BlackBerry Has a $2.6 Billion Cash Problem

January, and better times for BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins. Photo credit: CBS.

BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins has a tough sell ahead of him.

He isn't just selling smartphones anymore. Heins is also responsible for completing a $4.7 billion transaction that would take BlackBerry private. Prem Watsa's Fairfax Financial Holdings has teamed with a group of unnamed partners in a conditional $9-per-share buyout.

Judging by the price action, Wall Street sees the deal as nothing more than a lifeline -- one that could be yanked away at any time. BlackBerry closed at $8.03 a share Friday, or about 11% below the proposed purchase price.

Watsa, in an apparent bid to shore up confidence, characterized Fairfax's proposal as a "definite offer" in a New York Times interview.

Heins, for his part, said in a statement that BlackBerry remains "a financially strong company with $2.6 billion in cash and no debt." True, sort of. He's counting not only cash but also short and long-term investments.

Even if that's fair -- let's say that it is -- BlackBerry's bounty is unlikely to affect future profits. How could it, when the company has spent years holding billions in the bank without a smidgen of extra sales to show for it?

Rewind to 2011 with me. BlackBerry had $2.69 billion in cash and investments and no debt. A year later, that total dropped to $2.11 billion before rebounding $2.88 billion in March and then dropping (again) to $2.57 billion as of Aug. 31. Revenue fell in each of the past two fiscal years. Sales plummeted 49% in Q2 and are off 33% over the trailing 12 months. Heins would have done better to pay shareholders a dividend.

Now compare that with what Apple and Google have done. Each of BlackBerry's two primary smartphone competitors have enjoyed strong, double-digit revenue growth and expanding cash balances since 2011. Apple also pays a dividend that yielded 2.60% as of this writing.

Watsa is a proven investor, and he may very well get the best of this deal, too. But let's not pretend that Heins' verbal show of strength is anything more than a chess move. A very transparent one, at that.

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