in the past year, Morgan Stanley’s Katy Huberty anticipates that the company will remain aggressive with its buybacks. She predicts that the company could add $60 billion to its buyback authorization this quarter, compared with the $50 billion increase that Apple approved a year ago.

Apple’s pace of repurchases is unlikely to “materially slow” in the next 12 to 18 months, Huberty argued, as she projected that the company could buy back $18 billion worth of its stock each quarter until the end of fiscal 2022. That would reduce the number of shares outstanding by about 3% and leave Apple with a net-cash position of about $75 billion.

She also projects a 10% increase in Apple’s dividend, which would bring the annual payout to 90 cents a share.

Apple’s dividend announcement could be a bigger driver of stock performance than the buyback plans, Wells Fargo’s Rakers suggested. He thinks Apple could raise its dividend by at least 10%, an increase that would mark the highest annual hike since Apple’s 16% bump in 2018 and stand in comparison to the “more modest” increases of 5.5% and 6.5% that Apple delivered in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

“Our positive view on Apple’s continued ability to generate strong [free-cash flow] supports our view that the company could return its annual dividend growth trajectory into the double-digit [percent] range,” he wrote.

Rakers is expecting a roughly $50 billion increase to the buyback program, flat with a year ago.

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The company has set out to become net-cash-neutral, opting against blockbuster acquisitions and in favor of capital returns as it tries to winnow down its sizable net-cash balance, which stood at more than $80 billion as of Apple’s last report. But Apple is also generating strong free-cash flow, with Huberty predicting a 30% increase this fiscal year and suggesting that it will take time before Apple achieves its target.

“Apple is firing on all cylinders today and even as the company spends nearly $100 billion per year on shareholder returns, we believe the path to a net-cash-neutral position requires multiple more years of sustained strong shareholder returns,” Huberty wrote.

Apple repurchased an average of 2.5 million shares a day in the last nine months of 2020, Rakers noted, accounting for about 1.6% of the stock’s daily trading volume.

What to expect

Earnings: Analysts tracked by FactSet expect that Apple earned 98 cents a share in the latest quarter, up from 64 cents a year earlier. According to Estimize, which crowdsources projections from hedge funds, academics and others, the average estimate calls for $1.02 a share.

Revenue: The FactSet consensus models revenue of $76.7 billion, while the average estimate on Estimize is for $78.3 billion. Apple posted $58.3 billion in revenue during the prior March quarter, as COVID-19 shutdowns affected China and began to cause store closures in other parts of the world.

Stock movement: Apple shares have fallen following three of the past five earnings reports. Shares have gained 91% over the past 12 months as the Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA,
0.67%
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of which Apple is a component, has risen 44%.

Of the 42 analysts tracked by FactSet who cover Apple’s stock, 30 have buy ratings, nine have hold ratings, and three have sell ratings, with an average price target of $151.12.

What else to watch for

Apple has seen strong momentum in recent quarters amid a surge in demand for Macs and iPads during the pandemic and a successful iPhone 12 launch. Evercore ISI analyst Amit Daryanani predicts that the company continued to see good traction in the March quarter and could deliver results ahead of expectations.

The company could be more insulated than others from the continuing chip shortage given “its status as one of the largest electronics purchasers in the world,” Daryanani argued, noting that while manufacturing partner Foxconn
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1.28%

mentioned some supply issues, that company said that the component shortage would affect a small fraction of customer orders.

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Daryanani is upbeat about Apple’s iPhone momentum in China and encouraged by Foxconn’s indication that March-quarter performance would be better than what’s typically seen for this period. That’s consistent with Apple’s own projections, he noted. He rates the stock at outperform with a $175 price target.

Wells Fargo’s Rakers pointed to “ongoing positive demand drivers” but said he was “reluctant to make a meaningful upside (iPhone-driven) call” ahead of the release. His iPhone revenue estimate for the quarter is for $38.8 billion, while the FactSet consensus calls for $41.0 billion.

Outside of the iPhone, Rakers expects that the company continues to see strong demand for iPads and Macs buoyed by at-home dynamics. He’ll also be looking for broader commentary on supply issues.

“With continued reports of overall semiconductor supply-chain tightness, presumably impacting Apple’s Mac and iPad lead times, along with increasing DRAM prices, investors will be focused on Apple’s thoughts on overall demand fulfillment and gross margin expectations,” he wrote, while reiterating an overweight rating on the stock and a $160 target price.

Morgan Stanley’s Huberty has “high confidence” that Apple will beat March-quarter expectations and she’s also expecting an upbeat outlook.

“We believe that much of the consumer and education-market strength that propelled the Mac and iPad to 21% year-over-year and 41% year-over-year growth the December quarter sustained, and even accelerated into the March quarter,” she wrote, highlighting upbeat third-party Mac data from IDC.

Huberty forecasts $8.2 billion in Mac revenue and $6.8 billion in iPad revenue for the quarter, significantly above the FactSet consensus, which calls for $6.7 billion and $5.6 billion, respectively. She has an overweight rating and $158 price target on Apple shares.

Apple recently introduced new iPads and iMacs that could allow it to continue capitalizing on at-home trends, though these won’t factor into the March-quarter numbers.