Apple “actively discussing” what to do with $98B cash pile

Steve Jobs wouldn’t hear of a dividend or share buyback as a way to make use of Apple’s(s AAPL) famously large cash pile. And the company doesn’t do the big M&A deals often seen at other large cash-rich tech firms. But under the Tim Cook regime, it appears things might change.

I emphasize “might” because Cook hasn’t made plans public of what he’ll do with the $97.6 billion in cash Apple has on hand, but CFO Peter Oppenheimer hinted on Tuesday that the company is at least talking about a potential strategy.

Unprompted and during his scripted remarks during the company’s quarterly earnings call, Oppenheimer said Tuesday that the company is “actively discussing uses of our cash balance” but added that they had nothing to announce at the moment.

Then later in the call, when asked by an investor, Oppenheimer expanded slightly:

“We have always discussed internally our cash. We recognize our cash is growing for all the right reasons, and I would characterize our discussions today as ‘active’ with what makes the most sense with the cash balance. When we have something to announce we will announce. Again, we are actively discussing the best usage of our cash balance.”

Apple under Jobs was incredibly conservative — he clearly never forgot how close the company was to bankruptcy when he returned in 1997. Apple typically uses its cash to make big investments in components or for a few smaller acquisitions each year. You’d think your investors would be happy the company is swimming in cash and being disciplined about its use — but when the pile grows too big and it’s just sitting there in a bank account, it’s obvious that many investors would like to see that money put to work. There have been calls for share buybacks or investors dividends for years, but they never made much headway with Jobs at the helm.

There was a hint that things would be different under Cook during his first earnings call as CEO last quarter. At that time, when pressed on the cash issue, Cook told investors, “I’m not religious about holding cash or not holding it — I’m religious about a lot of things but not that one.”

That, combined with Oppenheimer’s emphasis on “active” discussions is a good indication the company is at least more receptive to creative uses of cash in the future.