In business, there's rich, and then there's Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) rich.
The world's largest search provider and most popular website virtually prints profits. In fact, Alphabet so dominates the online advertising market that it was estimated to have captured 43% of the $181 billion online advertising market in 2016.
Thanks to this kind of massive success, Alphabet's coffers have ballooned to contain $92.4 billion in cash and investments as of the company's most recent quarterly report. Here are three ideas about how Alphabet could put all that capital to work.
Alphabet's mergers and acquisitions machine routinely snatches up smaller start-ups for their talent or technologies. According to research firm CB Insights, Alphabet has purchased at least 23 different start-ups since the start of 2016. The largest group (eight) of these start-ups have focused on what CB Insights categorizes as "dev tools/cloud platforms," though other areas of focus include enterprise tools, as well as media and entertainment.
It's also interesting to consider larger public names that Alphabet could potentially buy. The tech giant is clearly intent on capitalizing on coming tech trends including artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and more. Google is already one of the leaders in AI, and other large companies like Baidu or IBM probably aren't feasible acquisitions given size and regulatory considerations. Alphabet has gone on record saying it will not manufacture its own self-driving cars, but it's worth noting that even the largest automakers such as Ford, General Motors, or Tesla are all theoretically within its purchasing power.
These kinds of large acquisitions are difficult to execute for a wide range of reasons. However, the point is that Alphabet has so much cash on hand that it can effectively buy its way into any industry, should its management deem it prudent.
Start paying a dividend
The matter of whether -- or when -- Alphabet will begin paying a dividend is by no means a new discussion. Of course, its financial resources are so vast that the company could easily afford to initiate a dividend policy, though it has made its aversion to doing so quite clear over the years.
That being said, it will be increasingly difficult for Alphabet to continue to avoid paying a dividend as its cash balances continue to swell. The classic point of reference here, of course, is Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL). The Mac maker initiated its own capital return program in 2012, earmarking a total of $45 billion to be returned to investors via dividends and buybacks over the following three years.
Up until that point, Apple had avoided paying a dividend at least in part due to the fear that doing so might shift investor perception that it had become a mature company; Alphabet could certainly be holding off for similar reasons. Interestingly enough, Apple carried $97.6 billion in cash and investments at the time it initiated its own capital return program, an amount Alphabet should soon surpass under current conditions. Of course, that doesn't mean Alphabet will need to start its own dividend if, or when, its cash war chest balloons to twelve figures, but this once seemingly unimaginable idea becomes more of a reality the richer Alphabet becomes.
Buy back stock
The last option -- and the most likely one in my opinion -- is that Alphabet could initiate some kind of stock buyback program. Buybacks can be an incredibly effective way to drive shareholder returns under the right circumstances. However, when misused, they can prove damaging.
However, even this move is by no means a certainty.
More specifically, stock buybacks are best used when a company's stock can be fairly seen as undervalued, and this might be a difficult case to make, at least in the near term, for Alphabet. The company's stock currently trades at a multiple of 31 times its last 12 months' earnings per share and 23 times its 2018 consensus EPS estimates. Though the company can likely continue to grow its earnings at above average rates, Alphabet stock still trades at a clear -- and likely deserved -- premium to the market.
As the company's cash balances continue to swell, Alphabet will feel increased pressure to put its cash war chest to work in one fashion or another. However, it isn't necessarily clear what the best option for Alphabet is in addressing its embarrassment of riches.
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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Andrew Tonner owns shares of Apple, Baidu, and Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Apple, Baidu, Ford, and Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.