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Apple lauded for its new multibillion-dollar investments. But were they already part of the plan?

by Ben Popken /
Image: Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook looks on as the new iPhone X goes on sale at an Apple Store on Nov. 3, 2017 in Palo Alto, California.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

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Is Apple's plan to bring back some of its $252 billion in overseas cash and assets a plum deal for America — or just recycled news?

Less than a month after President Donald Trump signed off on the Republican tax overhaul, Apple announced it would pay $38 billion in repatriation taxes and laid out what it said were "a new set of investments."

In Wednesday's announcement, the company pledged that over the next five years it would invest $30 billion in capital expenditures, contribute $350 billion to the U.S. economy, and create 20,000 jobs.

Employees will also get $2,500 in stock bonuses this year, Bloomberg reported.

What else will they do with the cash?

"We think potential uses are investing in the supply chain ... and returning some to AAPL investors," through buybacks, Gene Munster, managing partner at Loup Ventures, a venture-capital firm specializing in tech research, told NBC News. "We are not expecting a large acquisition, maybe something smaller such as Magic Leap or Peloton."

One-On-One With Tim Cook

Nov.01.201702:57

But some uses might be a little less adventurous and more about playing defense.

"I would expect them to pay down the $100+ billion debt they incurred," Richard Harvey, a tax professor at Villanova University who has testified before the Senate on Apple’s tax affairs, told NBC News.

"I do not expect a large increase in capital expenditures over what was planned. However, Apple will clearly have more flexibility in how they fund such expenditures."

And there's the rub. How much of this is pegged to the corporation-friendly tax plan, and how much was Apple planning to do already?

"Let me be clear, there are large parts of this that are a result of the tax reform, and there's large parts of this that we would have done in any situation," Apple CEO Tim Cook told ABC News.

Trump took to Twitter to take credit for Apple's move.

Apple touted its investment plans in a press release expressing its "commitment to support the American economy and its workforce." The company's stock jumped $3 on the news.

The press release was "masterful," said Harvey.

"The initial press release focuses the reader on the $350 billion 'contribution to the economy' over the next five years, but it appears the only concrete estimates of increased activity are an increase of 20,000 jobs, presumably by Apple, but it also could be interpreted as Apple's own hiring, plus the hiring of vendors and subcontractors," and an increase from $1 billion to $5 billion in its Advanced Manufacturing Fund, he said.

"Note it is possible that Apple may be forecasting other increased activities, but since the press release carefully focused on total capital expenditures of $30 billion, one cannot tell how much of the $30 billion was planned anyway," Harvey added.

Related: Apple investors urge action on iPhone addiction among kids

Apple has $252 billion in cash and other liquid assets in its foreign subsidies, according to the company's SEC filings for the 2017 fiscal year. Over the past decade, multinational companies have used a variety of tax and accounting techniques with colorful names like "the double Irish" and the "Dutch sandwich" to avoid paying the higher tax rate in their country of origin.

Or, as in Apple's case, reallocating billions in profits to the tiny island of Jersey in the English Channel.

Those kinds of techniques have come under increasing fire from critics and politicians for being unfair ways to avoid paying their share of taxes.

What Apple and other corporations really do with their repatriation windfall may be impossible to fully pin down and will enter the realm of academic debate.

Researchers still disagree about the impact of the 2004 tax holiday that allowed companies to repatriate their profits at a 5.25 tax rate.

"The academic studies on the 2004 repatriation reach conflicting conclusions. Some say investment while others say dividends and stock buybacks," John Robinson, professor of accounting at Texas A&M University, told NBC News in an email.

"Money is fungible so tracking the repatriations is very difficult," he wrote. "It is unclear whether public statements accord with real actions."

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