With investor unrest growing over its large pile of cash, Apple on Thursday said in a rare statement its management and board have been "in active discussions about returning additional cash to shareholders."

Apple's response followed a call from activist hedge fund investor David Einhorn, founder of Greenlight Capital, for Apple to create a preferred stock category for shareholders with a 4 percent annual cash dividend paid quarterly.

"A shareholder since 2010, Greenlight believes Apple is a phenomenal company filled with talented people creating iconic products that consumers around the world love," Einhorn said in a statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. "However, like many other shareholders, Greenlight is dissatisfied with Apple's capital allocation strategy."

In January, Apple reported having a $137.1 billion cash stockpile as of the end of the December quarter, roughly two-thirds of which is held overseas. Last year, the Cupertino company announced its first dividend since 1995 -- $2.65 a share payable in August -- as shareholders called on Apple to reward investors with a slice of its cash.

The public drama is part of the "natural tension" between shareholders and company management, said Charles Elson, director of the Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.

"Shareholders invest for a return," he said. "At some point, you have to return what you made to investors. Management, on the other hand, prefers to keep (cash) for other things. It's a natural tension. But unless you satisfy your investors, no one will invest."


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Einhorn's call for more shareholder returns comes as Apple stock has plunged about 35 percent since September on fears about the company's ability to continue to introduce breakthrough gadgets and increasing competition from rivals such as Samsung and Google in the smartphone and tablet markets.

BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis said Apple would have done shareholders a big favor if it had cut a special dividend last year in light of anticipated increases in capital gains tax in 2013.

"I'm not sure if it would have helped the (stock) price, but it would have helped shareholders," he said.

Einhorn's request, which he also made during interviews with CNBC and Bloomberg TV, helped drive shares of Apple up nearly 3 percent, or $13.52, on Thursday to $468.22.

"Apple has $145 per share of cash on its balance sheet. As a shareholder, this is your money," Einhorn said in a letter to Apple shareholders. Greenlight Capital owns more than 1.3 million shares of Apple.

He said he has had discussions with Apple since May about creating a new class of stock but that Apple "rejected it outright in September."

Greenlight Capital also filed suit against a company-sponsored proxy proposal that would eliminate "blank check" preferred stock that will be voted on during Apple's annual shareholder meeting on Feb. 27.

Apple, in its statement, said its proxy proposal would eliminate the ability of the board to issue "blank check" preferred shares without shareholder approval and would not preclude Einhorn's special stock plan.

"We will thoroughly evaluate Greenlight Capital's current proposal to issue some form of preferred stock," Apple said.

The company added, "We find ourselves in the fortunate position of continuing to generate large amounts of cash, including $23 billion in cash flow from operations in the last quarter alone."

In a note to investors, RBC Capital Markets analyst Amit Daryanani said an additional dividend to shareholders "could get the stock moving upward in the near term as the company has ample cash to fund the dividend."

Scott Rothbort, president of LakeView Asset Management, a longtime owner of Apple stock, said the company's desire to hang on to large amounts of cash could date back to the late 1990s, when the late co-founder Steve Jobs returned to a company that was struggling to survive.

"Apple is a company that was successfully brought back from the dead," Rothbort said. "Maybe it's a cultural mentality: 'We've been there before. We don't want to go there again.' "

Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496; follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.