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The Apple Store in Hangzhou, China. Photo: Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

Apple is the most successful and profitable luxury consumer-goods company that the world has ever seen. Its profit margins are stratospheric, its earnings per share continue to reach new all-time highs, and it has no real competitor in terms of being the high-end brand of choice in categories from personal computers to phones to digital watches.

Why it matters: It tops the list of retailers that any real estate developer wants if they're trying to create a luxury-shopping destination, and like Louis Vuitton, it never discounts.

Apple has extended its reach to hundreds of millions of customers around the world who would never buy Gucci or Prada. Still, luxury brands, by their nature, never reach everybody. Most people will end up opting for the cheaper, more utilitarian rival. At some point, any luxury brand will be selling mostly to repeat customers. Apple has definitely reached that point.

  • Apple's repeat customers are incredibly profitable and price-insensitive — which raises the ultimate luxury problem of what Apple should do with all its money. Even after spending more than a billion dollars a month on research and development, Apple generates vastly more cash than it can spend.

The solution: Stock buybacks, which return those profits to Apple's shareholders and help to keep Apple's per-share earnings on an upward trajectory. Buybacks are not an attempt to time the market and buy when shares are cheap; they're better thought of as a particularly flexible and tax-efficient form of dividend.

  • Not all public companies can, should or must grow. The magic of stock buybacks is that they can support the stock price even if the business doesn't grow at all. The rise of Apple's annual buyback budget is simply a sign that the company has matured.
Expand chart
Adapted from a chart by Above Avalon's Neil Cybart; Chart: Axios Visuals

The bottom line: If the job of a CEO is to generate profits that can be returned to shareholders, then Tim Cook has been vastly more successful at Apple than Steve Jobs was. That doesn't mean the end of the age of Apple. It just means Apple has achieved its potential.

Go deeper: Apple is not China

Go deeper

Updated 1 min ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Politics: Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategyBiden's COVID-19 bubble.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong to put tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

Trump impeachment trial to start week of Feb. 8, Schumer says

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: The Washington Post via Getty

The Senate will begin former President Trump's impeachment trial the week of Feb. 8, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday on the Senate floor.

The state of play: Schumer announced the schedule after reaching an agreement with Republicans. The House will transmit the article of impeachment against the former president late Monday.

1 hour ago - Health

CDC extends interval between COVID vaccine doses for exceptional cases

Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty

Patients can space out the two doses of the coronavirus vaccine by up to six weeks if it’s "not feasible" to follow the shorter recommended window, according to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

Driving the news: With the prospect of vaccine shortages and a low likelihood that supply will expand before April, the latest changes could provide a path to vaccinate more Americans — a top priority for President Biden.